Excommunication and Homosexuality

Nearly a year ago, in a post called “The Excommunication Dilemma,” I explored the question of how churches ought to respond to the problem of homosexuality today.  While allowing that homosexuality was a serious sin that by New Testament standards called for church discipline, I argued that it was inappropriate for conservative denominations to de facto “excommunicate” more liberal denominations for their failure to enact such discipline.  Furthermore, I suggested that in groups like the Anglican Communion, church discipline on a macro scale–say, cutting off the whole of TEC–was a much more complicated matter than simple congregational church discipline, and there were no clear and clean-cut models for how such macro-discipline should be carried out.  However, at that time I still maintained that of course individual churches ought to take a hard disciplinary line on unrepentant homosexual congregants.  But after a conversation with a good friend last week, I’m not quite so sure anymore.

Before you freak out, I am not questioning whether excommunication is a legitimate action to take with regard to homosexuality–in principle, it seems clear that it is (as it is also with a host of other sins, I should add).  I am wondering now whether it is the most appropriate action to take, from a pastoral perspective.  There is a great deal in the New Testament advising great caution in exercising judgment if those exercising the judgment are not themselves above reproach. We think immediately of Mt. 7:1-5:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Or Rom. 2:1-3:

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?

Or of course the famous and hotly-debated passage from John 8: “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”


Now of course each of these contains the element, to greater or lesser extent, of concern that the judges not be guilty of the same sin as the guilty.  This seems emphasized in Rom. 2:1-3, is probably broadly present in Mt. 7:1-5, and is, some would argue, the point of Jesus’s dismissal of judgment in John 8 (I will leave aside for now the question of whether that is the only point).  On this basis many would be quick to retort that so long as church leaders are not themselves practicing homosexuals, there is no bar to them pronouncing judgment against those who are.  But this seems to me an altogether too narrow reading of the point of such passages, the sort of legalistic nicety Pharisees would love.  

Taking a somewhat broader lens, is it fair to say that the evangelical churches are, on the whole, knee-deep in hypocrisy when it comes to sexual ethics?  I don’t want to be guilty myself of pronouncing overly sweeping judgments, but from all I hear, they are.  Churches that take a very hard line on any hint of homosexuality are happy to sweep it under the rug when the guy in the next pew is having an affair with his secretary, or when half the men in the church are hooked on porn; divorce is rampant in many evangelical churches, a problem that many are just beginning to address (see, for instance, this encouraging start from the SBC).  Do we have the standing to just start excommunicating (or worse, turning away at the church door) homosexuals?  Of course, many might respond that their own churches are not guilty of this hypocrisy, but I don’t know if it’s that simple…the evangelical conservative churches, like it or not, share a common public identity, they are perceived as a common body of sorts by the watching world, and those individual churches that have their own houses in order can’t pretend to be unsullied by any of the messes of their brothers and sisters.  

And then of course there are the deep problems in the witness the Church is presenting about homosexuality itself.  In many evangelical churches, the atmosphere that prevails is not one of a calm and steady opposition to the sin of homosexuality accompanied by a warm welcome to homosexually-inclined people, a sympathetic recognition of their struggles, and an attempt to patiently guide them.  Rather, the dominant atmosphere is often quite rightly described as homophobia, in which homosexuals are scorned, derided, feared, held at arm’s length, and in which the idea of a “homosexual Christian” is considered an oxymoron.  Because of this, we are incapable of presenting a clear and Biblical witness to the watching world, and to liberal Christians, against homosexuality.  Because so many of us have so often spoken in terms of ungodly homophobia, rather than a compassionate call to put away sin, any action that conservative churches take against homosexuality, even if itself legitimate and rightly-handled, cannot but be perceived as homophobia.  It will take a long time and a mature response for evangelicals to be able to offer an effective witness by their church discipline in this area.  (By the way, my point here about patience and sympathy should clarify that when I call on our churches to “get their house in order” I am not meaning we should start chucking people out left and right–we should be firm with the various sins in our midst, but loving at the same time.)

