Coming to America?

At Calvin in Common, Clayton Libolt is concerned with a variant of the Christian Right, the Dominion theology with its vision of a thoroughly Christian America, a state where biblical norms are explicitly enacted. The theology was developed by R. J. Rushdoony in the middle of the century and has taken root in some parts of conservative Protestantism. Well, and Texas. While the explicit teaching sounds whacky, there is also a softer side, with its appeals to “creation order” — could  this be the creeping future for America and more specifically for the Christian Reformed Church? Libolt captures the question in a quote from  from David Brockman in the Texas Observer:
To be clear, I’m not saying that religion has no place in the public square. Far from it: religious persons have just as much right as anyone else to advocate laws and policies that line up with their beliefs and values. Government officials, however, are in a different position. No, they don’t have to “walk away from what they believe,” as Patrick puts it. Their religious beliefs can inform their personal morality in office — don’t lie, don’t steal, and so on — and give them comfort and hope or motivate them to serve others. But they can’t make policy based on those beliefs. Government officials have a duty to uphold the Constitution, not to enact their personal religious convictions. They are obliged to serve all of the people, not just members of the officials’ own religious community.
I am a lot more blasé about this. The so-called “soft-dominionism” looks an awful lot like American religious nationalism, a perennial theme at least since the post-WWII era and its emergence in plain folk culture of Orange County. The SoCal origin (home of Rushdoony, too) explain the sort of fundamentalism Mark Noll identifies in Paul’s post, although Christian nationalism was, at least in origin, engaged in the great ideological war against Communism.
Thus, I am more inclined to ask Joe Stalin’s question, “so how many divisions have they got?” In terms of practical politics, the Religious Right does nothing without an alliance with Catholics, and here the dominionist political theology falters. Our “soft doiminionists” and their followers are simply useful idiots for the harsh, hard-right agenda of the economic rightists. Sure, they can have their prayer meeting with the President, even lay hands on him, but the real social agenda will advance and pretty much betray the believers. Oddly, though, such betrayal will likely only intensify their politically idiosyncratic views.
Even in Texas, I suspect the internal contradictions doom dominioinism, even of the soft variety. As dominionism shares the same sort of political architecture of conservative Islam, it is difficult to privilege Christian communities without also empowering Muslim ones. Thus the soft dominionist must either be revealed as a hard liner — a political dead end – or confront the Islamophobia of the supporting religious community.  The Muslim protests in Texas have already shown how far THAT would go. In the end, I rather think the religious communities will forgo the full Christian freedom schtick if it means granting power to their Muslim neighbors.
And can we so easily dismiss, the “gosh, I’d like to” demurral (I’d love to support you, but the Bible…)? At present, we need something like this appeal to conscience if we are to rid ourselves of this President; well-meaning Republicans will have to find that backbone and say in effect, “gosh I’d like to go along, but….” Think of how one starts moving folk like Sen Ben Sasse.
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On the pursuit of social justice

The folks at Returning Church highlight Jacob Brunton for his attack on The Gospel Coalition as Marxist. Once one wipes up the coffee off the desk. Social Justice is rejected in preference for “charity” which is seen as an emblem of grace.

 if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved.

What Brunton gets right is that the questions of poverty, and of response to social need are not defined by the person. The act of beneficence is important, but there’s more. Social need can and often is created by relationships, it is invariably political, in fact a matter of justice. This is the reality of power. 

The widow, the poor look to the king to remedy their situation; they are institutionally at the short end, taken advantage of. So the consideration of social justice is less about mercy than about the ruler exercising proper (and righteous) power. The righteous king exercises authority (justice, mispat) on behalf of the poor, the weak, the vulnerable to protect their claims and their standing.

To be trinitarian, the royal office is enabled by the Spirit, made possible by the Son’s sacrifice. The Cross and Resurrection have turned authority into something more ‘provisional’, into something like servanthood. Provisional authority does two important things: it allows us to fail, we can make mistakes; and it removes the absolute or polarized ideas, left and right — this royal authority listens.

The challenge of social justice is too often that we have not thought deeply enough about it, but settled only for the ethical scorecard, a zero-sum of winners and losers. Social justice as a trinitarian action gives a social dimension, of covenant keeping, extending the covenant blessings to others, acting to establish a better model of God’s covenant with us.

 

Bait and Switch?

Paul VanderKlay points to an interesting article at the BBC by Brandon Ambrosino, “The Invention of ‘heterosexuality.'” VanderKlay wonders, in an era of increasing sexual fluidity, might other items be at stake, as well?
The argument for the CRC embracing SSM is that “people are born that way and have no other choice. Are you heartless?” It increasingly looks like the 73 report won’t die for the reasons imagined even a few years ago, but because it dares to imagine people ARE “born that way”. Sexuality is fluid and to not celebrate whatever fluid moment is demanded in order to make the fluid feel validated is violence, oppression and the worst sort of evil (per a tweet from Rachel Hyde Evans).
I think the basic point of Ambrosino’s argument stands, that our sexual expression is culturally formed. E.g. how we understand marital relations today is really quite different from how marriage was understood 200 years ago.
What I find interesting is that this discussion of “fluidity” is unconciously part of the neo-liberal economic era. The notion that it is asserted or validated through violence points us in that direction.
When we had SSA as a physical or innate condition, we may have been making a theological statement but we were certainly claiming a political stance. If I am (physically) different, innately so, then I have a right to participate in society as that physical person. With an innate understanding of SSA then, to come out is to make a claim on societal resources; it is inherently political.
Now check in with fluidity. If identity is not located in the body (I.e. Externally) then how does it possess rights? The celebration of the self that chooses (this fluidity) lapses over into a participation in consumerism, in self-gratification. That matches with how we buy cell phones (iPhone v Android) — choices can participate in tribes, but the concept of rights? Of politics?
This fluidity is one more part of the post-modern era, but it still leaves the notion: how do we agree in common, on what basis? Even accepting this as a personal decision, how does one evaluate the choice; what makes one choice preferable to that of another? On what grounds? We are back to tribal identities and with them the determination of group relations by power equations: one wins the other losses; it’s all zero-sum, and very much part of the Spirit of the Age. Thus, this sense of fluidity is quite compatible with the restriction of human rights.
I think here is where the actual struggle takes place, where Christians engage: how do we relate to one another? On what basis? Christian thinking makes particular claims about bodies and selves. In the Western tradition it underlies, forms the bedrock for a political liberalism. And where I have an identity, then the subsequent question can be asked: to what purpose does that identity incline?

