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As evinced by the popularity of a new biography on E. J. Waggoner, righteousness by faith is still a hot topic among Adventists. I have often wondered why denominational leaders did not simply visit a Lutheran church and read what Luther and Melanchthon had to say about the subject. Ellen White endorsed Luther’s justification theology(1) and the Augsburg Confession,(2) written by Melanchthon. She had a copy of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians in her personal library.
Regarding justification, the Augsburg Confession states: “1] Also they [the Lutheran churches] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.”(3)
Along with his commentaries, treatises, catechism and numerous other things, Luther wrote prefaces to the books of the New Testament, which were included in his German translation of the New Testament. The Preface to Romans actually originated here, although it is often published along with his Commentary on Romans. It was while listening to a public reading of this preface that John Wesley, to whom Adventists are indebted theologically,(4) felt his heart “strangely warmed.” Here is how he described his experience: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”(5)
Wesley’s use of the expression “Christ alone” suggests a controversy which was at the heart of the Reformation: Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, and Grace Alone. These four alones often stand together in summarizing the theology of Protestantism. When Luther translated Romans for his German New Testament, his critics complained that he inserted the word “alone” in Romans 3 :28: “Man is justified by faith alone without the works of the law.”[English paraphrase] English versions such as the KJV, ASV, NASB and NRSV, do not insert the word “alone” in the text, as Luther did. It is not in the Greek text. He answered his critics with the following explanation:
“Now I was not relying on and following the nature of the languages alone, however, when, in Roman 3[:28] I inserted the word solum (alone). Actually the text itself and the meaning of St. Paul urgently require and demand it. For in that very passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the law. And Paul cuts away all works so completely, as even to say that the works of the law—though it is God’s law and word—do not help us for justification [Rom. 3:20]. He cites Abraham as an example and says that he was justified so entirely without works that even the highest work—which, moreover, had been newly commanded by God, over and above all other works and ordinances, namely circumcision—did not help him for justification; rather he was justified without circumcision and without any works, by faith, as he says in chapter 4[:2], “If Abraham was justified by works, he may boast, but not before God.” But when all works are so completely cut away—and that must mean that faith alone justifies—whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this cutting away of works will have to say, “Faith alone justifies us, and not works.” The matter itself, as well as the nature of the language, demands it.”(6)
Luther’s appealed to Paul’s explanation of Abraham’s biography in explaining how justification by faith takes place. The more closely we look at Abraham, the clearer the issue becomes. Genesis is the key to understanding references to Abraham in Romans, Galatians, and James. James and Paul both interpreted events in Abraham’s life to make their own case regarding justification. The tension between these two perspectives often runs high, even today.
This tension can be resolved by looking at the chronology of Abraham’s life.(7) The most conservative numbers would place the time between God’s promise to Abraham and circumcision at ~14 years. Paul called circumcision a sign of the righteousness that Abraham obtained by faith. Considering that Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice, he must have been at least 12 years old. Various Jewish sources place his age between 25 and 37 years of age. If we assume that Abraham was justified at 85 and Isaac offered when he was 12, there is still at least 26 years from the promise of justification to the offering of Isaac.
In what condition was Abraham during this period? After Abraham received the promise, he took Hagar and fathered Ishmael. Yet there is no rebuke contained in Scripture. God actually blessed the boy. The promise was still fulfilled to Abraham and Isaac was born.
According to Galatians 3, there was no law in Abraham’s time. Abraham was essentially in the same spot as a Gentile. Had obedience to any law been instrumental in Abraham’s justification, justification could have been neither by grace nor faith. Because Abraham was justified on the same basis as a Gentile, without law, salvation can go to the entire world, even those who have not the law.
Romans 4 tell us that circumcision, which represented the law, served as a sign of the justification attained by faith in God’s promise. Circumcision played no part in Abraham’s justification. His justification was based on belief in God’s promise to him.