A third set of issues, which I will not elaborate on here, though I have mentioned it before, is the disconnect between evangelicals’ hard-line stance on certain sexual sins and their complete laxity regarding economic sins.  This too greatly compromises our witness and renders our motives suspect; however, one could easily respond that the sins are sufficiently different that our guilt in the one area is no bar to discipline in the other.

Given the first set of problems, it seems questionable whether evangelical churches even have standing to discipline homosexuals.  Perhaps some don’t, until they get their own houses in order.  For the rest, especially given the second and third set of problems, it certainly seems questionable whether, even if they have standing to enact discipline, such discipline is prudent and likely to accomplish its purpose.  It seems more likely simply to confirm false ideas of the Church that many have formed in recent years and, most seriously, to alienate the homosexuals under discipline, who will have good reason to conclude that they they are being pushed away simply out of fear and bigotry, rather than godliness, and will thus fail to repent.  Could it then be possible that, as a matter of pastoral wisdom and effective witness, evangelical churches should take a much softer line against homosexuality until they can remove the various logs from their own eyes?

I am far from convinced that the answer is yes, particularly in light of the example of 1 Corinthians.  Here is a church that was knee-deep in all sorts of problems, yet that did not keep Paul from urging them to take a hard disciplinary line against the member who was involved in incest.  Many of the factors in that situation were different, of course, so it is hard to use it as an open-and-shut counterexample; however, it does seem to suggest that we are not required to wait until our house is in order before we can take formal disciplinary action.  I am thus not persuaded either way, but I do think this is an important question to think about, at the very least so we can read the concerns of “liberals” more sympathetically, and I’m interested in what sort of input others offer.


Coercive Corporations? (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 1)

Nowadays if you listen to any conservative media, you can expect to find an almost reflexive hatred of everything relating to the government, and an almost reflexive confidence in everything relating to the market and to corporations.  This seems deeply puzzling, since it seems that most of the things that people hate about “the government” apply equally to many large corporations–they are massive entities, reaching their tentacles into everything, sucking up our money, trying to control our lives, faceless and bureaucratic, always expanding–plus, large corporations add an additional unsavory feature not shared by governments: they are legally bound to look out for their own interests firsts, as opposed to the common interest first.  The government may fail to advance the common good, but at least it is supposed to be trying to.

The ferocious reply comes back: “No!  The difference is that corporations aren’t trying to control our lives!  Corporations leave you free to buy or not buy as you see fit, and they can only survive if you choose to buy.  Governments, however, rule by coercion–they force you to pay taxes, even if you don’t want to–that’s the essential difference.”  Hard right libertarians or anarchists will push this further, and describe every function of the government in terms of the baldest coercion: “We have to pay taxes for our schools because otherwise they’ll lock us up in a cage; we’re being forced to pay for these new roadways at gunpoint”–that sort of supercharged language.  All this, I want to suggest, rests upon a rather oversimplistic concept of “coercion” and indeed a false understanding of how human psychology and human societies work.  

In this series, I want to explore a provocative pair of questions: Just how uncoercive are markets really?  And, for that matter, just how coercive are governments, really?  The tantalizing answer, I suggest, is: It depends–upon you, that is.

Let’s try to unpack this.  My main argument rests on deconstructing the concept of coercion, but first, let’s offer an easier, purely empirical challenge to the notion that governments coerce where corporations do not.  Is it true that corporations do not exercise coercion?  As a matter of fact, many do.  Here in the US, the largest corporations have long learned how to harness the power of the legal system to destroy smaller competitors, or to repress protesting workers, or, more frighteningly, have manipulated foreign policy or even collaborated with military forces, CIA, etc., to take down obstacles to their expansion, or to take foreign markets captive.  This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff, but a pretty open-and-shut part of history (not just, of course, in the last century, though the massive reach of multinations has amplified the effects of corruption).  Books like Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, or even Niall Ferguson’s Empire are a good primer in this sort of thing.  