The Many and the Gone

Paul VanderKlay writes
“Pluralism, both contemporary and historical pushes us into skepticism.

Really? Isn’t this just a longing for Christendom by another name? It seems that the early church lived in pretty much of a pluralistic culture. The problem today is that while we live with our separate worldviews, we now have a different  emperor, a different encompassing narrative. It’s the emperor that you want to pay attention to.

Greeks and barbarians live cheek by jowl. The first deacons were Hellenist. The post-NT culture is rife with separate cultural frameworks, some like the Palestinian Ebonites got called out and expelled. But really, Alexandria thinks one way, Athens another, Damascus a third etc.
Our challenge is how to live across those gaps between different worldviews, different religions. The road is filled with their shrines.
Spiritually, the question of skepticism ties into narratives of the self, and especially of the self’! s knowledge, our tacit epistemology. There are two Christian responses: the self must die (that’s Benedict) and the smoldering wick is not snuffed.

Is “free enterprise capitalism” the only way?

That’s the question roughly posed at The Banner.

Is it true that the Bible endorses free enterprise capitalism? I read that this is because it assumes private property and rewards a good work ethic.

Editor Shiao Chong defers in his answer, pointing to a “perfect economic system” as a sort of goal. All rather Platonic, when you think about it.

The correct answer is that God does not “endorse” any human social arrangement, let alone envision some “perfect economic system.” Instead, what God asks for is that these arrangements in their particularlity be just. In large measure we do not get to choose the sort of system we live under, be it a parliamentary democracy, a republic or for that matter a kingdom. God can and has worked through all of these. In the same manner, the economic arrangement in society can have a wide variation.

On the specific question, “free enterprise capitalism” is a rather flexible term, meaning different things in say the sociology, the political science, and economics department. What we do know is that however defined, the result of the system must still safeguard the poor and the weak from the all too easy actions of the wealthy and powerful. This caution is spelled out over and over again in the Psalms and Prophets.

We do not pursue a perfect system, or even a perfected system, but rather a perfect, a complete obedience on our side. That at least seems more doable.

 

Fools

Len VanderZee notes the similarity between our President and the biblical fool

 It strikes me that Trump is basically what the Bible calls a fool. I am not seeking to belittle Trump, but simply to find a way to understand and respond to him, and the biblical word for such a man is fool. Fortunately, the book of Proverbs provides an inspired guide for how to deal with fools.

Fools sets in motion the other question, the real question, the counsel of Wisdom. The Wisdom Literature instructs in taking a prudent, long-term view of things, to be emotionally constrained, etc. This is not merely a sort of Nominalism (true because in the Bible), but especially true for its practicality — this is the stuff that enables rulers to endure and wise servants (and people) to prosper.

Wisdom guards our own reaction in a time of enthusiasm or of excess. As with marches, or certainly with appetites.
Wisdom also is grounded. It does not merely stand aside, “strategically” to mark its time. It is wise, because it knows something. Contrast this to line from Hamilton, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?”
Oh, and about fools. Their way is that of destruction. History teaches that.

What do we take from the past?

Beer boxHank Ottens at the Banner pens an interesting, prophetic story about his dad, one of those immigrant souls who worked the farm but kept an active mind and prized his orthodoxy. Cleaning out his father’s estate, he comes across “the ark:” books by Bavinck and his father’s collection of sermons on the various themes of orthodoxy.

What to do?

He looks, reads, considers, then gets coffee. Church today is not much like that of his father’s post-war era (or his father’s defense of orthodoxy in retirement).

The brief coffee klatch gets us talking about the new “normal” in church life: praise teams, women clergy, seeker-friendly services, interfaith dialogue, acceptance of divorced and gay members. We put down our coffee cups and get down to business. The ark has become a beer box with relics of a bygone era.

Books and tapes are consigned to the curb. And at the end Ottens wonders about all this with more than a little ambivalence:

Are these reflections on the means of grace, the Heidelberg Catechism and pious living, no more important than a broken-down hobby horse or a six-pack of empties? Do those old sermon tapes at least deserve a respectful place in a preacher’s bookcase?

Well, theses certainly are reflections of grace, but appropriate for a preacher’s bookcase? Ah, no. The grace belongs to his family. In very human terms, these belong on his bookcase. The hand that pens the sermon title was the same hand that ran the farm and first took Otten’s small hand as he learned to walk. Our spirituality is not different from the rest of our lives. Some items we keep because of their testimony to a faithfulness then that has made a debtor now. Active remembrance can keep us.

This however, is not the only story available, that of an old immigrant orthodoxy thrown away. There is the story of faithfulness:  what does one do with one’s life? This was a retirement spent in keeping the mind alive, a retirement spent in caring for others, a retirement spent in a pursuit of godliness; it is  the shape of that fidelity as much as its content that is remarkable and worthy of marking.

Me? I would have kept the tapes if only as a reminder that there is more to life than travel and gardening.