Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Sermon on the Mount and the Goodness of God

God is good. That is one of the most basic messages of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

What does Jesus teach us to have in mind as we pray? That God is good. 
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, we remember the words of that prayer and pray them. But first he made sure they understood why he taught us such a bold but simple prayer:
"Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8).
Jesus taught us to call God "Father" when we pray, so that every time we pray our first thought is that our heavenly father knows what we need before we ask him.
"If you, even though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?"

Why does Jesus urge us not to worry? Because God is good. 
"Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow crops or harvest or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"
"See how the lilies of the field grow. They neither toil nor spin (neither work nor weave). Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow used for fuel, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"
"So do not worry, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' The pagans run after these things, but your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

How can Jesus tell us to be good even to our enemies? Because God is good, even to the unrighteous.
"I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Because God is good, we need not worry. Because God is good, we can pray. Because God is good, we love our neighbors. 

"This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven ...'".

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Key moral issues of our time: Economic Globalization

This post was originally written in 2016 but not published at the time written for reasons of timing. I think that now is as good a time as any to publish it; though the specific examples are dated, the point is still relevant. The economy is included in faith and morality, considering whether the systems are fair and just to the people involved. The spur for this piece was this 2016 blog post on a think-tank sponsored by a globalist enterprise. The risk of this arrangement is whether someone making a huge profit in international business is effectively publishing a justification for self-enrichment by funding a think-tank to support their endeavors. 

Economics can sound dry -- until a family member cannot find a job. Since the start of the industrial era of mass production, economies around the world have been adjusting to it, and there has been something of a race to the top for the investors as business empires go global. In this article that promotes free and open trade, I've bolded a part that is meant to argue for why the proposed restructure is a good one, and implies it is a fair one: 
Originally attributed to the English classical economist David Ricardo and later formalized by generations of economists including Samuelson, trade theories rooted in comparative advantage hold that free trade should raise the overall welfare of all nations that engage in it. Wages of Chinese workers should rise, as would income levels of American capital owners, if the two countries open up to trade. And any negative impact domestically could be ameliorated by making the necessary transfers to compensate those hurt by trade. 
And here lies a key economic and moral issue with globalization: It defines "the overall welfare of all nations" in terms of benefits to workers in developing nations, and benefits to investors ("capital owners") in the developed nations. The economic theory as stated here flinches away from directly recognizing the direct harm to workers in the developed nations who lose their jobs and lower their standards of living on a massive scale. The theory accepts as collateral damage the millions of workers in the developed nations whose standard of living often declines below the poverty line. During the recent period of globalization, the number of people in the United States facing food insecurity -- who rely on assistance programs to provide food -- has increased sharply.

Globalization tends to be supported by the investor class that benefits from the arrangement. Policy-oriented think-tanks that support globalization are typically sponsored by the well-connected capital owners who benefit from these arrangements at the expense of others. The theory of mutual benefit here excuses itself from responsibility to "those hurt by trade". It overlooks their right to be considered as part of the issue, and neglects to acknowledge that there is a large, powerlessness group of people harmed in the developing countries, and a small, well-connected group that benefits. It is a transfer of wealth from the workers of one country to the elite of its own country and the workers of another country. Income inequality grows within developed nations as a direct result of this globalizing arrangement. Of all the groups involved in the trade, the investors in the rich nation are the main beneficiaries.   
The remarkable rise in the living standards of citizens in Japan, the four “Asian Tiger” economies, and most notably China, are testaments to free trade working its magic. 
The remarkable rise in the living standards in Asia is commendable. The fact that it came on the back of the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, with other rust-belt cities strained to the breaking point, is not so commendable. And the benefit to the U.S., under this theory, is the increased wealth of the investor class. Which brings us to our think-tank author struggling to determine why global trade is slowing, and what do to about it. His third explanation for the slow-down of trade acknowledges "those hurt by globalization" trying to stop being hurt by globalization (a driving force of modern populism):
A third explanation for falling levels of global trade is the rise of populism and anti-globalization sentiment. The WTO has, in fact, warned that these trends could damage an already weak world economy. The desire of those hurt by globalization to shield themselves from foreign competition via protectionist or retaliatory policies is a growing influence in the political life of a number of countries, including the world’s most advanced democracies.  
The author seems to struggle to understand the desire of "those hurt" to stop being hurt ("shield themselves" / "protectionist"); I'd say it's an entirely understandable and honest motive. The workers standing up for themselves is depicted as a risk to the world economy. The unspoken assumption is that the workers are a threat, that their concern for their own well-being is illegitimate, and that the enlightened leaders might accept "world" prosperity coming at the expense of the people living on food stamps. The author struggles to understand populism; I'd refer him back to his earlier comments:
Any negative impact domestically could be ameliorated by making the necessary transfers to compensate those hurt by trade
"Necessary transfers to compensate those hurt by trade" has, in the U.S., worked out to electronic fund transfers under the SNAP food program, with more than 43 million Americans needing help to put food on the table (Aug 2016 numbers). A few short years ago in 2009, that number was 33 million. The cost of the SNAP program in August 2016 was 5 billion dollars for the month; the portion of that due to the 10 million newly-insecure is over 1 billion dollars per month. The progressive agenda focuses on whether the necessary welfare programs are actually expensed to the investor class who directly benefited from offshoring the workers' jobs. The populist agenda focuses on the underlying injustice of investors profiting by selling out the workers' job security, and the workers' right to self-determination -- which they were not actually willing to sell in return for food stamps. Their lives, their jobs were involved in a trade deal to which they did not consent, on a scale that has devastated not just scattered individual families but cities, states, and regions of the country. 

