Whirled Vision

My brief post on the reversal of the turnaround at World Vision generated some questions and comments, so let me chase them here.

Start with the central thing — and that would concern our duty of not being the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. If the subject is sin and repentance, it should go without saying that we should never sneer at a broken and a contrite heart. How many times do we forgive someone? Jesus dealt with this famously when He said the right number was 70 times 7. And that does not mean that once the sinner gets past 490, then pow, right in the kisser. Our forgiveness for others should imitate God’s forgiveness of us, and it is obviously impossible to outshine Him.

Jesus taught that someone could sin against us seven times in a day, and that upon a profession of repentance we should forgive him each time. Now, along about the fourth or fifth incident, I might begin to suspect that my friend is not dealing with the root issues — but I am still to forgive (Luke 17:4).

So, how does this relate, if at all, to World Vision? Our problem is that we have confused two categories that must never be confused. In the church, we must learn to maintain an understanding of a fundamental difference between qualifications for fellowship (on profession of repentance) and qualifications for leadership (as found, for example, in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1). The former is not based on the record at all — the publican in the Temple professed himself wretched, and went home justified. But the latter is very much based on proven character over time.

Parable of the Ten Investment Portfolios

Given the emphasis that the president placed on “income inequality” in his 2014 SOTU speech, I thought it necessary for us to review a few things from the Bible. We have wandered so far off from the teaching of Jesus that some of this pandering seems compelling and/or compassionate to us. It is actually evil.

Allow me to say a few things in this second paragraph that will seem outrageous to some, while doing so in the hope that you will then allow me to explain myself. I have argued repeatedly that free grace creates free men, and that free men are the only ones who can create free markets. Free markets are God’s design for us. If you don’t love the idea of free markets, you don’t love Jesus rightly. Christian discipleship requires an understanding of, and deep love for, economic liberty.

So why invoke Jesus by name? Why bring Him into it? First, He is the Lord of all things, including what we do with our money. So there’s that. Second, in his fine book Friends of Unrighteous Mammon,  Stewart Davenport shows that in 19th century America,  two contrary camps developed among professing Christians (and they have been with us since). He called them the “clerical economists” and the “contrarians.” The clerical economists followed the insights of Adam Smith, but did so within a decidedly Christian framework. But as they did this, their language did not emphasize Jesus so much. They were more about “the spirit of Christianity” and a “that wise and good Providence.” Their work was “curiously lacking in overt references to Christ,” even though they were orthodox Christians. Their opponents, the contrarians, went the opposite direction. Their teaching was all about Jesus, and individual discipleship, and the hard sayings of Jesus . . . and that engine was hooked up to socialist assumptions. In short, those Christians with sound economic understanding allowed themselves to be rhetorically outmaneuvered, and allowed the left to have the rhetorical high ground. But coercive taxation is not the way of Jesus, and blessing your neighbor with an actual job is. And so, no, let’s not leave Jesus out of it.

And so, speaking of the difficult words of Jesus, let’s take a look at the parable of the ten investment portfolios.

You Ain’t Gonna Make It With Anyone Anyhow

In this short piece, Michael Bird comes to the defense of N.T. Wright, nationalized health care, and all that is civilized. A good response to that can be found here, but one more thing needs to be said.

What the soft Christian left does not appear to understand is that whenever the offering plate is passed, and the collection officer is wielding a firearm and has big, block letters on his jacket, and looks at you meaningfully, the results, however remunerative, are not what you seem to be claiming. The large offering would not be an instance of Christian love, compassion, tenderness, thoughtfulness for the poor, or any of that glow-in-your-heart talk.

Statist redistribution depends upon coercion and violence, pure and simple. It is not love, it is not compassion, and it cannot be supported by appeals to all the Christian happy words. Put the guns away, and then let’s talk about Christian concern for the poor.

A Prescription for Grief

In my reading this morning, I noticed a striking contrast between the beginning of the tenth chapter of Isaiah and the first few verses of the eleventh.

“Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!” (Is. 10:1-2).

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots . . . But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth” (Is. 11:1,4).

The contrast is between those who prescribe grievousness, robbing the poor, and the one who will judge the poor in righteousness.

