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Are conservative Christian theology and liberal politics compatible?
Sunday, 11 January 2009
The Bank Bailout and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

A few months ago, Congress agreed with the President to give a collection of large financial institutions that were in severe debt trouble an obscenely large quantity of cash, with almost no strings attached, to get them out of their financial trouble.  Our leaders publicly expressed hope that, after they provided for the big institutions' debts and so saved them from destruction, the recipient institutions would start to make credit available again and would also cut some slack for the ordinary debtors that owed them money, thereby averting any larger crisis.

However, to date, none of the things our leaders publicly wished for have happened as a result of their generosity to wealthy corporate institutions.  The institutions given the money have used part of it to pay their debts to other large entities (but defintely not to unimportant "little" people), have used part of it to pay huge bonuses and golden parachutes to their top executives, and have sat on the rest.  The big institutions that received the infusions of public money have proceeded with their plans to lay off large numbers of their employees.   Credit has become tighter since the bailout, leading to business closures and layoffs throughout the economy.  The infusion of cash into the banks does not seem to have helped the economy at all, just those at the top of the financial entities that received the infusion. 

And, perhaps worst of all, the very same financial entities that were bailed out are now systematically putting the screws to all of the "little" (a/k/a real) people who owe them money. Banks have started to raise interest rates, late fees and other miscellaneous fees on existing balances wherever they can.  Average interest rates for existing credit card balances are already heading for 25%, and some experts believe they will reach 30% or above in the next year or so.  (This used to be called "usury" or "loan sharking," but it's now "business as usual").  They have made it clear that collection will be strictly enforced.

All I can say about this is that it could have been predicted.  The President and Congress were acting on a pipe dream.  Our large financial entities were acting the way most large debtors act when they are forgiven--by interpreting the forgiveness as favor to do whatever they want and consequently oppressing those who owe them money.  Even Jesus recognized this tendency.

In Matthew 18:21-35, Matthew recounts a story Jesus told about two debtors who were both subjects of the same king.   The first debtor owed the king a huge debt, much more than he could ever repay in a thousand lifetimes.  The second debtor owed the king nothing, but owed the first debtor about three months' wages.  Both debtors defaulted on their debts.  When the king called in the first debtor to pay his huge debt, the first debtor pleaded for mercy, and the king graciously forgave his astronomical debt.  After the king forgave his huge debt, the first debtor went out, found the second debtor, took him by the throat and threatened him with debtor's prison if he did not pay immediately.  The second debtor pleaded with the first debtor for mercy--or even for just a little more time to make payment--but the first debtor would not listen.  He had the second debtor put in prison until his full debt was paid.  The point of the parable was the king's response to the situation when he heard what the first debtor had done--"You evil servant!  I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me.  Shouldn't you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?"  He then had the first servant cast into prison until he fulfilled his obligation to forgive the servant who owed him money.  The lesson is that we are to freely forgive others for their sins against us, not holding against them the debt of their sins, because God has forgiven us an immeasurably larger debt. We are to forgive others as God has forgiven us.

However, the important point for purposes of this discussion is that Jesus' story resonated with his listeners because they recognized that the first servant, the one who was forgiven the gigantic debt, behaved in exactly the same way most wealthy people forgiven a large debt would behave.  That is, he undestood the forgiveness as the king's permission to make a profit for himself however he could, even if this meant oppressing poorer people who owed him money. This is, and always has been, the way of the greedy when they are forgiven their debts.

Of course, there are some individual debtors who will choose to have mercy on their debtors when forgiven their own financial debts, just as there are some individual sinners who will follow Jesus' instructions to forgive their grudges against others when God forgives their own sins. 

But both of these statements only apply to individuals, not corporations.  Corporations, as artificial, soulless, non-human entities, are incapable of compassion and mercy.  They exist only to make the largest profits possible for their shareholders.  Yes, corporations are run by groups of real, human officers and directors.  But those officers and directors have a fiduciary duty to the artificial, soulless corporation that employs them to only make decisions that will maximize its profits.  If any officer or director of a financial corporation that recived the government's bailout largesse had actually attempted to do what the President and Congress publicly expressed hope the big banks would do--i.e., by making more credit available (to a "bad," risky market) and by having some mercy on the corporation's indiviadual human debtors--that corporate officer or director would either have been removed from office, subjected to a shareholder derivative suit to recover the losses of profits occasioned by his decision, or both. 

