The Moral and Spiritual Blessings of Trade Among All Nations 

St John Chrysostom (c.349—407) Archbishop of C...

St John Chrysostom (c.349—407) Archbishop of Constantinople (398—404) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Sarah Skwire, Literary Editor of and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., writes:

Free trade doesn’t just make us better off.

It makes us better people.

Donald Trump claims that raising barriers to trade is one of the things it will take to “Make America Great Again,” but he is wrong. Greatness—both of wealth and of moral character—comes from trade. And we have known this for a very long time.

She goes on to quote St John Chrysostom’s argument “that God had arranged the geography of the world in such a way that humans would be required to trade with one another to meet their needs.”

Read the rest: here.

No Free Lunch, No Free Argument

The opportunity cost of enchanting one’s fellow economists is alienating noneconomists.  There is no such thing as a free argument.

Deirdre N. McCloskey (1985/1998), The Rhetoric of Economics, p. 83.

Constitutional Liberties Under Assault

More thoughts on Pussy Riot at UW-Madison…

Like many Orthodox Christians (I won’t speak for those outside the Orthodox Church) I think the Russian government and the Church of Russian over reacted to Pussy Riot. I think that the ROC is too closely identified with Putin.

At the same, Pussy Riot wasn’t simply pointing out that Church and State are too close in Russia. They desecrated Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. The original Cathedral was destroyed by the Communist. Pussy Riot “performance” was in the new Cathedral. Pussy Riot’s protest in the Cathedral was, is, offensive to many Orthodox Christians in Russia and around the world. They choose a place that is sacred to the Orthodox Church not only because it is a cathedral but because it is a memorial to millions of martyrs. And frankly, I find it impossible to believe that UW’s Center for Russia, East Europe, & Central Asia (who are co-sponsoring the event) doesn’t know this. More likely they just don’t care.

What concerns me more as both a Christian and an American citizen is that now twice within one week UW has shown a marked hostility to fundamental human rights. UW has signaled its willingness to limit free speech by regulation and to support those who made a thuggish assault on the freedom of religion.

Pussy Riot didn’t civilly engage the Church on her position on homosexuality. They desecrated a church. And now UW is giving them a forum as if they were something other than common criminals.

Since I was an undergraduate, I’ve gone to church with Christians who suffered for the Gospel under fascism and communism. What I’ve learned from them is the resilience of faith. And from their example, I know that the  idea that UW represents any credible, long-term threat to me or the Orthodox Church is laughable.

And yes, I understand why people are upset about someone wearing an Obama mask was seen with a noose around his neck (here). Likewise, I understand why people at UW are swooning over Pussy Riot.

However, it is worrisome to me, as a citizen, that there is seemingly no willingness to even entertain the idea that the noose was not a racist act but a legitimate form of political protest. Likewise, Pussy Riot is invited to campus with seemingly no awareness that their protests were an assault (however feckless) on the conscience of the Orthodox Church and on religious liberty more generally.

Come UW, you’re better than this! At least I hope you are.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Pussy Riot At UW-Madison

University of Wisconsin–Madison

University of Wisconsin–Madison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There has been much discussion of late about hate speech on the UW-Madison campus and in the current presidential debate. In light of this, I wrote the following email to the Chancellor expressing my concern that the University has invited Pussy Riot to speak on campus.

This is why even though I have never been paid, I have been involved with campus ministry for the last 25 years. The Church’s intermittent presence, or worse absence, from college campuses is (in my view) a major reason we lose so many young adults.
We have to start funding campus ministry.

In Christ,
Fr Gregory

Dear Chancellor Blank,

I’m writing to bring to your attention that “Pussy Riot” will be speaking at the University Thursday evening, November 17 (here).

As an Orthodox priest and as the chaplain for Orthodox students at UW, I find this to be deeply offensive. Pussy Riot is an anti-Orthodox hate group who desecrated an Orthodox Church. I find it inconceivable that the University would invite a racist group to speak. Why then is an anti-Christian group provided a forum?

I appreciate that neither you nor your office had any involvement in the invitation. And while I understand that Pussy Riot has a First Amendment right to speak, I want to protest in the strongest possible terms their presence on campus.

It is simply inappropriate for a hate group to be sponsored by the University. That this was done without consultation, or even notice, to the Orthodox Christian community on campus merely compounds the offense.

