Social Justice, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Holy Communion

A central challenge in fostering a more just society, as I suggested in a previous post, is the general lack of a cultural consensus on what justice actually is and so isn’t.  Forget for a moment the practical questions involved. How do we decide if the redistribution of income by way of the tax code, to name a point of popular contention, is just or unjust? What standard do we use? Returning to the practical dimension for a moment, in the absence of an agreed upon understanding of justice how do we decide how money is to be shifted or who receives what? Or putting aside this question how could we, as some have, say that such redistribution is morally justified as long as the benefit received by person “B” for every dollar outweighs the pain caused to person “A” for every dollar taken?  Not only how we answer these questions, but even the questions themselves assume a particular understanding of the nature of justice and so what it means to live as a member of a society.

This is why, to give him his due, the economist Fredrick Hayek objected on both grammatical and linguistic grounds to the term “social justice.” Absent at least well delineated and mutually agreed to anthropology, the term simply means nothing and so everything. Moreover though his criticism of the political implications of the term opens him to charges of cynicism, we need take  seriously his argument  that appeals to social justice on behalf of the poor don’t necessarily benefit the poor themselves as much they benefit those making the appeal in the name of the poor. Continue reading

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The Four Lies

Culture-Wars-Web-300x270David French, Senior Counsel at the American Center of Law and Justice, lists what he calls the “four quite seductive lies [that] play to our innate selfishness while convincing us that we’re also somehow brave and selfless.” He concludes by arguing that “The conservative project to reclaim culture – a far more important project than reclaiming the White House – has to relentlessly and creatively expose these lies while also demonstrating the attractiveness of true virtue. I fear we’re better at the former than the latter and thus succeed mainly in making people feel bad, not in inspiring them to do good.”

So what are these four lies? Take a look: Continue reading

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An interesting observation

Bildbeschreibung: Blick auf den Schriftzug übe...

Entance, Mall of America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Art Carden in a post entitled The Most Bourgeois Place on Earth? writes about a recent visit that he paid to the Mall of America near Minneapolis-St. Paul; (I correct the quotation to rid it of what appears to be a formatting error):

 

As an undergrad, I took an interesting introductory American Studies course. During one lecture, the Professor lamented the fact that elderly men now gather at shopping malls where elderly men of previous generations would gather in front of the courthouse. I think this is a sign of progress. As symbolic spaces go, courthouses are emblems of conflict. Malls are emblems of cooperation. That modern life’s dominant public space is a house of commerce rather than a house of conflict is something to be celebrated, not lamented.

 

h/t: Cafe Hayek.

When I spoke at Acton last week I mentioned in passing, and to the surprise of some, that I like WalMart. Having been been rather less well off economically than middle class–or even at times, working class–I think stores like WalMart are of great benefit to the vast majority of the poor and working class.

And like the author of the above quote, I rather prefer shopping malls to court houses for the reason he gives. Whatever their shortcomings, malls are symbols of cooperation. Often when I’m stuck for a sermon idea, I’ll dress in civvies and go to the mall.

Yes, malls can be havens of materialism and are often overrun by tweens, teens and the elderly and other with no place else to go. But to whom else are we to bring the Gospel but those without a place or direction in life? Aimless and board are just other ways of saying lost.

So while mindful of their faults, let us thank God for the contemporary agora.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

 

 

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Bonhoeffer, Asceticism, the Free Market and Philanthropy

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.

Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

I ended my Acton talk with a quote from Bonhoeffer. I did so because I think it is important ( both evangelically and culturally) for Orthodox Christians to make the argument, as I did at Acton, that asceticism is not unique to the Church but a discipline common to all Christians. The ascetical intuition of the Orthodox Church isn’t, in other words, foreign to other Christian traditions or at odds to how many Christians understand their own spiritual journey.

Culturally, it is important to emphasize that whether we are concerned with the benefits of the free market or the care for those in need, both require an ascetical effort. Without such an effort the free market doesn’t remain free and prosperous and we will be unable to care for the poor. The irony here is that this is so in BOTH cases because we will remain encapsulated in lives centered on the pursuit of self-aggrandizement and pleasure.