The lessons that Paul draws from Abraham’s life are important ones for Christians. He says they were “written for the benefit of those who believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead, the same Jesus who was delivered for our offenses and raised because of our justification Rom. 4:23,24.
So what about James? Considering the extensive arguments set forth by Paul in Romans and Galatians, James is often considered as a thorn in the side of those who favor a Pauline understanding of the gospel. In the Preface to James, for his New Testament, Luther simply rejected James as non canonical.(8)
Considering the record of events in Abraham’s life, at least 26 years had elapsed between the time Abraham was justified by faith and Isaac was offered. It can not be truly said that Abraham was justified by imputation when he offered Isaac. That happened years before.
The word justify is used different ways in Scripture. Most often, it refers to the event which occurs through faith when righteousness is imputed to the believer. There are, however, a few examples of the word being used in a different way.
Jesus, for example, said that “Wisdom is justified of her children (Lk. 7:35). Versions such as the NASB and NRSV say “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” Regarding the baptism of John, it is said that those who submitted to it “justified God” (Lk. 7:29). We read of the young lawyer who wanted to “justify himself” (Lk. 10:29).
“Wisdom is justified or vindicated by her children.” One might express the idea this way: The benefits of wisdom are revealed by those who are wise. If we understand justification this way, what James is saying about Abraham’s justification is that by his offering, he was showing himself to be righteous or exhibiting righteousness. He was clearing himself of any possible blame regarding his faith. The word Hebrew word for justify is used just this way in the story of Joseph’s brothers. When a stolen cup was discovered in their bag, they asked one another, “How can we clear ourselves” (Lk. 44:16 NRSV)? This is just what the young lawyer wanted to do, be clear of blame.
By offering Isaac upon the altar, Abraham demonstrated the kind of faith that responded to God’s promises, a faith that simply trusted in the goodness and faithfulness of God.
1. White, Ellen, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (1911 Mountain View, CA Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1950) p. 253
2. Ibid. p 205
6. Luther, M. (1999, c1960). Vol. 35: Luther's works, vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Vol. 35, Page 195). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
7. Abraham left Haran at 75 (Gen.12:4).
Sometime between the age of 75 and 85, Abraham was justified by imputation because he believed God’s promise to him. (Gen. 15:6). Ishmael was born at 86 (Gen. 16:16). Abraham was circumcised at 99 ((Gen. 17:24). Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham (Gen. 17:17) Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 (Gen. 21:5). Sarah died at 127; therefore, we can conclude that Isaac was less than 37 when offered upon the altar. (Gen. 23:1) Isaac marries Rebecca at 40 years of age. (Gen. 25:20)
8. Luther, M. (1999, c1960). Vol. 35: Luther's works, vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Vol. 35, Page 395). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
The point here at Spectrum is an open door — the open door of dialogue.
The problem is that there are different kinds of open. The kind Spectrum was made for is the kind where every voice has a right to be heard. The kind it was not made for is the kind where people can say whatever they want, however they want to.
Why can't we have both? you ask. Well... because the openness of the latter kind tends to close the door on the former kind.
For instance: Billy Joe Bob is starting to feel that heaven is not a physical reality. He brings this up. "You're wrong," I say (which is what I believe). "That's a lousy idea," I add (which I think). "The Bible says such-and-such" (which it does) "and if you don't accept it, what's the point?" (which makes sense to me).
The result? No discussion about heaven. No learning achieved for Billy Joe Bob, or for me. I have not tried to grapple with the implications or possibilities of Billy Joe Bob's thinking. I've been "open" in telling him what's what, but I have been totally closed in entering genuine Christian dialogue with him.
I run into a number of closed doors on Spectrum discussions. I realize that most people closing doors probably don't intend to. So here's a list of ways to write that leave the doors open — while still allowing us to truly express ourselves.
Say "I." Closed door: "that idea is preposterous." Open door: "As I see it, that idea is preposterous."
Ask for more. Closed door: "Here's what's correct and here's why." Open door: "Here's what I think is correct and here's why. But I'm grappling with your point about such-and-such. Could you explain a little more?"
