A Faulty Foundation

This week Michigan Senator Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) introduced a set of bills to in part,  prevent “censorship of our founding documents” (SB 120). While that can be dismissed as the usual hot air of  political posturing, the other bills are more substantive, one (SB 423)

establishes requirements for schools to incorporate teaching provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan state constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and would require the Michigan Department of Education to incorporate those subjects into standardized testing of students.

The fundamental problem here is the elevation of the Declaration of Independence as a core document of this nation. While one can appreciate the desire of those social conservatives to elevate the Declaration (particularly the bit about inalienable rights being endowed by the Creator…. not that conservatives have an especially good grasp on the concept of “inalienable”), for the purposes of understanding our actual government, it is the Constitution that rules.  And if one is to have a mandated test, then that Constitution ought to be front and center.

Yet even a cursory review reveals what’s missing: the total absence of any of the great national documents regarding African-Americans. Well, yes, in politeness, they did leave off the bit about slaves being worth only 3/5 a vote in the original Constitution, but where is the insistence that children of this state learn about the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural. Or for that matter, the Gettysburg Address? For a party that once championed, bled and died for these great truths, this is a peculiar omission.

An omission less surprising, given the origin of this measure in the southern social conservative community.



Babel, Economics and the Duty to the Neighbor

The Economics of Honor: Biblical Reflections on Money and PropertyThe Economics of Honor: Biblical Reflections on Money and Property

by Roelf Haan

Geneva: World Council of Churches. 1988



Book note: Read the earlier version of this book, published 1988 by the World Council of Churches. This version has a different translator, plus new information.

Roelf Haan addresses the question of economics in the specific context of the authoritarian states of South America of that era, in particular that of Argentina. His meditations turn further to the consideration of the marginalized agrarian poor — those still working in subsistence or commodity-based economies. As noted below this later turn is something of a weakness for his approach.

Although published by the WCC, the rhetoric is solidly in the Dutch Calvinist tradition. Haan shows an evident debt to the earlier work of Jacques Ellul and the general exegetical approach that sees in the biblical text a lens through which one can see this world and its arrangements more clearly (a good example of this sort of theological reading would be NHK Ridderbos’ discussion of Genesis 1 in the old New Bible Commentary, IVP). It is a very different approach than the more biblicist model of present Evangelicals, or of the more social science determined pattern of many social justice folks.

For him, economics is seen principally through the lens of the “city” as an alternate place from that which God has provided. So Cain and Enoch both go off to found cities. In this, it is not the City as the New Jerusalem of Revelations, so much as the Augustinian City of Man. Economics with its focus on gain and power is constituent of this City.

The fulcrum of the book is his eighth meditation on the meaning of the Fifth Commandment (Honor your parents…), appropriately titles The Economics of Honour. Haan points to how this commandment links the two tablets of the law, the first being our duties towards God and the second, those towards our neighbor. Parents are both the ones who name us like God, and who also become the face of God that we encounter in our neighbor; thus the turn to honour is the turn to God and to our neighbor. As the Apostle John tells us, we cannot see God if we do not first see our neighbor — we must see both, and we see both in our parents.

Moreover, for our ethic, the giveness of our parents becomes a type for the giveness of our neighbor. These are the people in front of us, in our lives, to whom we must respond.

By way of commentary, this is some remarkable exegetical/spiritual sleight of hand. The result are a series of provocative ways of considering our own social duties, our “economics.”

Trouble arises in the last third of the book, as Haan considers the specifics of my neighbor in the guise of the poor. Until this point, the meditations have been on our responsibilities towards God, how we must have a new way of thinking, of seeing. Now he turns our gaze toward the poor, where he considers the politics of money and food, of an agrarian commodity economy. This is less satisfying for two reasons.

First, while Haan writes of the world he knows it becomes an elevation of the particular circumstance to the universal. So the agrarian problem and the distrust of market solutions are seen as the normative framework. But in the 25 years since the questions of urbanization have substantively altered how we are to think of the poor. In this time, the number of those living in such subsistence economies has drastically shrunk; the realities of urban live pose new challenges. For this social landscape, market approaches, both of land ownership (so Hector DeSoto) and of entrepreneurialism play an important role in alleviating the burdens of poverty.

Second, the focus on the poor as an object of our action, or our ethical duty, our “social justice” imports our own class frame. We’re still in the land of Nimrod, still relying on our own power, still caught in the web of our own social-technological technique. We think we can fix it. Here, Haan’s thinking could be reasonably expanded by Jacques Ellul’s own meditation on the inutility of human action (Politics of God and the Politics of Man). The Christian approach is kenotic (see Philippians 2), open — the opposite of that of the City of Man and Babel.

As Haan demonstrates, our practice of economics and our seeking the betterment of our neighbor are alike spiritual tasks.

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Oh, the Injustice of it All

Gus Burns at MLive gets it going with the headline  HIV cases higher among blacks than whites due to social inequality, NAACP says. This of course, is link bait at its finest. The very whiff of race and inequality and the put-upon case of whites (the comments are full of this sorry schtick).  Burns opens with a seemingly solid case, but it rather misses the point.

DETROIT, MI — Social inequity is the reason HIV is 10 times more prevalent among blacks than other races, says a civil rights health leader.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Health Manager Rev. Keron Sadler said the organization wants to change that, and teaching through black churches is crucial to doing so.

The focus on “social inequality” does an injustice to the issue and the efforts of the NAACP. Here, paraphrasing Rev. Keron Sadler does not advance the cause — when, where did she express this idea? Shouldn’t there be a link (we are on the web, after all)? All this leads to a tragic misunderstanding of the situation, and of course the stirring up of white anxiety and rage. Sadly because the dominant direction of the campaign is not in the “blame” category that can often intrude in such discussions.

So let’s at least take a look at what’s happening. The first problem the program wants to address is simply that of testing. Too many young black men and women do not even get HIV tests. Without testing, the next steps about responsible behavior and treatment are moot. That said, the black church has been reluctant to pick up on much of the HIV issue precisely because of its moral dimensions. Yet, in most communities, the church is the one social institution with the breadth and moral authority to help young people become more responsible.

The NAACP’s program then is a way to harness this demographic reach of the church, and begin to do some thing about the screamingly high infection rates. The social justice thing might be better framed thus: any community where 1 in 8 men are infected is a community fundamentally less able to care for itself, or to make economic progress. that health care services are less available to this community only compounds the situation (this is the social justice aspect). Faced with the economic impact, the failure of healthcare institutions, it falls to the community in the form of its worshipping bodies to begin a process of reclaiming, redeeming these lives.