Fr Gregory Jensen

Orthodox Christian Fellowship

Taxes, Justice, Charity & A Fair Share

Moral posturing on economic matters is always risky. When it works it tends to do so because, as with most populist arguments, it appeals to some combination of greed, envy, and/or fear.

This doesn’t mean, I’d hasten to add, that economics and morality are divorced from each other. Like the rest of my life, economic decisions are subject to moral scrutiny and criticism. Like in other areas of my life, my economic decisions can be virtuous or sinful.

Contrary to what we hear from some libertarians or anarchists, taxation isn’t theft. I have not only a legal obligation to pay taxes to support the common good, I have a moral obligation as well.

That said, paying taxes doesn’t have the same moral weight as the obligation I have to care for my family. To my family, I owe a debt of love. To the tax collector, on the other hand, I owe a debt of justice.

Contrary to what Senator Warren would have us believe (see video), Donald Trump’sfair share” in taxes is same as it is for everyone else: it’s what the law says it is and not a penny more. Moreover, if the tax laws of my nation allow me to reduce my tax burden either through deductions (e.g., the mortgage interest deduction) or by sheltering a portion of my income (say in a tax-deferred retirement savings account), it is just—fair to use Warren’s word—for me to do so. The only way it is unfair for someone to minimize his or her tax burden according to what the law allows is if the law itself is unfair.

This maybe the situation in Trump’s case but this isn’t the argument that is being made. Again, as long as things are done within the limits of the law—and those laws are themselves just—it is fair to pay as little tax as one possible can.

While it is in my economic best interest to pay as little tax as the law allows, this doesn’t mean my actions are unfair. Why? Because minimizing my tax bill is more than mere naked self-interest.

I owe a morally weightier debt of love to my family (and to myself), it is not only fair for me to reduce my tax burden, I’m obligated to do so. And again, as long as I stay within the law.

Failure to take advantage the means that the law allows for reducing my tax burden is both unjust (because I give the government more than is due) and uncharitable. Overpayment of taxes is something like spending money on alcohol rather than on food for my children; both are sins against charity.

I’ve not seen the Senator’s tax return but I imagine that, like Trump, she takes all the deductions allowed by law. If she takes those deductions than, by her own logic, Senator Warren isn’t paying her “fair share” either.

Like I said, economics matters are—and should be—subject to moral analysis. Failure to do so is harmful both to the individual and the common good.

But equally harmful, is the all too common tendency (on both the Left AND the Right) to substitute moral posturing for serious reflection.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Consumerism: A Morally Mixed Bag

It is simplistic, then, to view consumer culture as passive and de-skilling. A good deal of the rise in consumption involved buying for the sake of making and personalizing the home. DIY, handicrafts and gardening attracted a sizable chunk of consumer spending, with their own magazines, stores and fairs. Consumerism encouraged new skills as often as it killed old ones.

Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (Kindle Locations 5320-5322). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The Virtue of Chastity

What is most needed both in the Church and in the culture, is an appreciation of the virtue of chastity. The Catholic priest-psychologist Adrian van Kaam writes that chastity is “love purified” of all that is self-aggrandizing “and disrespectful of concerns of others.”[1] Chastity is that virtue that refuses to exploit for one’s own advantage the weakness of others. What we need to foster then is a respectful and appreciative acceptance of human limitations, both those of our neighbors’ and our own.

In the text below, I explain more fully what I mean by chastity. It is from my monograph for the Acton Institute, The Cure for Consumerism (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2015), 130-131.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

[1] Adrian van Kaam, Formation of the Human Heart (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1986), 47.divider-37709_960_720Although often overlooked today, St. Paul encourages all Christians to remain unmarried. Like St. John Climacus’ discussion of poverty, the apostle counsels celibacy in the service of both practical and spiritual freedom: “But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord— how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world— how he may please his wife” (1 Cor. 7: 32– 33). Nevertheless, just as not all Christians are called to material poverty, not all Christians are called to celibacy. “[E]ach one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.… [A]s God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk” (7: 7, 17). Akin to poverty, the key to chastity is not whether the person is married or not. Rather, within the tradition of the Church the virtue “of chastity … is the basis of the inner unity of the human personality, which should always be in the state of harmony between its mental and bodily powers” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, 10.6). Sin, such as fornication and adultery, “inevitably ruins the harmony and integrity of one’s life, damaging heavily one’s spiritual health.” Likewise, the absence of chastity “dulls the spiritual vision and hardens the heart, making it incapable of true love.” While the synod fathers are speaking here of sexual morality, it is not much of a leap to see that the same vices that make the “happiness of full-blooded family life … unattainable” also foster consumerism and disrupt the virtuous functioning of the economic order. “Sins against chastity,” they write,