Of course, the first thing I thought of was the endless stream of regulations and laws pouring out of Washington, all done in the name of prescribing solutions for the disadvantaged among us. But each written regulation is nothing but a prescription of grief.

A Five Gallon Bucket of Lamesauce

In my previous post, I said that the great idol of modernity is the state. One perceptive reader on Facebook suggested that rather we should think of the great idol as being that of the individual self — freedom and liberty for me, me, me.

I don’t know how to link to a Facebook thread, but try this as a sample of my guessing.

Now this observation is quite true in one narrow sense, and if we have our wits about us, it should immediately show us the limits (and treacherous nature) of secularism.
The secular state dispenses freedoms (it would be better to call them privileges) like they were party favors. They function as bribes. They serve as . . . bread . . . or circuses. As Chesterton points out somewhere, sexual license is the first and most obvious bribe to be offered to a slave. For many in our era, that was the bribe that ushered them into their bondage to the state.

This is why secular conservatism, and secular libertarianism are both impotent against the collectivist idol of the state. The state, by insisting on the secularism, is making sure that there never arises a school of thought that maintains the state is a creature, accountable to God like all other creatures. For if that idea takes root, it becomes possible for the state to hear a rebuke from outside the system, which it absolutely does not want to hear. These people want every possible rebuker to receive a security clearance first. But that is not the kind of ambassador YHWH sends.

Now if certain Christians start to think that the secular project is actually a five gallon bucket of lamesauce, what then? Well, any purveyor of such crazy talk will be immediately dismissed by the secularists as a neo-Confederate ayatollah weird beard, and the Christians who have made their peace with this present world will join in the denunciations, so that they might get back to their missional outreach work with that rising Demas demographic.

Honoring His Stuff

A friend pointed me to an important truth about property and giving that is found in Deuteronomy 26.

“And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the Lord thy God, and worship before the Lord thy God: And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you” (Dt. 26:10-11).

Note that the worshiper is told that he must include the Levite and the stranger in his worship of God — he must share as he worships with his tithe — but that the foundation of this sharing is the fact of property ownership. He is called to share “every good thing” which the Lord his God “hath given” unto him. God gave every good thing to him, and to his house.

This is the answer to those who think that any assertion of robust property rights is to absolutize them. The only absolute property ownership is God — the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof — but it is precisely for this reason that we may have robust private property rights. The absolute owner gives.

Book of the Month/August

Knowledge and Power

I owe a lot to George Gilder, and with his release of Knowledge and Power, that debt has increased significantly.

Decades ago, I first read Sexual Suicide, a book that later became Men and Marriage, and which I have read again several times in that form. I was greatly influenced by Wealth and Poverty when it first came out, and have enjoyed other books as well, the most recent example being The Israel Test. This book is a worthy companion to the others in a long line of worthy companions.

There are three things I want to say about this book, and then I will leave you to get your own copy.

The first is that Gilder is a contrarian, but a sane one. He is what any sane person would look like in an insane world, provided that sane person had the guts to say what he thought out loud. The book provides kind of a grab bag of examples. He has a delightful chapter on the need for insider trading, for instance. By outlawing insider trading, we are requiring people to trade stupidly, blindly.

And Gilder is a futurist, but one who knows how to invoke the spirit of Shannon and Turing in a winsome way — a way that gives us a kind of postmillennialism for math geeks.

He is clearly a conservative, but the kind of conservative — as I envision it — who commands the respect of careful libertarians. He shows how there are some things that the market cannot produce, things like a market economy itself. The free market is not a product in the free market. The free market must have a foundation outside itself — but once you have it, you have what Gilder calls a low (information) entropy carrier of high (information) entropy entrepreneurship. To change the image, the rules of the game are simple and few, and the refs aren’t playing for any of the teams.

But the best example of this is his continuation of supply-side optimism. He quotes Henry Ford to the effect that if he had given the public what they wanted, he would have given them a faster horse. Twenty years ago, what was the market like for smart phones? Anticipating a point to be made later, the gift of innovation creates the ability to receive it.