Admit your bias. Closed door: "That idea is preposterous." Open door: "That idea is preposterous — but then, I've spent my whole life in California, where people all agree that that idea is preposterous!"
Say please and thank you. (Yes, Mom, this one's for you) Closed door: "I guess we'll never agree on this topic, so maybe we should quit." Open door: "It seems that, at least in this kind of impersonal discussion, we'll never come to an understanding. But thanks for being willing to hash it out!"
Okay, so sometimes open doors take two or three more words. But it can help express the openness and respect that you may have in your "voice" but people can't hear in the typed word. I think it's worth it and... thanks for being willing to hash it out!
Jai Ho translates from Hindi into something close to an English Hallelujah.
A reporter at the Rocktown Weekly, Harrisonburg, Virginia, writes the following.
Biblical prophecy seminar: A field trip
The announcement came by mail, a glossy tri-fold pamphlet entitled “Discover Prophecy,” in a vaguely menacing font with some flames roasting part of the headline. This is emblazoned across the bottom of a nightmarish painting in which a four-winged, four-headed leopard, a Godzilla-type reptile, a winged lion and a grizzly bear roam a desolate beach beside a stormy sea beneath foreboding clouds.
It’s an invitation to “The Discovery Of A Lifetime” in New Market, a series of presentations about how and when the world will end, who the Antichrist is, how Jesus is now preparing to return, and how to ensure you’re not left behind.
Twenty-five thousand of these brochures went out last month, according to Shane Anderson, pastor of New Market Seventh-day Adventist Church and the featured speaker at the event. At a typical response rate of .25 to .5 percent, the $6,000 to $7,000 in postage might attract a few dozen people.
“We feel like the information’s important enough that we’re willing to pay the expense for that advertising,” Anderson said.
He’s pictured — with gnarly smile and a faint computer-geek aura — on one of the folds, and has reportedly used “solid teaching from God’s word” for more than a decade to bring “hope and peace to thousands.” Juxtaposed with the ominous apocalyptic vibe elsewhere on the brochure, this claim sets up a number of compelling questions: who finds peace in knowing the Antichrist’s true identity? Or hope in learning exactly how the world ends? And, more fundamentally, what is this whole affair, the advertisements for which simultaneously tug at fear/loathing and hope/peace poles of the human psyche, really like?
Jan. 13 — Night no. 5 — Impressions — 7-9 p.m.
The parking lot outside the Shenandoah Valley Academy auditorium is overflowing and a sizeable corps of welcomers and complementary Bible hander-outers man the doors. Inside the auditorium itself a few hundred people, whose average age appears to be 55-60 (a data set surely skewed by the complimentary child care available elsewhere in the building), have already taken their seats.
A short health lesson on the virtues of the Mediterranean diet precedes the lecture (Seventh-day Adventists place major emphasis on personal health). Then, after a song and a prayer, Anderson takes the stage and gets down to business. He begins by acknowledging that tonight’s topic — the second coming of Jesus Christ — is surrounded by much hype, speculation and misinformation.
An early theme in his talk is that Christ’s return will be accompanied by such a display of glorious light and pizzazz that it will be impossible to overlook. “Tonight we’re going to prove that directly from the Bible,” Anderson says.
There’s an enormous emphasis on “proving” things here tonight. A lot of people — the ones following along in their Bibles: Matthew, Daniel, Revelations, back to Matthew, while muttering “Amen” — seem to have come to exile doubts, to hear The Truth, to build a solid, square frame around their world and understand how it will end in concrete, black-and-white terms. Literal interpretations are also in vogue. E.g., the trumpet blast that will accompany the Second Coming will actually, literally rouse the dead, Anderson says.