As I said in my talk, the “Third Way” of Christianity is not some accommodation between the economic policies of the political right and the social policies of the political left. Rather our Third Way, is the Way of the Cross, the way of personal ascetical struggle.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Orthodox Christians: A Creative Minority

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Dürres and All Albania, Emeritus Professor of the University of Athens and Honorary Member of the Academy of Athens, in a speech on the occasion of  his being awarded an Honorary Doctorate in the Department of History at the Ionian University  (Corfu, 20/3/2007, Multi-Faith Europe and Orthodoxy (Part IIΙ)) calls for Orthodox Christians to be a creative minority in an increasingly secular and divided culture. Here’s the quote:

At the beginning of the last century, Oswald Spengler [Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 2 vols. 1st ed. Munich 1918-22.] claimed that there was a natural evolution of great civilizations: birth, development, flowering, maturation, ageing and finally death. It was his view that Western civilization had reached this last stage. Many voices were raised against this view, among which the position of Arnold Toynbee [A Study of History, abridged ed., Oxford 1987.] is prominent. He pointed out the difference between material and technological progress on the one hand, and real progress on the other, which he calls “spiritualisation”. He sees the roots of the crisis in the Western world in its departure from the religious experience and the adoption of the worship of technology, the nation and the military establishment. And he equates the crisis with secularization. As a course of treatment, he recommends a reinforcement of the religious element. To the concept of biological decline, he opposes the volitional position, based on the robustness and vitality of creative minorities and outstanding personalities.

We are called upon to be just such a creative minority. But in order to match up to its historical role and to contribute to the spiritual path of Europe, the Orthodox Church must, first of all, be consistent to its sacramental and saving nature. It must remain what it is in essence: the ark of truth which the Triune God revealed; the manifestation of the dispensation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit; the locus where the transfiguration of the person is accomplished; the transcendence of their existential angst; and their union with the God of love.

It is this Orthodoxy which we ought to represent in Europe and throughout the world. Let us not concern ourselves that we do not belong to the majority. What is required is that we should become a creative core which will allow Europe to reveal and develop the best elements of its heritage and go forward to a new period of spiritual vigour.

I wonder if Orthodox Christians in America to take up his Eminence’s challenge. While an evangelical witness is, as he says, essential to vocation as a Church, it needs to be balanced by a certain detachment from results.

More generally, I believe that the proper Orthodox attitude in today’s multi-faith society is the outlook of witness and mission. “And you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1, 8). “Ends” in all senses. We testify to our faith wherever God opens a door: in non-Christian, indifferent or atheistic environments- in Europe, in Africa, in international or global organizations. Without any requirement that our positions be accepted, without the spirit of proselytism, without arrogance, without anxiety or phobias. With respect for the personal freedom of the other. God will take care of the rest. This internal disposition gives us the chance to communicate with ease, offering the Orthodox experience in all directions, including to those who have different religious or world views. Whatever they believe or don’t believe, they still have value as human persons, made in the image of God.

Putting aside for the moment the tendency to use religion as a means of social control and evangelical witness as an excuse to self-promotion, the ordinary demands of establishing and maintaining a witness, to say nothing of the sincere desire to introduce others to Christ, makes detachment from results a true and significant struggle. To borrow from T. S. Eliot, the challenge is “to care and not to care” and to allow God to “Teach us to sit still” (Ash Wednesday). Whatever positive can be said about the American character, the American ethos, detachment from demonstrable success and inner stillness are not central.

And yet without detachment, without a stilling of my own imagination, my own thoughts, plans desires and functional ambitions, lasting success will escape me again and again. Why? Because try as I might to make it otherwise, the world of persons, events and things always outstrip my understanding of it and even my best plans suffer in the face of life’s dynamic quality.

All however is not lost. Fidelity to Christ and to the Gospel is canon by which we measure success and failure. And so,

…the great contribution of the Christian faith was- and will remain so in perpetuity- the principle of love, with the breadth, depth and height which was given to its meaning. Within this is the special importance attributed to forgiveness. The possibility of forgiveness neutralizes conflicts and hostilities in their various forms and leads to real reconciliation between individuals and peoples. The inspiration offered by the Christian faith to millions of people to experience clemency and love is historically beyond question. Without love, European civilization loses its breath, its force and its beauty. And Orthodoxy must be an inexhaustible fount of love.

It is to love that we must look–to the willingness to serve the best interest of others.  But if love provides the context, it is success, the ability to actually serve others in their need, that provides the evidence that love is more than mere sentimentality. Is my neighbor better off because of my conversation or my assistance is a question I must ask myself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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The Cruelity of the Elite

Now and then I’ve written about different moral theories that seem to be taking hold culturally. One that I find especially worrying is the growing acceptance by Christians of antinomianism or the idea that the Gospel frees us from obedience to the moral law (you can read my thoughts about this here, here and here).