Of course, the right-wingers will reply that this is just because the state, with its coercion, has gotten mixed up in business: in each of these examples, corporations are calling upon the coercive power of the state to do their dirty work, not doing it themselves.  This, however, is a rather poor defense–it reminds me a bit of Boniface VIII’s argument that the Pope doesn’t wield the coercive sword directly–he just gives it to civil authorities and tells them how to use it, so he remains spiritual and peaceful.  If corporations are asking the government to wield coercive power for them, then corporations themselves are seeking to exercise coercive power.  Moreover, outside the First World, private companies often do maintain their own security forces that will protect their interests by force.  So even with direct coercion, a neat distinction between governments and corporations is not possible.  

However, I’m not so interested in direct coercion.  Later on, we’ll try to find an actual meaningful definition for coercion.  But for now, let’s go back to that phrase above “trying to control our lives,” which for now we could call “coercion broadly construed.”  Now, do corporations try to control our lives?  Well, not all of them, sure, but many of them.  They try to control what we eat, how we sleep, what we do for entertainment, what we read, where we travel–in short, all of our lifestyle choices are not left simply up to us, but are pushed and pulled by marketing.  This isn’t a conspiracy theory either, but simply a truism about the purpose of much modern marketing.  “Ah, but the difference,” our free marketeer will object, is that the choice is still always up to you whether you will listen to the marketing, what you will buy, etc.  A corporation can never force you to choose one thing over another.”  But this is to return to a narrow definition of coercion.  When we say that someone has a “controlling husband” or that “so-and-so’s friends are trying to control her” we usually do not mean that physical force is being employed–no, control is usually exercised by psychological and social pressures, by all sorts of forms of bullying, alluring, and manipulating.  We rightly detest the idea of being manipulated–indeed, almost worse than being outright coerced, because at least then we know what’s being done to us, instead of being secretly pulled and prodded.  We are so immersed in the manipulative power of marketing that we often don’t even notice it anymore; we think we’re freely choosing to eat at McDonalds, and then finally we wake up one day and ask, “Why do I eat at McDonald’s?  I hate it!  It’s terrible food, and terribly unhealthy,” and so we try to stop, and then we realize how strong the impulse remains.  Later on, I will return to offer a more thoroughgoing psychological evaluation of choice and this sort of subtle coercion.

For now, though, we shouldn’t forget another even simpler way in which companies try and “control our lives”–by limiting the number of choices available.  If I want something to eat and you present me with a choice between corn chips and oatmeal, but I don’t want either, I may still be technically “free,” but I sure don’t feel like it.  The panegyrists of capitalism tell us how much capitalism has increased the number of choices available.  But as many critics have documented, this proliferation of choice is in many ways an illusion.  The vast number of food products seemingly available are often just variations on various corn products and hyper-processed foods; we are not necessarily given the choice to eat healthy beef or natural vegetables.  The most dramatic example of the deceptive proliferation of choice is in drugs.  Supposedly, we are now blessed with an amazing plenitude of medicines for every conceivable need; however, most of these contain one of a few basic chemical ingredients, chemicals that often are far less effective than the plethora of natural remedies that have been pushed off of drugstore shelves everywhere.  More obviously, choice is limited by monopoly.  The massive number of brands out there reflect, in many industries, only a small handful of actual companies, many of which basically follow the exact same production processes.  The goal of most large companies is to choke out the competition and establish a monopoly, or at least an oligopoly, and of course it is precisely the monopoly role that the government seeks to play that angers so many of the libertarian stripe.  Here, then, we cannot draw a clear dividing line between the “control” exercised by government and that exercised by the “private sphere.”  And of course it should be pointed out that this blurriness between the private and the public realms is not a modern development; on the contrary, the modern period has seen an attempt to differentiate between these two much more sharply than ever before.  

Now, this empirical case is not really my chief interest.  In the following three sections, I want to analyze the concept “coercion” and see how useful it really is in enabling us to condemn political action and endorse economic action.   

Two Kingdoms or Two Cities?