He then disparages the “secret rapture” theory glorified by the Left Behind series (End of Days-obsessed fiction that, on the surface, appears ideologically similar to this take on the Apocalypse) as one of the most insidious ideas to enjoy currency in modern Christendom. This has to do with some allegedly bogus theology involving second chances for repentance. Anderson proves that we have one chance only, and if we miss it, things will go very, very badly indeed.
This feels like a combo college lecture and Sunday sermon, and Anderson is without question an effective, polished speaker. He moves along with confidence and slows for emphasis when appropriate. He projects an undeniable air of authority, and makes good use of humor — at one point there’s some LOL hilarity — while roaming the stage decorated with white flowers and a podium beneath a giant projection screen. Throughout the lecture, this displays Scripture, PowerPoint-esque summaries of major points and faith-themed paintings in the style of those gentle, long-haired Jesus pictures that old people have.
A few days later, reached by telephone, Anderson says that he enjoys discussing questions that people have about his sermons and viewpoints, and that he encourages people to air their doubts and explore their skepticisms.
Yes, he does preach with conviction, and he absolutely believes what he says. And yes, he’s happy to sit down later and listen to a diametrically-opposed viewpoint, delivered with equal conviction.
“That’s one of the lost arts in American life,” Anderson said, lamenting that fact that most people seem to be either too close-minded to engage in skepticism, or too topsy-turvy to express, or even hold, strong convictions in the first place.
What else? There’s significant energy spent hashing out the exact chronological details of how all this is going to go down. Refreshment tables are set up in the back. There are collection buckets but no real pressure to donate. Brochures available in the lobby outside the auditorium identify the Pope as the Antichrist (nights No. 2 and No. 3 were devoted to this topic), and prove that the End Times began in 1844, and will end soon. It is snowing gently. The next night’s topic (this lecture series goes on almost all month) is about the U.S. in biblical prophecy and sounds engaging. People cluster after the lecture with cups of lemonade, chatting, happy, then bid farewell and brace for the cold as they head out to their minivans.
If you’re the type who’s predisposed to uncertainty, or wary of absolutes, the fixation here on cold, hard, monolithic Truth is unsettling and uncomfortable. And if you harbor any doubts about the major tenets of our society’s Judeo-Christian bedrock, or for whatever reason suspect you don’t meet the criteria for salvation prevalent here tonight, if you’re willing to suspend for a moment your disbelief, to be intellectually honest and allow yourself to consider the possibility that what’s been said here might actually be True, and might really happen, the discomfort settles in your gut, and tightens, and feels more like fear, as you step out into the snow, and head for home with all this spinning through your head.
A SPECTRUM reader writes, "At [X-Church] we just completed our evangelism series--about 30 baptisms, many of them children. This was the first Sabbath after the series and the whole group was invited to the front to receive their baptismal certificates. There were maybe a dozen people who showed up the week after the series was over and half of them were the children. We spent $40,000 to baptize our children, and send scary brochures to the community."
This originally appeared in the Southern Accent. Shane studies theology at Southern Adventist University.
The intention is not to offend but to provoke thought and discussion. My hope is that this campus can be a safe place for tough questions and the sharing of ideas.
I remember the first time I said and believed: Jesus is dead. No trio of words could have felt more foreign on my tongue.
My friend and I were discussing our growing skepticism. We realized that the tales of a talking snake, a virgin birth and a man living three days inside a fish were beyond our capacity to believe. But doubt didn’t come upon us like a cloud; it was more like a sunrise.
I had already given up the notion that the Bible was infallible. To claim one book as the inerrant revelation of God is, to me, definitively gullible. So I started to study the Bible with the same tools of critical examination that I would use in any other area.
When we study a figure of history we don’t blindly assume that everything written about him or her is true. If so you’d have to believe in the virgin birth of Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar as well. One important step in finding the truth about a historical figure is to date your sources and trust the earlier ones more than the later ones.
Paul is our earliest source, then Mark, then Matthew, then Luke/Acts, then John. When you read these sources independently, assuming you didn’t know what was in later ones, you see a steady growth in the fantastic nature of the Jesus-story.