Thus humans who make the decisions for the financial corporations are not free to make the kinds of decisions Congress and the President hoped for.  They are free to do only exactly what they have done--pay their own debts, give themselves a cut of the action (to the extent permitted by their own employment contracts), put the screws to their debtors because of the increased risk in the market right now, and sit on the rest of the bailout money until the market improves.  Neither mercy nor risk-taking are on their agenda.  Our leaders would have known that if they had read the book of Matthew before proceeding with the bailout!    

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 10:38 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 11 January 2009 11:36 PM EST
Saturday, 10 January 2009
Just Say No as Socially Unacceptable as viewed by Augustine
Mood:  surprised

It's amazing how much St. Augustine's view of the Rome of his day applies to America today.

For the last few weeks, I have been carrying on a debate of my proposal regarding consumer debt relief on the Presidential Transition Team's general discussion bulletin board, in string that started here.  The debate has been lively, stretches over several pages and includes comments by a number of people.  I had consistently made the point that consumer debt is an important component of our country's financial crisis, and that finding a solution to the consumer debt component of the problem is absolutely essential.  I had also argued, and several others had agreed, that through education and other means, the country absolutely must be weaned off of its dependence on consumer debt.  Other commenters, however, took the position that the only cause of the problem was individual weakness and the problem would be completely solved if we would all learn to "just say no."

  Then, in response to these comments, Bradley MacLeod made the very perceptive observation that, because of the intense marketing of debt by banks and because of other social pressures, "It is getting to the point in our society that just saying no is socially unacceptable."

I agree with this observation.  But this is not the first time in history this pattern has been seen.  St. Augustine described Rome in the early part of the Fifth Century as follows:

"Do not imagine that it was by force of arms that our ancestors made a great nation out of a small community.  If that were true, we should today have a far more glorious nation.  In allies, in our own citizens, in armaments, in horses, we have greater resources than they enjoyed.  But it was energy in our own land, a rule of justice outside our borders; in forming policy, a mind that is free because not at the mercy of criminal passions.  Instead of these, we have self-indulgence and greed, public poverty and private opulence.  We praise riches: we pursue a course of sloth.  No distinction is made between good men and bad: the intrigues of ambition win the prizes due to merit.  No wonder, when each of you thinks only of his own private interest; when at home you are slaves to your appetites, and to money and influence in your public life.  The consequence is that an attack is being launched on a republic left without defenses."

St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, Book V, Ch. 13, quoting Sallust, who was commenting on a still earlier phase in Rome's history--but could easily (except for the reference to "horses") have been commenting on the history of the United States.

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 11:56 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 11 January 2009 12:18 AM EST
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
It is always right to pray that rulers will demonstrate justice
Topic: Positive prayers and posi

It is always right to pray that rulers will demonstrate justice.  Rulers are ordained by God to execute His justice--which involves both punishing evildoing and encouraging those who do right.  I Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7.  Therefore, it is always right to pray that God will give any person in authority a growing understanding of His justice and will move him or her to make just decisions. 

Justice is important to God. Indeed, as Augustine so eloquently explained, a human government without justice is nothing more than a gang of thieves on a large scale:

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?  What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.
If this villany wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.
For it was a witty and truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great.  The king asked the fellow, "What is your idea, in infesting the sea?"  And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, "The same as yours, in infesting the earth!  But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor."

St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (H. Bettenson, Tr.), Book IV, Ch. 4.

However, regardless of whether those in authority appear to be doing justice at the present time, I should continue to pray for them and should trust God, who remains in ultimate control, as  explained in my October posting regarding the tale of four kings and a priest.

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 8:00 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 30 December 2008 8:19 AM EST
Monday, 29 December 2008
My deleted posting from Change.gov regarding usury laws

On the webiste of the Office of the President Elect, Change.gov, is found an open public discussion board.  Last week I posted on that discussion board a posting summarizing my proposal that the economic recovery package should include debt relief for distressed consumer debtors, along with a link to a posting on this blog last September  setting forth more details.  Bradley MacLeod posted a response to my comment in which he questioned, among other things, the proposal to reinstitute some form of usury laws contained in my September posting on this blog.  I attempted to post the following response to Mr. MacLeod's comments on usury laws on the Change.gov discussion board, but my response on that topic was deleted by the administrator of that discussion board.  It should be noted that I do not criticize the Change.gov administrator for this decision, since the subject of usury laws was not mentioned directly in my post on that discussion board (though the subject was discussed in the blog posting referenced in it).  However, I still wish to respond to Mr. MacLeod's comments on usury.  The posting that was rejected by the Change.gov board's administrator is as follows:

Regarding your response to my proposal to re-institute some form of usury laws, please recognize that I'm approaching this as a historian, not as an economist.  I observe that both ancient and relatively modern codes of laws, until the last 50 years or so, have quite often regulated usury.  For instance, the Code of Hammurabi obviously contained some regulation of interest (as shown by the surviving fragment of paragraph 100 of the code), and also in its surviving parts regulated practices dealing with defaulting debtors (for instance, debt slavery was limited to four years).  The Law of Moses forbade usury outright, at least among the Jews themselves, and also limited the period of debt slavery of a Jew to seven years.  The Solonic Constitution of ancient Athens abolished all existing debts as of the date of its adoption and freed debt slaves, but at the same time created an honest timocracy.  Table III of the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables dealt with the subject of "Debt," and, although a large part of the original code does not survive, it also appears to have regulated credit practices--though later departures from it led to the disenfranchisement and enslavement of the plebs and the Social Wars.  European states, including England, from Roman times until fairly recent times, have regulated usury, when they had the power to do so.  And all of the states of the United States, from colonial times until about the last 50 years, have regulated usury.

This long history of regulation must be based on some observation of legitimate harm done by usurious practices.  I would submit that unregulated usury harms the economy, and the people, in just the way we are observing in the U.S. economy today.  Regulated interest rates encourage lenders to limit risk, and discourage them from promoting debt.  On the other hand, history has often demonstrated that unregulated interest encourages lenders, and those with large amounts of money to invest, to prefer much riskier loans, and to entice or even force the rest of us to borrow at high interest rates, secure in the knowledge that they will profit from those high interest rates until the bubble (inevitably) collapses and then will be able, in lieu of payment, to exercise much more control over their victims' lives. An economic downturn after a period of usury historically leads either to debt slavery (in one form or another) or slave revolt.  That is the evil usury laws have been used to combat. 

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 10:37 AM EST
Thursday, 25 December 2008
Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Please pardon us for greedily giving gifts to each other today, while ignoring you!

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 10:55 AM EST
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
A Fifth Century Description of Modern America
But the worshippers and lovers of those gods, whom they delighted to imitate in their criminal wickedness, are unconcerned about the utter corruption of their country.  "So long as it lasts," they say, "so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry?   What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place.  It is all right if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride; if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer them salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but in the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. 
"The laws should punish offences against another's property, not offences against a man's own personal character.  No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence,  against another's property, house or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent.  There should be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially those who cannot keep private mistresses.  It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink until they are sick; to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. 
"Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority:  he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living. 
"We shoud reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this kind of happiness and then preserve it for them.  Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so they can enjoy them with their devotees, or, at least, receive them from their worshippers.  All the gods have to do is to ensure that there is no threat to this happiness from enemies, or plagues, or any other disasters."

St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (Henry Bettenson, Tr.), Book II, Ch. 20, actually speaking of Imperial Rome, in words many of which could also be applied to the modern United States.

"And from that time," he says, "the degradation of traditional morality ceased to be a gradual decline and became a torrential downhill rush.  The young were so corrupted by luxury and greed that it was justly observed  that a generation had arisen which could neither keep its own property or allow others to keep theirs."

St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (Henry Bettenson, Tr.), Book II, Ch. 18, quoting Sallust, regarding the generation which arose in Rome about the time of its Civil Wars, but which could also be applied in its entirety to modern America.

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 8:33 PM EST
Report from the house meeting
Topic: Positive prayers and posi

The "Change is Coming" house meeting on December 13 went remarkably well.  Nine people signed up for it on the campaign website, and four of those actually attended.  The four who attended the meeting included two evangelical Christians, one agnostic, and one gay man.  We had some brief discussion of our differences, and then discovered that we all shared an interest in spirituality, a belief that the war in Iraq is unwinnable for reasons that are essentially spiritual, and a common interest in homelessness and the needs of the homeless.  Because of our common interest in the needs of the homeless, we agreed to arrange a time to go together to volunteer at the Topeka Rescue Mission.

The Rescue Mission volunteer activity, likely to be the first of many, occurred on December 20.  It also went very well.  The four of us played Santa to customers at the Mission's Chhristmas store gift distribution. 