Around the same time as I was working through my review of David Van Drunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, you may recall that Steven Wedgeworth also reviewed the book in Credenda/Agenda, setting off a fiery controversy with Darryl Hart over at Wedgewords.  Add some authentic ultramontane Catholics to the mix, shake vigorously, and you end up with Wedgeworth and Co’s three-part manifesto, “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom.”  I must confess that I have followed all this only rather intermittently, due to the enormous volume of writing being churned out in the discussion, and more importantly, because I determined that I don’t have a dog in that fight, so to speak.  I have little sympathy with the clerocratic Catholic viewpoint, and still less with the Hart/VanDrunen radically separate doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, but neither could I feel any hint of sympathy with the assumptions that drove Wedgeworth and Escalante to posit the classical Protestant, semi-Erastian model as a solution.  

Rather to my surprise, however, Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical has offered what appears as an only-slightly-qualified endorsement of Wedgeworth’s view, which he labels “decretist,” and given that he asked for my reaction and that I just recently posted my own (skeletal and oversimplified) theopolitical manifesto, I figured I would try to weigh in briefly.  (Earlier this summer, I interacted extensively about all this with two of Wedgeworth’s allies, Peter Escalante and Tim Enloe, and the following reflects some of that discussion as well.)

However, I feel a bit confused in doing so, as if I must be missing something big and obvious (quite possible, since I’ve only followed the discussion intermittently), since I have trouble making sense of several of the “decretists’” assumptions, and can’t see why, given these assumptions, their model would generate any enthusiasm in our circles.  As I made clear in my “A Primer on Christian Citizenship,” my basic starting point is Augustinian (though this of course requires a great deal of further development and clarification), and I am puzzled to find in Wedgeworth’s manifesto no attention to the Augustinian paradigm as a solution.  We are confronted with two typical Christian errors–a separatist impulse to withdraw the Church away from the civil realm, and a clerocratic impulse to try to make the Church lord it over the civil realm, and then the classical Protestant paradigm is ushered in with great fanfare as the solution.  But whoa, wait a minute…isn’t there another alternative?  

Now of course I grant that certain ways of developing the Augustinian paradigm (which is notoriously pliable and susceptible to varying interpretations) would end up not too far from the “decretist” standpoint (e.g., certain trajectories in the O’Donovan’s work would seem to resonate with at least substantial bits of Wedgeworth’s picture), this is not at all an obvious equation and would need to be unpacked a great deal more.  In a fantastic recent lecture called “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” Jamie Smith argued that the two-kingdoms “supplement” to the Two Cities paradigm in fact overthrows that paradigm completely, and he offers a powerful argument of what a consistently Augustinian model would look like.  I’m very sympathetic to his project, and indebted to this lecture in what follows.

The key assumption in Wedgeworth’s manifesto that rings hollow to me is his contention that “the Church is not a worldly-temporal entity and thus is in no real ‘competition’ with the State”; throughout the post he pooh-poohs any notion that the Church is an “alternative city” or “alternative society.”  The Church, he tells us “though always embodied, is designed to deal with hearts”; thus it only rules “the spiritual realm.”  Now, again I feel like I must be missing something obvious, but I find it difficult to make sense of such claims.  What would it mean for the Church to deal only with hearts?  What is this supposed “spiritual realm” that is not concerned with physical actions in human society?  I for one am not conscious of a “spiritual realm” within me that is separable from how the Spirit exhorts my body to live in relation to those around me.  And how does this separation work given that about half of the New Testament is ethics?   

As I understand it, the proper distinction is that the Church deals with bodies through hearts, and thus is able to reckon with the whole man, whereas the State can only deal with bodies as bodies.  This, I take it, is what Bucer is trying to say in the opening chapters of the De Regno Christi.  When I look at what the Church is actually called to do in Scripture, it’s hard for me to see how it is not in “competition” with the State. 

Let’s look at some responsibilities of the State, or of political society.  The State seeks to organize men into a community of shared identity and mutual responsibility.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to guide this community in pursuit of the common good of human flourishing.  The Church does this too. The State seeks to establish norms of social behaviour among its members.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to bring about a just relationship between its members, restraining the strong and protecting the weak.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to overcome the threat of external enemies.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to remedy the injustice wrought by evil men in its midst.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to ensure that all its members have their needs cared for. The Church does this too.   