According to Paul, Jesus was not raised with a natural body but a “spiritual” one. He contrasts Adam who was made from dirt to Christ who, when raised, was a life-giving spirit. Paul is explicit that the resurrection of Jesus was not of “flesh and blood,” because flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom. Paul believed Jesus was alive because he had a visionary experience with Christ’s “life-giving spirit.” He never mentions an empty tomb or a resuscitated corpse (1 Corinthians 15:35-50).
Second is Mark, who is the first to introduce the empty tomb story. Yet even within Mark’s gospel Jesus is never actually seen after his death (Mark 16:1-8). Many Bibles add an appearance section to Mark’s gospel but the footnotes will probably tell you that this is almost certainly not part of the original work.
In Matthew’s version Jesus is finally seen face to face. Jesus’ resurrection is obviously considered to be physical but the emphasis is on sightings rather than interactions with the resurrected Christ (Matthew 28:1-9).
In Luke, Jesus is said to have broken bread and eaten with the disciples. He even directly denies being a spirit, something that Paul had claimed decades earlier. But Luke is now confronted with a problem. When Jesus was considered to have existed in a non-physical, form then there was no issue with Him appearing and disappearing at will. Luke, who is the first to stress the bodily nature of the resurrection, is also the first to mention an ascension. If Jesus is a physical person He could only get to heaven by flight (Luke 24:1-51).
John, the last to write about Jesus, gives us the most intriguing story because Thomas says he will not believe until he physically touches Christ, so Jesus shows up to prove himself (John 20:1-29). I’ve often said that if Thomas, who knew Jesus personally, is allowed to withhold judgment until he sees Jesus for himself then surely I can do the same.
We can see a clear trajectory stretching over decades of time from Paul to John. The meaning of the phrase “Jesus is alive,” changed dramatically over that period. Each time the story was retold the resurrection became more tangible and physical which leads me to believe that the actual event the disciples experienced was incredibly intangible and non-physical, perhaps even hallucinatory.
For many of you, the notion that Jesus’ body decayed like everyone else’s would make Jesus insignificant and His message useless. That’s as foolish as saying the civil rights movement ended when Martin Luther King, Jr. died or America became worthless once George Washington was dead.
My complaint against many professed Christians is that you have so deified your leader that you often ignore what He actually taught. You act as though worshipping Him, praying to Him and telling people about Him is the sum of your duty as His follower. He never asked for any of those things! He asked you not to judge, He asked you to give all you have for the poor, He asked you to love your enemies. I often see Christianity doing the opposite of all of these.
When I accepted for myself the fact that Jesus is dead I became even more motivated to serve Him. His message became even more captivating because He gave His life to the promotion of peace and inclusivity and I hope to do the same. To insist that Jesus is alive in heaven creates a culture of passivity where we wait for Him to come and fix this world, but to follow a dead Jesus means to be an active agent for change and to go and better the world as He would have done.
The assertion that we are the body of Christ is something I take very seriously. After all, if Jesus is watching I can only imagine that He would rather I follow His teachings and doubt His resurrection than believe in His resurrection and ignore His teachings.
February 2009 - Vol.5, No.2: This edition of Adventist World has something for everybody, including: Five Reasons Why I Rest Well at Night, an essay by Jan Paulsen that confirms his place as one of the Adventist Church’s greatest presidents; worldwide news—some deeply disturbing—some encouraging; a piece by Handysides and Landless, Treating Macular Degeneration, that I found of particular interest since I’ve got it; the suggestion by Fred Kinsey, Speaker/Director for the Voice of Prophecy, that In a World of Chaos “we’re seeing signs that indicate the coming of Jesus is near”; and Mark Finley’s assurance that, “ One overriding principle in discerning God’s will is the willingness to do whatever it leads us to do.”
That said, I want to comment on the lead article, I Choose the Sabbath, in which a student, Daniel Lisulo, a scholarship student from Lusaka, Zambia, risked being sent home from the People’s Friendship University in Moscow by refusing to attend a Russian language class on the Sabbath.
