Monthly Archives: May 2016

Summary and Book Review: The Good of Affluence

Summary

The Good of Affluence by John R. Schneider lays out a theological framework, primarily through interpreting the biblical text, by which to view wealth. In many ways this book is a defense of affluence over and against the view that the wealthy should divest themselves of most or all of their luxuries in order to provide necessities to the global poor. It is also, to a lesser degree, a defense of capitalism as a means of creating wealth which benefits both the rich and the poor alike.

Before entering into an analysis of the biblical narrative, Schneider makes an important observation about modern capitalism. In his view, capitalism is a “new” and different way of acquiring wealth which the world did not know in biblical times. For most of human history great wealth (affluence) was acquired primarily by taking it from other people through unjust means such as war, thievery, or taxation which rose to the level of extortion. But capitalism is different in that it is not a “zero-sum” game. In capitalism wealth is acquired by adding value into the whole system, which raises the level of all, or most, of those involved in the process. “When capitalism really works, every member of society becomes affluent to some comparative degree and (as D’Souza’s numbers show) that is exactly what has happened in some nations. The cultures that capitalism helps to create do not merely contain great wealth. They are cultures of wealth” (25). This “new” form of wealth building is a set of “new wine skins” which require a fresh look at the data, namely, the biblical text.

From there Schneider works through the biblical narrative. He begins with creation (chapter 2) and observes that God’s original intention was for people to live in a state of material delight. This was Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden before the Fall and it is where we are heading after the resurrection. From there he moves to the exodus and the laws of the Old Testament (chapter 3). Here he argues that part of the exodus meant moving the people from a position of slavery (including economic slavery) and into a position of delight and economic freedom – life in the promised land.  The laws which govern the people in the promised land do indeed include care for the economically vulnerable but they are followed with the promise of God’s material blessing. Schneider interprets the Jubilee, not as primarily a radical concern for the poor (since many of the most vulnerable – foreigners, for instance, were left out of any benefits the Jubilee might have brought) but as a way to re-establish God’s people in the land – a sort of re-living of the exodus.

At this point Schneider also introduces a principle central to the book, that of moral proximity. The principle of moral proximity essentially means that the closer one’s “moral proximity” is to someone else the greater one’s obligations. For Schneider this means that we are most responsible for our immediate family and have only loose obligations towards the global poor.

In chapter 4 Schneider reviews the Prophets and Wisdom literature. He focuses primarily on Proverbs and the book of Amos. His central thesis here is these writings assume God’s original intention of delight while, at the same time, decrying the abuses of the wealthy over and against the poor. He summarizes his view of Amos in the following way:

“It is a matter of become a mature person with a vision of the Lord and a heart for people, especially the poor and powerless. The rich must be liberated not from riches but from the selfish mind and the heart of the serpent. We must have the mind of God, the true Lord, who is our servant. We must strive toward the light of the exodus vision and recover the spirituality of redemptive power, which turns our delight into love” (106).

Schneider then moves to the New Testament, beginning with the Incarnation (chapter 5), Jesus’ teaching and his call to discipleship – the parable of the rich ruler, the call of Zacchaeus (chapter 6) – and Jesus’ parables (chapter 7). Here Schneider argues that Jesus did not call all to completely divest themselves of property but that he did call all to creatively use their wealth for kingdom purposes. Finally, Schneider moves to the early church, particularly to Acts, James, and Paul’s appeal for funds to help the church in Jerusalem (chapter 8). All in all, his review of the biblical text is representative and he deals with some of the more difficult passages to Scripture without (in my opinion) being evasive.

Schneider concludes the book (epilogue) with a reflection on how his view of affluence might be understood in a world of poverty. His conclusion here is that what holds people in poverty is not a lack of hard work or from a lack of capital, but systems which have not allowed for the release of capital. He summarizes the work of Hernando de Soto who argues that what is common to all stagnant economies is a lack of functioning rules regarding property, which are necessary for the creation of wealth. If this is true then the problems of these countries can’t be solved (at least not in the long-term) through external aid. Instead they need to be solved internally, through the creation of necessary economic infrastructure. The second implication is that in this view the “global poor” are not a problem which needs to be solved, but are in fact, are themselves the solution.

Review

Of Schneider’s work I have two words of commendation, one of critique, and one of warning.