The Church is a visible body of people gathered out from among other people, united by various signs, rituals, texts, codes, ways of life, by mutual commitment to one another, in pursuit of a common end (an end that incorporates all of human existence).  It is, in short, undeniably (to my mind) a “political society,” an “alternative city” in a very important sense.  Of course, it is much more.  It is not just this.  This is just like the tip of an iceberg–its foundation and source of life is deeper and hidden.  It is a city that lives by the presence of God himself in its midst.  Moreover, although the Church is political, it is of course with a different kind of politics.  Just because it is in a kind of competition with the State doesn’t mean it’s just another state.  For instance, the end which it seeks, though it includes the flourishing of human life here on earth, transcends that and includes a higher end that no State can pursue.  The Church too overcomes the threat of enemies, but it does so through self-sacrificing love, not violence.  The Church too seeks to remedy injustice done in its midst, but by means of exhortation, penance, and reconciliation, not outward punishment.  The Church too cares for the needs of its members, but it also goes beyond and serves those who are outside, to an extent that few states do.

Wedgeworth is convinced that the Church is non-coercive, and consistently talks as if making the Church an “alternative City” has to mean giving it coercive power over its own members and/or over other cities.  Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t see why.  (For the record, I am not yet convinced that church discipline is non-coercive in nature, or should be, for reasons that may be partially disclosed in my forthcoming essay on coercion; but as I certainly agree that coercion is at most a marginal part of the Church’s work, I will leave that aside.)  Criticize Hauerwas, Yoder, Cavanaugh, etc. all you want, but I certainly think that you have to interact with their claims that it is possible to have a different kind of politics that does not rely on coercion–the Church is inescapably political, and thus inevitably challenges other political structures, but it practices a qualitatively different kind of politics.  This basic claim rings very true with my reading of the New Testament.  It seems that whenever anything like this line of argument is brought up, Wedgeworth and Escalante dismiss this as “Anabaptist utopianism.”  But name-calling is not the same as a refutation.

Now, none of this means that, because the Church is in some sense in competition with the State, that it must be in every sense in competition with the State.  One may legitimately criticize Hauerwas and Co. for failing to allow for the nuances and tensions of an Augustinian model, which affirms that the Church is a city, but allows for some kind of uneasy co-existence, or “selective collaboration” as Jamie Smith puts it.  I am very open to a conception in which, should the civil authorities recognize Christ’s lordship, they will use their position to encourage the work of his kingdom (without coercing Christianity).  But the differences between this kind of Christendom and the “decretist” model, as I understand it, are manifold.  For one, the Church will view this Christian magistrate as something valuable and appreciated, but non-essential.  The Church may still do its work of transforming the world without the aid of the magistrate.  For another, the magistrate’s role is one of self-abnegation, deferring to the presence of the true City within the midst of his city, and seeking to empower it to do its work better, and to make his task increasingly superfluous (Leithart’s Defending Constantine is a must-read on this way of understanding the relationship).  In the decretist model, the two rules exist in a kind of permanent, static relationship of complementarity.   This, I think, is a crucial point of difference.  I do not see a static arrangement, but a dynamic one, an eschatologically maturing one.  As I understand it, the two rules may at times achieve a certain complementarity, but it will always be one fraught with tension.  I think, for instance, of Augustine’s interaction with the Roman magistrate Macedonius, where Augustine famously urges leniency toward criminals and a cessation of capital punishment, that the Church might do its work of bringing about true repentance and reconciliation, though Augustine recognizes that this is at odds with part of the calling of the magistrate.  The magistrate’s calling is, as much as possible, to be rendered obsolete by the work of the Church, though this may take a very long time, and in the meantime an uneasy dynamic tension will have to be maintained.