The issue of Sabbath observance by Adventists is a complex one. If one were unacquainted with “Sabbath keeping” as practiced by Adventist Church, Andrew McChesney’s article would suggest that Adventists, worldwide, observe the Sabbath like Orthodox Jews. Actually, the only thing these two religious groups have in common is Sabbath “time”, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Depending where Adventists live, swimming and skiing and soccer and baseball and mountain climbing and boating are perfectly permissible. If one works for or is employed by an Adventist institution, cooking, cleaning, policing, nursing, doctoring, dispensing, piloting, preaching, counseling, video taping, and teaching are all honorable Sabbath activities. Adventists attend Sabbath “school”. Adventists serve in the armed forces on Sabbath. Adventists eat food that was picked and processed on the Sabbath. Adventists employ workers when they “go out to eat” on the Sabbath, use phones on the Sabbath, gas up their cars on the Sabbath, and produce musical events and television shows on the Sabbath.
Why is it then that Adventist students are made to feel that they are in some way desecrating the Sabbath if they attend a class and take an examination? When I read about a student who has to give up a career because he or she has been taught that to take a final examination on Sabbath is an unpardonable sin, I want to scream. Our Church should formally abandon its official Sabbath keeping mantra and allow individual members to make reasonable decisions with regard to Sabbath observance. Making that change might be easier if Adventist church members, teachers, preachers, administrators, and theologians read Romans 14 once again and prayerfully considered “Sabbath keeping” in the context of Paul’s admonition.
Click here to read all Andrew Hanson's Review of the Review going back over more than a year on this site.
Yesterday another coalition of center-right Christians calling itself the Poverty Forum rolled out its multi-point plan aimed at lessening the toll of poverty in America. The Forum’s primary organizers, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, and PolicyLink founder Angela Glover Blackwell, claim that their approaches to key issue areas are embraced across the religious spectrum from left to right. The problem is that the spectrum they are talking about runs the gamut from A to B, if I may borrow Dorothy Parker’s apt formula. Conservatives on Poverty Forum issue panels were anything but shy in proclaiming their views victorious.
Brent Orrell, a conservative apparatchik long embedded in the Bush Administration’s faith-based operations, captured the essence of the new Forum’s anti-poverty platform thusly: “this package, when taken as a whole embodies the best and most timeless conservative ideas and principles. It focuses on the traditional family as the seedbed of virtue and education and economic participation.” Perhaps more revealing, Chuck Donovan of the Family Research Council beamed his own hearty approval for the work in this wise: “This is an opportunity to get attention for some ideas that might not be taken as seriously if they came directly from the Family Research Council.”
In fairness there are some significant policy changes in the package put forward by the centrists, but there is notably more emphasis on inculcating and reinforcing traditional values: changing destructive behaviors, for example, and focusing on family thrift (here rhetorically upgraded to “asset development”).
Only a churl would call dismiss the Poverty Forum’s issues as unworthy. The problem is that they are so small-bore, so cautious, and so very deferential toward a regnant conservative ideology. We can’t really grasp the prophetic dimension that’s missing in the Poverty Forum without understanding something of the genesis and ubiquity of that conservative worldview.
What would values conservatives do without dysfunctional poor families?
For those too young to remember, there was in fact a brief shining moment some forty odd years ago when the public at large and the government of the United States recognized systemic and racialized poverty as a problem worth attacking directly. This was a moment of what liberation theologians would call conscientizacion. It grew out of the cresting civil rights struggle but was also ignited by some path-breaking journalism that drew attention to the hollows of pure misery in Appalachia and the harvest of shame enacted in California’s farm fields. While it was clumsy and crude for President Johnson to declare “war” on poverty, it is equally clear that his heart was in the right place on this—and that he really believed a massive public effort was required.