All of this happened in Topeka, Kansas, which many apparently view as the hate capital of the United States, due to a certain vocal band of picketers that originates here. (And they falsely claim the name of Christ in doing so!)

Change isn't a mass movement.  As my evangelical brothers and sisters certainly should recognize, lasting change in every case starts with an individual change of heart--what theologians have traditionally called "repentance."  It does not start with the state decreeing that everyone shall henceforth be, or act like, Christians.  For Christians, starting from our common ground with unbelievers and working together with them to demonstrate our faith is a much better way of bringing about repentance than isolating ourselves from "them" until "they" change on their own and start acting like us (as much of the church has done for years),  pointing the finger of hate (like the protesters from Topeka do) or seeking secular laws that will make "them" act like "us" (as the Religious Right has tended to do for the last 30 years).  

With the call for house meetings followed by service together, Barack Obama is on to something.  I'm glad to be a part of it.    


Posted by ian_j_site2 at 11:46 AM EST
Friday, 19 December 2008
The problem with the Baby Jesus
The problem with the Baby Jesus is that he grew up!

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 10:49 PM EST
Saturday, 6 December 2008
"Change is Coming" meeting December 13
Topic: Positive prayers and posi

Now I've gone and done it.  Since there was, apparently, no one else interested in doing this in Topeka, I've announced a "Change is Coming" meeting at my house a week from today, December 13, at 3:30 p.m.

The President-elect appears to be serious about wanting to involve the people,not just party insiders and his major donor base, in his administration.  And his organization has asked for participation in this through grassroots meetings.  I think we should support him in this.

Since no one else has volunteered in Topeka, I have volunteered.  I earnestly hope others in Topeka will follow suit, since the number who will be able to participate at my house is quite limited (and the available parking is even more limited).

Some of my church friends will likely think I've gone over to the "dark side."  But the truth is that I'm not supporting the "dark side," I'm supporting the country and its elected leader, as I've explained in previous posts.

Generally, nationwide, I believe Christians should get behind the President-elect in his desire to involve us, take advantage of the mechanisms he is trying to create for our involvement, and make our voices heard graciously and in the manner invited.  And we should pray FOR the new President and others in office, as I have prevously described.

This positive approach will have far better results than complaining for the next four (or eight) years! 

To view the announcement of my meeting, click here.

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 8:24 AM EST
Sunday, 30 November 2008
Praying for our enemies: can the call to prayer be treason?
Topic: Positive prayers and posi

As I indicated in my last post, God calls us to pray for kings and all who are in authority--to find reasons to give thanks for them, and to pray FOR them as human beings, for God's gracious activity in their lives.  The call is to pray for those in authority rather than join others in cursing them.  This practice can, and should, be practiced when we hear negative things about leaders in the news, or hear others gossiping about leaders, harshly criticizing them, or cursing them.  Christians are called to bless; cursing of other people made in God's image should not come out of our mouths.  See, James 3:7-12.

However, I will now suggest something that many of my readers may think to border on treason:  the command to pray for those in authority isn't limited to those leaders who are directly in authority over us.  Indeed, it isn't even limited to the leaders of regimes friendly to "us"--whether the "us" in view is Christians or the United States.  Indeed, it extends  even to the leaders of "enemy" regimes.

Jesus said,

Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,

Matthew 5:44.

It has been correctly said that this verse applies to individual Christians, not governments.  It is not a rule for our government's foreign policy.  But it is a guiding principle for me, in dealing with other individual humans made in God's image.  And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-il are as much individual humans made in God's image as I am myself, or as any of the people in my circle of acquaintance.  Their official stations as leaders of enemy governments (in Iran and North Korea, respectively), and even the hostility of those governments and their persecution of Christians, do not transform these leaders from humans into subhuman monsters in God's eyes.  Remember that God brought to repentance King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the destroyer of His Temple and the killer of thousands of His people.  See the first four chapters of Daniel.  So, the command to pray for them, as human beings in authority, when I am reminded of them, is just as valid as the command to pray for the leaders of my own country.  I am to pray "for all men, for kings and all who are in authority." I Thessalonians 2:1-2.

This is, in fact, true of any government leader of whom I am reminded by the news, by gossip or by criticism, whether the leader involved is a part of my government, a friendly government, or an unfriendly government.  The news report or verbal attack on the leader is properly taken as a reminder to pray for that leader.

I invite comments about this posting! 

Posted by ian_j_site2 at 5:00 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 30 November 2008 5:03 PM EST

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