also lead to negative social consequences. In the situation of a spiritual crisis of the human society, the mass media and the products of the so-called mass culture sometimes become instruments of moral corruption by praising sexual laxity, all kinds of sexual perversion and other sinful passions. Pornography, which is the exploitation of the sexual drive for commercial, political or ideological purposes, contributes to the suppression of the spiritual and moral principles, thus reducing man to an animal motivated by instinct alone. (Basis, 10.6)

Avarice and sexual immorality both result in unwholesome forms of consumption that hinder rather than foster human flourishing and Christlike holiness. With only minor changes, the synod fathers’ condemnation of “pornography and fornication” are equally applicable to avarice. Just as “the Church does not at all call to abhor the body or sexual intimacy as such,” it does not condemn wealth or property. Instead, in the sexual and economic aspects of our lives, what is rejected is “the tendency to turn chaste and appropriate relations”— and economic activity—“as God has designed them” into occasions “of humiliating exploitation,” characterized by “egoistic, impersonal, loveless and perverted pleasure” that is “completely divorced from personal and spiritual communion, selflessness and all-round responsibility” for my neighbor (Basis, 10.6).

A Russian businessman discovers the law of love

Here’s my latest essay for the Acton Institute, a review of Fr Alexander Torik’s novel Flavian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory(Acton Commentary) When I first read the description of Fr. Alexander Torik’s novel Flavian, I was skeptical. Recently translated from Russian, it is the story of “an unexpected turning point in the life of Aleksei, a quite ordinary city dweller. A chance meeting with a former classmate turned much in the life of this physics-major-turned-successful-manager upside down, setting Aleksei on a new path with many amazing discoveries along the way.” I couldn’t help wondering if this was going to be simply a diatribe against business, the free market and the West.

But read it I did. And what I discovered wasn’t an angry preacher heaping scorn on the unrepentant but a loving pastor offering spiritual guidance to his flock.

spiritual rebirth article image

Though he traces the conversion and spiritual rebirth of a Moscow businessman, the author doesn’t condemn business. Yes, through the voice of Aleksei’s college classmate, the priest-monk Flavian who serves as the “rector of a village parish,” Torik is sharply — and rightly — critical of the materialism and secularism that infects Russian society including business.

We see this criticism in any number of places but probably no more clearly than when Aleksei makes his first confession. What are Aleksei’s sins? Idle talking and foul language, lies and broken oaths, judging and slander, gluttony, laziness and idleness, theft, love of money and stinginess, usury, bribery and accepting bribes, envy, pride, anger, remembrance of wrongs and last of all murder.

That’s a lot of sin for one man. Indeed Aleksei, the typical Russian businessman, is guilty of all these and, by implication, so too is Russian society, held as it is under the sway of secularism. As Aleksei says of himself, “To survive in modern Moscow life you have to do more than just love your pride – you have to cultivate it, feed it, build it up! You have to be ‘cool’, and make sure everyone sees and knows that you’re worthy of your ‘place in the sun’, so no-one will dare take it. And like an idiot that’s exactly what I tried to do – to become more and more cool, just like horny Satan commanded! Oh, Lord, forgive me! Show me how to live without all this! Help me to correct my soul, to become the kind of person You want me to be!”

Unlike the modern Christian critics of the free market, Torik avoids falling into an economic Manicheanism. There no hint that wealth is evil and poverty good. Instead, as Fr. Flavian tells his friend (and us), “All our life’s a miracle, Alyosha. Open your eyes and see how many things you’ll see!” For Fr. Flavian the wealthy aren’t so much wicked as foolish. They deserve not our scorn but compassion. “Of course you feel sorry for a human soul headed into the fire,” Flavian tells Alekesi, “but, as they say, ‘free will to the willful, heaven to the saved!’”