I mention this breakthrough moment so as to underscore the ideological and cultural sea change that now has most Americans once again thinking of poverty as a little bit cyclical, a little bit behavioral, not so much racial, and shameful only insofar as people should be kind of ashamed for remaining poor in view of all the help that is out there and available.
The sea change in how poverty is viewed reflects the triumph of a conservative ideology that long ago crossed party lines. I awakened fully to the bipartisan extent of the obfuscation and blame-shifting when I realized that the bulk of new philanthropy going on in New York in the 1990s—an interventionist philanthropy very much focused on support for the deserving poor—was being initiated by committed Democrats. One fast-rising new charity raised staggering amounts from hip young Democratic money managers at its annual galas. It spelled out its approach in big bold letters for all to see: no, we do NOT fund social change—but thanks very much for asking.
In this context the Gingrich-Clinton welfare “reform” of 1996 came as but the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that had disappeared systemic poverty from the national consciousness, or had at least converted it from being the product of injustice and oppression to being instead the collective expression of a whole lot of bad individual choices made by the poor themselves.
We were back, in other words, to a moralizing Victorian sensibility. In most US cities, welfare caseload reduction and not the reduction of actual suffering and want became the measure of virtuous public policy. Welfare-to-work transition support operations functioned as the modern equivalent of Victorian workhouses, designed to instill exemplary behaviors like punctuality and better personal hygiene and grooming. Tough-on-dependency politicians, like New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, were lionized in the big media while the voices of dissidents like Derrick Bell and Jonathan Kozol—people who actually paid attention to the worsening lives of the poor—were marginalized and dismissed.
This new Victorian consensus around poverty only hardened during the Bush years when the specter of terrorism gave us something else to worry about and when easy credit also helped mask the persistence of hardcore impoverishment. We were momentarily shocked (shocked!) to discover its persistence—and its persisting racialized character—in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. But for most that discovery merely reinforced the point that miserables like those Crescent City wretches should be dispersed and the evidence of their prior condition simply razed.
So many torn limb from limb—yet no enemies among the overprivileged?
Now, of course, poverty has come back into the public consciousness in a big way. This time the specter of poverty is haunting us—the hardworking middle-class folks being wiped out by the financial meltdown, the foreclosure tsunami, confiscatory health care expenses, and a plummeting job market. Along with fear, there is real anger in middle-class suburbs about the crimes and betrayals of the best and the brightest who ran the casino economy from their well-appointed Wall Street aeries—ran it right into the ground, that is—while parachuting to soft landings themselves.
But if you listen to the official talk of the nation—the talk of the politicians and pundits—you will not hear much of that populist anger. Intermittently, and for the TV cameras, you might be able hear a Sen. Dodd or a Sen. Schumer raise their voices in indignation over the predations and the self-dealing of the moneychangers. But then you remember that this is the same Chris Dodd who accepted two “courtesy” mortgages from Countrywide’s Anthony Mozillo, and that this is the same Chuck Schumer who backed Wall Street deregulation as he was collecting fat checks from the Street to fill the coffers of his Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
As for the new president and his team, it has already been made clear that the moneymen have nothing to fear from an Obama Administration. In the early sparring, Summers and Geithner successfully beat down the shocking idea that we might stop asking bankers to start lending and stop hiding bad assets—that we might use the public’s equity stake to force banks to serve the public interest. Thanks to the continuing sway of Rubinomics, the Obama-Geithner approach to the banking sector has been all but indistinguishable from its Bush-Paulson predecessor. Want bold action to address the foreclosure and bankruptcy plagues at the grassroots level? Last week all Tim Geithner could say to an anxious Main Street was stay tuned, we’ll get to you later.
The reality is that what Kevin Phillips and others call the financialization of the US economy over two decades amounts to much more than an economic phenomenon. Our politics have also become thoroughly financialized—colonized by the ideas and values of the monied elite. Thus, theft or major malfeasance on the part of members of that same elite turn into mere “mistakes” or “excesses.” I needn’t multiply examples of how this works. Call it the soft bigotry of lowered expectations for our social superiors. Poor Tom Daschle: screwed by his small-town accountant, etc.