Wedgeworth and Co. will call this “utopianism”–I call it postmillenialism, although a very tempered and patient postmillenialism.  I am not sure how to persuade those who are determined to see this as “utopian,” except to point to the fact that the New Testament’s vision of Christian ethics and Christian community looks very utopian to us, and also to the fact that many ethical and political developments that would have seemed “utopian” centuries ago have actually come to pass: the end of widespread slavery, the extent to which racism has been overcome, the growth of genuine (though never unproblematic) religious freedom, equal treatment for women (fraught with problems today, but genuine progress nonetheless), the commitment to peace and cooperation among many nations that used to be at constant war (the European Union, particularly).  So many of the dramatic social improvements and advances in ethical sensibility in Western society owe themselves to the work of the Christian Church, and so I would like to trust in the Spirit to bring new marvels to pass as the Church works faithfully to enact the City of God among us.


A Primer on Christian Economics

I almost forgot to post this–part two of my “Christianity and Public Issues” talk (see Part 1 here).  

Economics is perhaps the greatest issue on the political radar, particularly in the past couple years.  How should we as Christians approach economics and political economy?  Well, let’s return again to the passage from Philippians 3.  Paul contrasts us, the citizens of heaven, with those “whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things”–those who pursue desires of self-gratification, who seek to glorify themselves by how much more they can amass than others, those whose focus and chief goal is material prosperity.  It is not hard to see that this is the way that most of the world lives today–not just individuals, but corporations and governments.  How do companies in our world measure their success?  By how many people’s lives are enriched by their efforts or by how wide their profit margins are?  How do most governments measure their success?  By how much they have promoted justice or by how much GDP growth they can create?  Materialism and selfishness are nothing new, of course, but today Christians must confront the danger of an ideology that argues that selfishness is actually the best way to help people.  The premise of modern capitalism is that as long as you let people pursue their self-interest and remove any barriers to their satisfaction of their material desires, then peace, prosperity, and freedom will grow for everyone.  Paul here and almost any book of Scripture could warn us against the danger of this mindset, could remind us of what a treacherous tool wealth is, how easily it shifts from being a means to a good end to being an end in itself, could remind us that no society can succeed which puts individual self-interest above regard for others.  

And if we read the Bible attentively, we will see that it is constantly insistent–from Genesis right up through Revelation–on decrying the injustices done to the poor and calling for us to be like God Himself in attending especially to the plight of the poor and weak and working to lift them out of their suffering.  Christians have plenty of reason to join with many people in today’s world in decrying the scandal that so many selfishly pursue their own riches without regard to the needs of others, that billions struggle in unthinkable poverty, while others amass far more than they could ever need or even use,  that massive corporations have grown to the point where they are more powerful than most nations and regularly distort information or bend laws to boost their profits still further. 


But what do we do about this?  If we take Augustine’s skepticism regarding the City of Man seriously, his warning that all the structures of this world are distorted by the selfish desires of sin, we will know better than to expect that any system or institution will provide the solution to these problems.  Both the right-wing trust in the all-powerful market and the left-wing trust in the all-powerful government are naive and idolatrous.  True economic justice requires hard work and focused dedication on the part of God’s people to aid those in need, practice righteousness in the marketplace, and fight for justice.   True justice can only be found through a community of people bent on worshipping God, and receiving from Him the strength to give themselves for others as Christ gave himself for them.   Ultimately, it is the Church, not the State or the market, that has the resources to overcome oppression and greed.  To say this, though, is not to endorse the kind of pietism that imagines that all we need to do is give people the right heart, to convert them, and then we’ll have economic justice; the shape of Jesus’s ministry should show us the Church has a lot more work to do than that.  

Augustine, however, should warn us against a triumphalism as well.  Against all triumphalism, Christians should remember that the City of God is never complete in this life, in this age, that it too continues to struggle with sin and selfishness, and so we too will constantly fail in our quest for justice and charity.  We cannot approach the world with a mindset of “We’ve got the answers, we’ve got the solutions–your plans can go to hell.”  

A Christian politics thus recognizes that although there’s no such thing as a truly just worldly institution, there are some institutions that are more just than others, and we ought to recognize and encourage them, instead of simply writing them all off as equally rotten.   Remember that in Augustine’s paradigm, the earthly city, seen in political structures like Rome, was sure always to miss the mark of justice, but that didn’t mean that it could never come close, or that we shouldn’t try to help it become less unjust.  Economics then is an area ripe for “selective collaboration.”  