The novel is Augustinian in its anthropology; the problem of all sin — including economic sins — isn’t that I don’t love but that I love unwisely. This means that conversion for the businessman, like conversion for all, is not a matter of despising this life but learning to love the life to come. Aleksei, like modern Russian society, has forgotten how to live because he has lost the ability to be grateful to God for the blessings he has received. Or as Fr. Flavian tells him at their first meeting, “live, by all means, live and rejoice! Just don’t cripple yourself or anyone else. That’s essentially what the Church teaches.”

While the free market, private property and the creation of wealth are all compatible with the Christian moral tradition, there are Christians — Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant — who refuse to acknowledge this. There are Christians who argue that private property is immoral because they believe that ownership consigns a corner of God’s creation to the darkness of greed. What is often overlooked is that saying the free market is compatible with the Gospel doesn’t mean that there are no moral limits on our economic activity. While “all the earthly blessings” are from God, we need to keep in mind that material wealth as such “cannot make man happy.” True happiness only comes when we use our wealth “in accordance with the will of God … and with the law of love; for the joy and fullness of life lie not in acquirement and possession but in giving and sacrifice” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Orthodox Church, VIII.2).

St. Maximus the Confessor teaches that avarice is encountered “when a man receives with joy but gives away with sorrow.” In a monastery such a person can’t be entrusted with material well-being of the community. In the secular realm, such a one hasn’t a moral character fit for business. The importance of acquiring such a character, and how to do so, is Torik’s central concern in Flavian.

This is not a great Russian novel in the tradition of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The dialogue feels stilted, the plot forced. It is, however, a morally good novel. The novel’s underlying point about our life in Christ is sound. Repentance isn’t just about laying aside sin but also about acquiring the vision of God, about learning to see life as God sees it. It is this point that makes the novel important for those interested in Christian social thought and what it means to be both a disciple of Christ and a businessperson.

The Pelagian Criticism of Wealth

The June issue of First Things has an essay on global capitalism by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart (“Mammon Ascendant: Why global capitalism is inimical to Christianity“). Samuel Gregg, the director of research at the Acton Institute, has a response to Hart’s essay (“Global Capitalism versus Christianity? A Response to David Bentley Hart“). Gregg is sharply critical with what he says is Hart’s “argument that possessing wealth is intrinsically evil and therefore incompatible with Christian faith.”  Gregg is correct when he concludes that “most of Hart’s arguments about the compatibility of late modern capitalism with Christianity are handicapped by a regrettably common problem among many Christian intellectuals and clergy: a failure to engage in serious study of all of the habits, values, institutions, history, antecedents of, and alternatives to contemporary capitalism.”

Hart’s assertion that “the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil” is simply wrong. While the acquisition of wealth and its use can be morally problematic, it is a gross overstatement to assert the Scriptures treat wealth as such as morally evil. Gregg identifies several reasons why Hart and others fail to understand the free market and the creation of wealth. Let me offer here an additional thought.

Whatever might be the contemporary roots of Hart’s moral reasoning on economics, his argument that wealth is evil is more in keeping with the thought of the early Christian heretic Pelagius than with, such as, Ambrose, Augustine, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom. These fathers were all critical of wealth and the wealthy but avoided the extremes found in Pelagius.

While making this argument in any detail is more than I can do here, let me make a start by offering some observations from Peter Brown 2014 work, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. I have removed the footnotes.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A typical mentor writing for well-to-do disciples [Pelagius] stressed un-wealth, not poverty. A teacher should be above money. His students, like the “saints” addressed in the Epistles of Saint Paul, should avoid snobbery and undue concern with petty social distinctions. It was the morality of an aristocratic philosophical counterculture… (p. 308)

…there was one theme on which Pelagius’s thought had taken on a sharper profile than was usual. That was his notion of habit. Committed to a view of the absolute freedom of the will, Pelagius explained the human sense of difficulty in fulfilling the commands of God by stressing the cumulative resistance to the good created by human custom. No inert or malign force of nature cramped the will. But nevertheless, when confronted by God’s challenge to do good, Christians, despite their possession of free will, found themselves cramped by their own past—by the slow piling up of bad habits in the self, derived from previous free acts of the will. (p. 308)