This inclination to be deferential toward a corrupted system and toward its beneficiaries extends as well to consensus-minded religious leaders who wade into the public policy arena. It is so easy to call for behavioral changes, including sanctions for the noncompliant, when those in need of redemption are poor and powerless; much harder to demand behavioral changes when those whose ways need the most serious mending are the wealthy and powerful. So while it is perpetually depressing to see the Democrats drinking the Kool-Aid of No Enemies Among The Privileged, it actually turns the stomach a bit to see faith leaders who claim to care about the poor slurping up the same reality-free brew and proclaiming, essentially, that there are really No Enemies On The Religious Right and, by extension, No Enemies On The Political Right.
Memo to religious middlers: God actually does take sides
In recent years Jim Wallis has made himself the leading exemplar of what we might call the No Enemies On The Right viewpoint among religious celebrities.
Wallis achieved his considerable celebrity by insisting that God is neither a Democrat nor or a Republican, which is a true but rather trifling thing to say and which obscures the fact that God stands so strongly on the side of the poor that those who oppress God’s poor people make themselves into God’s enemies. The God of the Hebrew prophets and the God of Jesus Christ is very much a partisan of the poor.
I have no doubt that both Wallis is genuinely disturbed by the blighted dreams and acute daily sufferings experienced by the millions of Americans living in poverty’s shadow. He once led a sit-in at the Capitol over brutal cuts in funding for poor people. Sincerity is not at issue here.
But it seems to me that faith leaders who claim to be informed by the prophetic tradition must maintain some critical distance from an unholy consensus politics that lets massive injustice and oppression flourish in plain sight while barely pretending to address the plight of the poor at the margins. Not to stand apart risks turning today’s faith leaders into chaplains to unjust power of the kind bitterly denounced by Jeremiah: “from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely: they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
Wallis likes to tell people that he knows everyone who is anyone among the great and the good in Washington, regardless of political persuasion. He has become a consummate inside player. He hasn’t a negative thing to say about anyone, except perhaps when it comes to “shrill” leftists who question why, especially at this moment, we should still be so eager to accommodate hardcore Christian conservatives.
To be clear, I am not for demonizing individuals unnecessarily or for discerning and denouncing enemies where none exist. But poor people DO have enemies, and among their worst enemies are conservative religious figures who cannot wean themselves from Reaganite free-market ideology, who cannot distinguish change from charity, and who still think that making poor women bear children for calamity (cf. Isaiah 65:23) somehow conduces to God’s greater glory. To kowtow to these enemies of the poor merely grants them yet more undeserved power and legitimacy.
I am very glad that Jim Wallis and others like him want to put fighting poverty front and center in the consciousness of the faithful. But fighting poverty in any serious way is a partisan enterprise that means fighting oppressive structures and entrenched interests. It means breaking with blurry consensus politics as usual. It most certainly means having enemies on the Right and even enemies in a Middle that would be clearly recognized as the Right in any non-U.S. context.
Here, for example, is a faith-inspired policy platform that would leave the religious right seething but would rally tens of thousands of religious progressives: in the name of all that is holy, we demand universal health care, a tenfold expansion of Section 8 housing, a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, full workplace rights, full funding of women’s health care services, radically progressive tax reform, greatly expanded higher education access for poor kids, major structural reforms in our racist criminal justice program (not just re-entry assistance), a severe crackdown on predatory lending, and major child care and transportation subsidies for working mothers of young children.
Wallis often cites the late William Sloane Coffin as a major inspiration and influence in his own life. No one could say more in fewer words than Bill Coffin, so I think Bill should have the last word here. It’s a word that cannot be repeated often enough to those who enjoy frequenting the corridors of consensus that mark today’s Washington DC: “If you lessen your anger at the structures of power, you lower your love for the victims of power.”
Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles.
Reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches.
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