While the Church does its work of preaching the Gospel, helping the poor, and encouraging charity, in the meantime, juster laws can restrain injustice and help motivate good deeds in those for whom the impulse of charity is weak.  We have in the Old Testament a wonderful model of how God sought to encourage economic justice for his people–not only through moral exhortation and a call to worship and imitation of God, but through legal structures that recognized how easily the weak can be further marginalized and the strong can continue to grow stronger at their expense, and that tried to guard against this tendency.  While we cannot and should not press for laws that mandate Christ-like charity, we can at least support policies that discourage outright un-charity, or which try to ameliorate its effects.  We can support policies that seek to restrain the power and influence of money over our culture and societies, mindful of Paul’s warning that the love of money is the root of all evil.  When economic policies are debated in our cities or our national assemblies, we must of course insist that the needs of the poor are remembered and are favored over and above the desires of the wealthy to grow wealthier.  We must speak out against the lying narrative which insists that if we just leave wealth alone and let it do its work of creating more wealth, then poverty will disappear–usually this just means that, at best, poverty will be hidden away in some place less visible, like southeast Asia.  


But we must be wary when we advocate better policies in the political sphere.  The Bible tends to be pretty skeptical when it comes to rulers and central governments.  “Put no confidence in princes,” the 20th Psalm warns us, and the story of the Old Testament tends to bear this out.  In 1 Sam. 8, when the people ask for a king, God warns them that he will become an oppressor, amassing wealth and power for himself.  It’s not long before Solomon does just this, and despite the positive work of several godly kings, on the whole the prophets of the Old Testament denounce the royal administration as being on the side of greedy landlords and usurers.  Whatever their faults, conservatives are right to be skeptical of central government’s ability to improve economic justice and curb the power of wealth; after all, such large concentrations of power are difficult to hold accountable and easy to corrupt, and so they tend to aid rather than restrain the ambitions of large corporations.  Moreover, large unwieldy nation-states generally tend to resort to crude tools like coercion, which we as Christians know is rarely calculated to advance peace and justice.

The answer, I would suggest, is not laissez-faire, is not no government, but is a different kind of government.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the law of the Old Testament, most of the laws of economic justice seem to be the responsibility not of the king or of a state bureaucracy, but of local communities, governments on a more human scale, in which citizens take a great deal of responsibility for what happens in their communities and decisions about justice and injustice are made by people who actually know something about the plaintiffs and the defendants.  If the Church is to provide a model of a juster, truer kind of community, then perhaps we should seek political communities that are likewise organized on a manageable scale, which depend more on face-to-face relationships and not on bureaucracies or abstract legal ties.  Such political communities, it would seem, would not need so often to result to cruder tools of coercion but would be more able to negotiate conflicts via genuine dialogue and reconciliation, an approach the Church is also called to model for the world.  

Of course, it goes without saying that in our globalized world, with corporations like Wal-Mart that employ over 2 million people (just for perspective, that’s more people than you could meet if you met one new person every minute of every day for four years) in dozens of countries, not everything can be as local as it once was.  We’d be courting disaster if we tried to shrink our governments down to the local level while leaving massive multinational corporations just as they are.  As Christians, we need to also cultivate a more local, personal economics.  Most things we buy and sell are still made and sold by human beings, not just machines, and we have a responsibility toward human beings we meet and interact with.  We need to think about how to show Christ’s love to people in everything we do, which includes shopping for groceries or selling mortgages–and how can we do that if we don’t even know the name of the person we are buying from or selling to?  

I’d like to conclude by driving this point home with a theme that has become common in recent theology and ethics: the Eucharist is the model of true community.  In the Eucharist, God shares his life with us and we share it with one another.  Isn’t it fascinating that what unites us as one body in the Church is not abstract membership in some organization, is not being listed on the membership rolls of a denomination or the fact that we send in a check for our tithe every month, but is an actual face-to-face gathering and eating together?  In the Eucharist, we pass the bread and the wine to one another and we pass the peace to one another, speaking one another’s names.  This exchange binds us together, and through it we resolve conflict and renew our determination to live together and serve one another.  What would the world be like if we could make more of our lives that way?  The answers to this question are not simple or easy, but it’s a question I think we should ask ourselves every day.