But not only was the individual held in the grip of his or her own past. Society itself was also responsible for the bad habits that opposed the will. Society as a whole was held in the grip of evil customs. … Nonetheless, … Custom was not insuperable. What the free will created, the free will could undo. Habit remained external to the will. It was like rust that had come to form around the moving parts of a machine. … This view of custom had radical implications. Society might seem immobile, but its immobility was only apparent. It was the result of the free actions of former days. The effects of these actions could be reversed; wealth did not have to be seen as an irremovable feature of society. Rather it could be treated as nothing more than another bad habit inherited from the past. Like any other bad habit, human beings could shake it off by an act of renunciation. (p. 309)

Wealth was a bad habit. It was the result of innumerable free acts of avarice and violence. A free act of renunciation would reverse that sinister process. Wealth would drop off the rich like a great cake of rust.…Wealth was for one thing only—to be renounced. (p. 309)

For [Pelagius] … wealth had no existence outside the will. There was no such thing as simply “being” rich in an unproblematic manner. Wealth was the product of avarice which was the wish to be rich. … And this was not simply a will to have more than one should have. It was a dire and tenacious will to have, tout court. (p. 311)

If the will to have was evil in itself, then traditional restraints on wealth (Christian and non-Christian) were ineffective. … Personal failings—sensuality, pride, and the lust for power—drove them [i.e., the rich] to increase their wealth. Discourse on wealth was, in effect, not a discourse about society. It was a moral discourse [by Pelagius] about the impact on society of the personal vices to which the rich were most exposed—such as love of luxury, cruelty, and ambition. (p. 311)

Because it was a product of the human will, wealth had a history. And it was a grim one. Wealth in the present was based in an apparently endless regress of free acts of greed and power that reached back for thousands of years. The lush “flowers of wealth” pushed their roots deep into “a bed of crime” (Pelagius, De divitiis, 3). [p. 312]

[Pelagius] believed that as long as human beings had free wills, they had been capable of avarice and hence the accumulation of wealth. This was a remarkably demystified view. It had direct imaginative repercussions. It robbed the rich of an idealized past in which wealth had been innocent. There were no good rich men in the deep past to whom rich Christians could look as models that excused their own possession of wealth. For most rich Christians, the Patriarch Abraham had been the prime example of the good rich man: he combined holiness with great wealth. The present-day rich assumed that if they used their wealth in the right way, they could be the Abrahams of their own times—generous, hospitable, and protectors of the weak. And, if they imitated Abraham in this respect, they could retain their wealth with an easy conscience. [Pelagius] denied this belief categorically.” (p. 313)

Put bluntly, God’s providence played no part whatsoever in the existence of great wealth. Still less had God given great wealth to some so that they could offer it back to him as votive wealth. … Who, then, were the rich? In the first place, the author of the De divitiis asserted that no one could claim to be an originarius dives—rich from birth and, for that reason, innocent of avarice. … On the contrary, … every inheritance had its own, dark history: “I was talking not so much of the possession of riches as of their source, since I think that they can hardly be acquired without some injustice” (Pelagius, De divitiis, 7.3). [p. 314]

…wealth and poverty were causally interconnected. (p. 315)

Most Christian writers and preachers of late antiquity (even Ambrose) had been content to treat the rich as fools. They had misused in foolish ways the good wealth bestowed on them by God. The author of the De divitiis went one step further; for him, the rich were criminals. They were creatures of free will, and they had made society what it was by their free actions. This was a society starkly divided between rich and poor. The one had caused the other. The extent of the wealth of the rich spelled out with implacable precision the extent to which they had dispossessed the poor. (p. 316)

Consumption, Communion, and Consumerism

Consumption is about communion; consumerism fails to honor that communion or, worse, rejects the fellowship that is at the basis of human economic life. Or as Stephen Grabill in Episode 3 of “For the Life of the World“:

This is the oikonomia of economics…All our work, every product, is a result of a great and mysterious collaboration. Every product that you see here is the result of an enormous, organic collaboration of individuals…It’s a picture of abundance and harmony, and if you try to control the process, it’s like we’re trying to control how people offer their gifts to other people. And what we really need to do is to allow people to offer their gifts to one another in free and open exchange, so that others can flourish.

Take a look…

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