First, Schneider’s exegetical work is of the first order. He offers scholarly, clean, and convincing arguments. Those who would disagree with him, if they are believers, will first need to deal with his formidable exegetical work. Second, reviews which state that Schneider is arguing that wealthy Christians have no obligation to the global poor are mistaken. They simply do not understand Schneider’s argument. If everything looks like greed then the only answer they will accept is divestment of property. But Schneider views the world in a very different way (more nuanced and complex) so they don’t recognize his solutions when he states them.

My critique is that Schneider offers very little in terms of concrete applications to the reader. I believe this is intentional on the author’s part, but it is still frustrating. I was personally hoping for a bigger payoff in his epilogue. I understand his “solution” I think, but I have no idea how I can play any part in it.

Finally, a warning: This book could be read by the rich to justify either inaction or indifference. Again, this is not the author’s intention. I simply state it this way: Wealth, while a blessing from God can, because of our sinful natures, become a deceptive snare. If you have been blessed with affluence Schneider’s call would be to creatively use your wealth in service to others.

Moral proximity and the cry of the global poor

“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor

will also cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13

This is a distressing verse in the age of globalization. In this age we are all aware, not only of those who are poor within our families or neighborhoods, but of the countless who suffer in poverty all around the world. Furthermore, we are all within technical reach of many of those in poverty and most of us have the means with which to provide for them out of a first-world abundance. I know someone who sponsors one of those poor children through Compassion International. This is all well and good, but this person also has the means to sponsor two, three, or even ten more children, assuming they were willing to sacrifice their standard of living or cut back on retirement savings. Does this person have a moral obligation to do this? They know the need (“hear the cry”), have the financial means, and have the technological capability, to do it. What justification could be provided for not doing more? And, at what point would such an obligation stop? Would it continue so long as one person has abundance and another has need? In other words, as long as there is someone in poverty, is abundance morally inexcusable?

These are exactly the sort of questions which John Schneider addresses in his book The Good of Affluence (and are much broader than I will attempt to address in this short post).

One way to answer this is to consider the principle of “moral proximity.” This principle, according to Schneider, “states simply that our moral obligations in economic life are greater or lesser in proportion to their moral proximity to us.” This is similar, says Schneider, to the Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity “which means that social problems ought to be handled first by the people and agencies nearest in location to them rather than by remote ones.”

What does this “moral proximity” look like? In ancient Israel it meant Israelites had primary duties first to their own families and then tribes and then to their religious community as Jews. They had no material moral obligation to those outside of Israel but, in keeping the laws of Israel (which included instructions for caring for the poor) were to serve as “a light to the nations.”

The same basic principle seems to be evident in the New Testament. Here believers again have a primary obligation to care for their families. Then they have obligations within the family of believers. And then they have obligations within the broader fabric of society.

So how does this apply to the global poor? Schneider agrees that wealthy Christians do have an obligation, “but not obligations of the ultimate sort that influential writers judge they do.” What exactly this looks like Schneider addresses later in the book (which I haven’t gotten to yet) but at least this obligation is of a different sort than that which we have to people within our direct obligations (i.e., family) or close obligations (i.e., our local congregations or close friends).

Still, I think it is in keeping with this tone of Proverbs 21:13 that those with means who “hear the cry of the poor” at least feel a certain sort of moral weight. Schneider later states, in commenting on Amos, that “we cannot be righteous unless we have a proper sense of grief” (and thus action) about the material suffering that is going on around us. It would be a tragedy if we used a principle like moral proximity as a way to “shut our ears” or to justify our own selfish hearts. Still, this principle is helpful for me to understand my obligations, and why some are primary and some secondary.

In light of eternity, how does what is done in this life matter?

“If it’s all about where we will spend eternity, how does anything I do now matter at all?”

This is a question we received from a teen at our church recently. It’s not the first time it has been asked.

Here’s the dilemma (as the teens see it anyway): Compared to eternity, this life is but a breath and a whisper. The pain and joy we experience now are temporary. If our destination is Heaven then any joy we experience now will be small in comparison to the joy we’ll experience in a life untainted by sin and pain. Any sorrow from pain we have experienced will be wiped away. If our destination is Hell then our joys from this life will be immediately forgotten and our pain will feel slight by comparison. If this life is just a test (how do you respond to Jesus?) why have all the other stuff in between (growing up, going to school, having a family, working in a career, etc.?) Or, in another arena: If either God forgives all sins in Jesus, or just a single sin is enough to separate you from God, why even try? In light of eternity, what difference does it make if it all comes down to whether or not I trust in Jesus for salvation? Why would God give us this life in the first place? It just seems so arbitrary.