So the "benefit to all countries" is, for the developed nation, a benefit accruing to the investor class at the expense of the standard of living -- and the economic security -- of the working class. This contributes directly to the rise of populism in the working class, and the growing opposition to policies that the developed world's working class recognizes -- rightly -- as harmful to them. From the populist viewpoint, the issue is not that workers are standing in the way of globalism; it is that globalism does not recognize the workers right to insist on a system that considers them worthy of notice, one that does not condemn them to poverty while shockingly rich people benefit from their loss. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

He could have thrown the stone

In the account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (see John 8), his challenge to the crowd is simple: Whoever is without sin can throw the first stone. And typically, as we read and study that passage we are encouraged to recall our own sins before we judge others. Instead of condemning the person, we condemn the sin. He is teaching us humility about our own sins, and compassion toward those who take the wrong turn. So far, so good. 

But consider this: Jesus could have thrown that first stone. He is not only teaching us humility, he is not only teaching us compassion. He is also showing us that the heart of God seeks mercy for us. If God's heart's desire was to condemn people, then Jesus would have thrown that stone. If the "one without sin" should condemn the person, then Jesus would have condemned her. But as Jesus shows us, "one without sin" takes no delight in condemning others. He condemns the action -- but instead of condemning the person, he would rather restore the person. 

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Silence, and Speech worth the wait

This morning in devotions I was reading what little we know of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. He was a devout man in his own right, one who served the Lord through upright living in his community, whose wife Elizabeth did the same. Beyond that he served as a priest, and even served in the Temple when it stood. Many of you know already: as he served in the Temple offering incense, the angel Gabriel came to him and told him that he would be the father of a great prophet, who must be named John. 

All that we know about Zechariah to that point, we know without having heard a word from him. The first time we have his words, they are words of doubt, or skepticism, or possibly frustration that his long-offered prayer for a child had not been answered before. And so when greeted with the sight of an archangel and the news of a blessing, his words proclaim his doubt. In return, Gabriel gives him food for thought -- and then declares that Zechariah will be unable to speak until the prophecy of John's birth is fulfilled. 

I have no idea what it would be like for an adult member of society to be unable to speak for at least 9 months. But he had a long time to think about what he had said, and the promise that he would be able to speak again. He had time to think what the right reaction to Gabriel's news would have been, time to consider better words. And the next time he spoke -- after the birth of his son -- his words were of such power and beauty that we still recite them today. 

There are religious groups that practice a vow of silence at certain times. I wonder if there are people who go months without ever having said anything except praise. Situation permitting, I find it admirable. There is a certain beauty in the right kind of silence, the kind that waits and plans the right time and place for words, the kind that considers well what words should be said. The next time Zechariah opened his mouth, he had a second chance at what he should have said when he heard the good news; he began by blessing the Lord. 

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Render unto Caesar: A perspective-shift

I've pondered before over Jesus' saying to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." I still consider the most practical and edifying point is this: we are the ones with God's image, we are the ones who bear God's name; we belong to God, and we render ourselves to him. Though the most common use of that passage is as a commentary on taxes -- the original question that was asked of Jesus. 

Lately I find myself side-eyeing that saying from a different perspective: government-issued currency. Roman money was manufactured by the government for its own purposes, and they took care to stamp it in such a way as to remind people of their presence and involvement in their financial system. Having a common, regulated currency was even a useful function. Much remains the same. 

From the context of finances, it is easy to be distressed over a fact of modern life: that our financial security is tightly tied to money with no intrinsic value and no guarantee on its stability. The systems we establish to reassure ourselves -- in this country, social security and the 401k system -- are likely enough to help us along in future years, but they also have no guarantee of full return on investment, much less sufficiency for our needs. The pandemic has given us some insight into how fragile our supply chain may be. 

The question people asked Jesus about taxes is closely related to the question about serving God or serving earthly money. Do we trust a human system? How far do we pursue an earthly goal? In our day, if the fiat currency were to revert to being mere numbers on a piece of paper or numbers on an electronic record, would we be secure? 

Our current financial system has endured long enough that we can overlook that it is a human system run by humans: dust, all of us, and eventually returning to dust. The things needful for life are all based on nature: food, water, sleep and the like. If money disappears or the government that establishes it fails, the food and water remain, even though the hardships of re-creating the system would be considerable. So Jesus' saying can also remind us to trust God's providence rather than our human systems: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.