The Tyranny of Efficiency

(following from “Embracing the Fall”)

My second big concern about Chapter 2 of Calvin and Commerce is that, to the extent that Hall and Burton want to confront and ameliorate the effects of man’s depravity in economics, their solution is one of law, rather than grace.  One of the first sections in the chapter is entitled “If We Recognize Depravity, We Will Not Tolerate Non-productivity.”  This language is harsh and a bit frightful.  For Hall and Burton, productivity and efficiency are the highest values, and the slothful nature of man must thus be greeted with no mercy.  The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity is meant to bring us all to humility, not pride, recognizing that we too are totally depraved.  This thus serves as a basis for a gracious and compassionate response to the sinner (in imitation of Christ), not a stark refusal to tolerate him. 

But there is no note of grace in Hall and Burton: “Workers who fail to enhance and to produce should not be rewarded; their job performance is not acceptable.  Workers who do enhance and produce should be rewarded; that in turn will lead to more productivity.”   Indeed, this is to put it more gently than what they go on to recommend–anyone who fails to produce must be severely penalized, so he will learn his lesson and produce more.  They call this “accountability in the marketplace,” but this accountability flows only one way–that is to say, employers must hold workers accountable, but workers are to be stripped of any means to hold employers accountable.  An accountable marketplace is one with

“the unrestrained/unrestricted movement of wages, rewards, and employment choices (on the employee’s side), and consequently the unrestricted ability to hire and fire (on the employer’s side).  The key word here is ‘unrestricted,’ meaning ‘free of distortion.’  A distortion of the second pillar of accountability is found in institutions and organizations–whether unions, trade guilds, cartels, or other collective bodies–that inhibit the free flow of employment.”  

Notice that they are not even sheepish about the qualifier “on the employer’s side”–for whatever reason, structures of accountability on the employee’s side are simply not important.  They complain that in most states and countries, “employers cannot fire at will, and most are required to show cause, even when firing untenured, nonunionized employees.”  What a horrible world, in which an employer would actually have to offer some reason for his actions before he stripped his employees of their livelihoods!  It’s almost as if Hall and Burton want to play right into Marx’s hands, by advocating a completely despotic capital class.  But if they want to do this, why must they drag poor Calvin into it?  What did he do to deserve such company? 

Of course, this reaction against legal constraints on capital masks a theological move that substitutes law for grace.  The remedy to depravity is a salvation by works, or, quite literally, by work.  The problem with the world in Hall and Burton’s model is that people do not work enough, and the solution is to make people work hard and reward them if they do, but punish them if they don’t.  Efficiency and productivity are thus idolized in their system, leaving us with their slightly chilling statement “We will not tolerate non-productivity.”  This leads to a kind of economic euthanasia (and indeed logically suggests full-blown euthanasia).  Unproductive members of society are not to be tolerated and are to be removed to make way for younger, more productive members.  Consider this statement, about why the tenure system at universities should be abolished (a system about which our authors are very worked up in these pages):

“The process of rewarding an educator who achieves a certain status greatly diminishes the employer’s ability to fire or release that worker.  As a result, the university becomes increasingly inefficient and may reach the point where it lacks the budgetary means to hire new–possibly more gifted–educators.  Furthermore, these experienced professors require higher salaries for jobs that could often be performed at a lower cost by younger, but equally talented, employees.” 

So much for honoring the  hoary head.  Seriously, I would’ve thought that, as Christians, we would value and cherish the very few sectors of society in which respect for the wisdom of elders still held out against the grist-mill of rational economic calculation.  But Hall and Burton will not have it–they seem to wish to subject every remaining arena of society to the dominion of the market.  If they have their wish (and modern society has come pretty close to giving it to them), they will be hard-pressed to offer any meaningful opposition to the proliferation of abortion, euthanasia, pornography, slavery, and everything else which subordinates the value of human persons to the value of money.