Some of the issue here comes from how we sometimes explain the gospel. Is it really all about heaven and hell? Is this life nothing more than a test? One of the biggest challenges, especially for young people, is seeing past the nose on their own face. They are caught up in the Now, in the immediate challenges, in the temporary pleasure or pain they are experiencing. So we rightly point out to them the temporary nature of those things and urge them to have a long-term perspective, an eternal perspective. But sometimes when we do this we lop off parts of the gospel. We boil it down to just what happens after we die. I think this adds to the confusion.

Here’s what the gospel often looks like:

salvation1

We live a short life (seventy or so years) and then we die. When we die we face the Judge and we will be judged based on how we respond to Jesus. This moment is the “final exam.” If we have accepted Jesus as our Savor, we spend eternity with God. If we do not, we are condemned in our sin and spend eternity apart from Him. If this is the whole story of the gospel, then everything we do in this life matters to the extent that it prepares us or others for eternity. In other words, I try to be a good student or a good worker so that I have integrity in my witness and thus prepare others for eternity by helping them to respond to Jesus in the right way. I’m a good parent so that my kids will accept Jesus. I’m a good preacher so that the unsaved will hear and believe and so that the congregation will be prepared to witness to their friends and family. This view of the gospel is correct. I don’t mean to belittle it in any way. But it’s not the whole story.

To get the whole story we need to take a step back and look at more than just our own stories.

salvation2

This picture represents the history of the world. The history of the world starts with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. In this short stage, everything was very good. But Adam and Eve sinned and brought about the Fall. Since that time the world has been under the curse of sin. Everything good is twisted. Everything whole is broken. Every good gift is abused. This creation/fall duality explains why we live in a world of such beauty and such tragedy. The beauty is the result of God’s creation. The tragedy is the result of our rebellion, so much so that all of creation groans under the weight of the curse.

But God has not left us to our own devices. Instead, he has been working throughout history in order to redeem (buy back from spiritual slavery) a people for himself. This people is blessed in order to be a blessing to the whole world. We live in a world, then, that is both getting better and worse at the same time. One force (rebellion) moves the world away from God. The other force (God’s redemption) moves the world toward God and more in line with the original created goodness. This constant tug and pull will never be resolved in this age, though. For that we await Christ’s return. At this point the battle is won. Goodness and justice will reign.

The final stage of the journey is when God brings about the “New Heaven and the New Earth.” This is an earthly existence. In some ways it will be radically different than the world we experience now, since it will lack a few things we take for granted; sin, sorrow, and death. But in other ways it will be very similar. I expect that will be still be able to do things like plant gardens, build buildings, make art, sing songs, take walks, engage in conversation, and act creatively. We won’t be mere spirits then, but will have spiritual bodies, not unlike that of the resurrected Christ, who is the firstborn over all creation.

The blue line in the picture above is your life and it is a miniature version of the first diagram. You live, you die, you go to either Heaven or Hell. But when Christ returns something new happens. You experience what the Bible calls “the resurrection.” Your spiritual existence is clothed with an immortal and imperishable body and you take up your residence on the above mentioned new earth. Heaven (as in, the place where your soul goes when it is separated from your body at death) is not the end. It’s where we wait (albeit in the presence of Jesus) until God makes all things new at which point we resume a physical existence in a physical world without sadness, sickness, sin, and decay.

It’s with this new broader understanding of the gospel that we can now to see how everything we do in this life has meaning. It does have meaning in that it prepares us and others for eternity, but it has meaning in and of itself as well.

But before I extrapolate on that more, I need to clarify that the relatively short time we experience on earth compared to eternity on the New Earth does not thereby nullify the meaning of the life here and now. When I give my child a toy on Christmas morning I know that there’s a decent chance the she will only play with the toy until Christmas night. She’ll get bored or move on to a different toy or it will break. But even if she only plays with it for a few hours her joy in those hours is not wasted. She enjoys the gift and, as the giver of the gift, I am pleased. It’s not the most important thing in her life. The joy it gives is temporary. But it’s not meaningless. It still matters.

The same is true in life. Some of the things we do, or the things we enjoy, are temporary and fleeting. They are not the most important thing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter at all. And, when done or enjoyed to the glory of God, it is imbued meaning by that same Eternal God.