The theologian R.R. Reno makes the interesting observation that at least among the social elite in America a new moral model has taken hold: esotericism. He makes argument that matches with my own observations. Looking around me I see a moral system that encourages a kind of decadence that some can afford because they are wealthy and social privileged but which when imitated by those with less material wealth or social status leads to personal disaster.  This is simply cruel.

Here’s the part of Reno’s essay that summarizes the very real human and social problem of esoteric elite morality:

It’s this quality—the esotericism—that is as destructive today as political correctness and the dictatorship of relativism. I’m not a fan of the elite approach to sex and marriage, but it’s shown itself to be a functional system—for elites. The problem is that for everybody else it’s mysterious and inaccessible. And so we have no functional social norms for ordinary people. Traditional views are bludgeoned by the elite commitment to “inclusion.” But nothing clear takes it’s place. Elites are happy with their esoteric approach, which can’t function for society as a whole.

Why the esotericism? Why no commitment to a larger, functional social ethic of sex and marriage?

I don’t want to be too Marxist, but I think it has something to do with sustaining class domination. I can’t imagine a system more congenial to elite domination than one that demoralized most (the dictatorship of relativism) while allowing elites to flourishing according to esoteric norms that only insiders can apply (“healthy choices”).

You can read the whole of his essay here.

Why do the elites do this? Why do they not only engage in but actively encourage others to decadence? Continue reading

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It’s An Ill Wind That Blows No Good

Economist John Baden writes:

“Happy New Year” may seem an inappropriate cry as America balances on the edge of governments’ financial cliffs. We’ve been edging toward this danger for two generations. The reason is simple; politicians have strong incentives to provide current benefits and promise payments in some distant future. That future is ever closer.

The politics of this financial process are complex and uncertain but a few things are clear. First, governments have diminished financial flexibility as past promises come due. This means they lack sufficient funds to address new and current social and environmental problems.

This situation strongly implies that social entrepreneurs, individuals operating in the voluntary sector, will become increasingly important. America’s economic and social problems will surely grow while governments face ever-tighter constraints. Bankrupt cities and states near default have little discretion to implement new programs and difficulty funding existing ones.

People of strong conscience and good will increasingly look toward innovative solutions. We face tighter limits on governments, increased skepticism as to their efficacy, and greater knowledge of favoritism toward special interests. I predict we will see greater interest in and respect for social entrepreneurs.

He continues and says that

If we are fortunate over the next few years, and probably decades thereafter, the contributions of such creative individuals will be increasingly important. The primary reason is clear; governments will be ever more limited in their capacities to address problems. Here’s why.

America’s governments at every level are facing tighter financial constraints as bills, bonds, and promised benefits come due. Concurrently, accretions of dysfunctional regulations limit adaptive responses. Further, we see erosion of civic and cultural capital, especially among the former working class. Parasitic and opportunistic behavior follows.

Among socially responsible citizens conscience compels actions. However, the above problems strongly imply a shift toward the voluntary sector. The reasons, governments have diminished capacity and people have less confidence in them.

The conclusion Baden draws from this is interesting. He challenges his readers and asks that

As you consider your New Year’s resolutions please recognize the value of organizations created by social entrepreneurs. Then become a financial supporter or volunteer. You have many opportunities among a large number of organizations.

The successful social entrepreneur creates roads down which people deliver their good intentions.

(You can read the whole of Baden’s essay here.)

One of the (justified in my view) complaints of those who advocate a limited government is that as government has expanded it has (among other things) crowded out churches and other religious and fraternal communities who historically in America have worked to meet a wide range of human needs.

Any advocate of the free market will tell you, your competitors loss of market share is potentially good news for you. As government at all levels faces the loss of financial resources this frees up, as Baden points out, the philanthropic market place for religious and non religious social entrepreneurs. While the economic hardship and human needs are real Christians especially shouldn’t be blinded to the equal real opportunity we have to re-assert ourselves in education, philanthropy, health care and other areas where historically the Church has offered evidence for the truth of the Gospel.

The question now is whether we are will to take the opportunity offered us by divine grace and the economic situation. A willing and generous “Yes!” is especially important to hear from those Christians who (as I said above) have advocated for the smaller government that the economy will likely bring us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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