Second, Gilder’s deep understanding of information theory as applied to economics makes good sense out of his relationship to the Intelligent Design movement, which is all about information. As I read through this book, a phrase that kept coming to mind was in the beginning was the Word. Information is prior to any exchange, and this is because information is prior to everything.

One of the central ways that capitalism gets a bad rap is that it is treated (helped in this by some of its founders and advocates) as an impersonal system that will nevertheless work out best for everyone in the long run. There is an “impersonal hand” out there that has the impersonal capacity to transmogrify individual instances of greed and self-serving, turning it all somehow (magically) to the public good. Against this, the left offers faux-compassion, and this impersonalism of ours is one of the reasons it works.

In this construct, capitalism is thought of as a system of incentives, when it is actually a system of information. When the state barges into our transactions, it is true (Gilder would acknowledge) that they completely mess up the incentives, getting the carrots and sticks all muddled. This is true, but by far the greatest damage they do is by blocking the free flow of information.

The third thing is related to the second. Gilder’s concluding chapter on “The Power of Giving” is just glorious. That chapter begins with “capitalism begins with giving” (p. 273), and continues in that wonderful vein. “Profit is thus an index of the altruism of an investment” (p. 274). “Capitalism begins not with exchange but with giving” (p. 278).

“Capitalism offers nothing but frustrations and rebuffs to those who, by virtue of their superior intelligence, birth, credentials, or ideals, believe themselves entitled to get without giving, to take without risking, to profit without understanding, and to be exalted without humbling themselves to meet the unruly demands of others in an always perilous and unpredictable life” (p. 277).

“Capitalism asserts that we must give long before we can know what we want and what the universe will return” (p. 283).

“Capitalism is based on the idea that we live in a world of unfathomable complexity, ignorance, and peril and that we cannot possibly prevail over our difficulties without constant efforts of initiative, sympathy, discovery, and love” (p. 283).

I didn’t cry when I finished this chapter, but it did make me wish that I was the kind of man who could.

For those who love liberty (may their tribe increase), Gilder shows us a way of loving liberty that is courageous, not fearful, giving, not hoarding, future-oriented, not hide-bound, and I will say it, although he didn’t, fundamentally Christian. In the beginning was the Word.

Managing Mammon

Jesus set up a fundamental antipathy between God and Mammon. One way or the other, He said (Matt. 6:24). In another place, He said quite plainly that whoever does not give away all His possession cannot be His disciple (Luke 14:33). Look at your possessions, Jesus says, and if you want to be a disciple, kiss them good-bye. Say farewell.

Now here we are, gathered as a congregation of disciples. That is what our baptism declares, and that is what we profess to be. Are we making this profession in the teeth of the Lord who called us? Is stewardship of possessions disobedience?

Not at all. As we seek to understand this, and to obey it, what we must not do is dilute in any way the force of the Lord’s requirement. He is the revelation of the Father to us, and so we must not add to His words, and we must not take away from them. Whatever Jesus meant, we must do—all of us.

Jesus uses the word Mammon four times. Once is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:24). Right before this, He had said that we must be laying up treasure in Heaven, not on earth. The treasure in Heaven cannot be robbed, and treasures down here can be. He then says that we cannot serve (douleuo) both God and Mammon. He then tells us His application, which we can see with His use of the word therefore. He says that we must not worry about our possessions, not that we may not have them. Indeed, Jesus assumes that we must have them, that we must use them. He says that our heavenly Father knows that we have need of all these things (v. 32). He then says that we are to seek first the kingdom, and these other things will be added. It is a matter of priorities, as tested and identified by the presence or absence of a slavish fear or worry.

The other place He uses the word Mammon is in the gospel of Luke (Luke 16:9-13), right after He told the parable of the unjust steward. He says that Christians ought to get a clue when it comes to finances, and learn how to make friends by using Mammon (v. 9). He goes on to say that we are summoned to be faithful in our use of Mammon (v. 11), treating it as a farm league wealth, where we are in training for the major leagues — where we will come to know how to handle real riches, permanent wealth.

So here are the two central indicators of a Mammon problem. First, are you a financial worrier? Jesus says no. And second, are you dedicated to the faithful use of Mammon as a temporary and battered scaffolding that we are using as we build the everlasting city, the one that is covered with eternal jewels?