At this point I want to introduce two terms. The first is shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word that means “peace.” But it means “peace” in a much fuller sense than we typically use it. One sense of “peace” is “cessation of hostility,” and shalom certainly includes this meaning. But it means more than that. It means wholeness. It means that everything is working as it should. It means that life is in harmony.

Shalom is what the world experienced in creation. Before sin Adam and Eve had a perfect relationship with each other, with God, and with the world around them. They were whole. They were in harmony with creation. Shalom is also what we will experience on the New Earth. We will live without hostility, without jealousy, without depression, without sickness, without death. We will be at peace with God and with each other. Life will be exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

The second term I want to use is flourishing. Flourishing is a word used to describe plants and other living beings. When plants flourish they grow, they bear fruit, they flower, and they scatter seeds. Flourishing means life, and it means abundant life. When a plant fails to flourish, it droops, it doesn’t bear fruit, it shrivels up and eventually dies. When a civilization flourishes it produces wealth and art and culture. When it fails to flourish it falls into civil war, disease, and death. I’ve seen people flourishing, too. I’ve also seen people shrivel up like a plant that lacks sun and water. They turn in on themselves, or turn on others, even their friends. This is always a sad and pitiable sight.

Again, flourishing is what we had before the Fall and it’s what we will have on the New Earth. Once again we will see abundant, growing, creative life. Those who live and reign on the New Earth will experience shalom and flourishing in every possible sense.

And it is within this framework that we begin to see how everything might matter now.

The Bible describes salvation as a new birth, as a new creation. When we are united with Jesus, we are united with the One who not only grants us eternal life (future) but who actually is the resurrection and the life. When are saved we are, in some sense, already experiencing aspects of the future Kingdom of God on the New Heavens and the New Earth.

The experience of the believer is one that not only anticipates the flourishing and shalom of the future state, but experiences it now, though to a lesser and more uneven degree. This isn’t a prosperity gospel, since the prosperity gospel tends to understand shalom and flourishing only in terms of health and wealth. But the Bible understands what it means to be blessed in very different terms, in terms of peace, contentment, joy in all circumstances and, even more fundamentally, in finding complete satisfaction in the person of Jesus as we enjoy with gratitude each gracious gift our Heavenly Father provides us with, even when those “gifts” feel painful, like periods of trial, testing, and discipline.

But this taste of the future is not only for our lips. God’s act of salvation is cosmic. He is redeeming the world, and he is doing it through a redeemed people, those who have decided to trust him as their savior and receive the new birth which he offers. In other words, we remember God’s original good design in creation, we anticipate the re-created shalom of the New Earth, we experience a taste of it in salvation, and then we extend it to the world around us.

So how do we extend it to the world around us? Let’s see this in a few ordinary and concentric circles of life:

When we personally obey God’s Word we bring ourselves into alignment with him. Often we think that we will have the most peace and joy by disobeying God. We see him as a cosmic killjoy. But this is, in fact, just the deceptiveness of sin. God, as our Creator, knows best what will bring about our lasting joy and happiness and his laws are for that purpose. Sometimes obedience is hard and it involves self-denial but, in God’s economy, this is actually the way to abundant life. That could mean treasures in heaven, but often times we experience earthly rewards our obedience as well (hard work typically pays a lot better than laziness). My point is this, the way to experience shalom is to obey God.

We extend this shalom to others in various ways. When we are a good friend we extend peace and joy to our friends. When we work in a job we extend the goodness of creation through the service of others and the building up of civilization. When we raise a family, we say “yes” to others around us and “yes” to the world, bringing about care, and stability. Even when we are playing a game I believe that God is pleased, that he sees this as us gratefully (assuming we’re doing it gratefully) receiving a gift and enjoying it with others. When we do all these things to the glory of God we experience and extend the goodness of God’s original intent in creation and we get a foretaste of what is to come on the new earth.

One of my college professors preached at our church recently and his take way line was “Everything matters, but somethings matter more. Some things matter more, but everything still matters.”

This is true. Eternity matters more, but that doesn’t mean this life ceases to matter. God gave it to us as a gift. He wants us to use it in a way that glorifies him. When we do that it is pleasing to God. If it is pleasing to God, it matters for eternity.

Confession of a Politically Engaged Pastor

Confession: I want to influence your* vote, but not for the reason or with the method you’re probably thinking of.

Here’s my dilemma: On the one hand I want to stay as far away from politics as possible. Politics are divisive. They usually separate instead of unite. That last thing I would want to do is divide the church on political lines, to alienate fellow believers or push away those who are seeking. I want to reach Bernie supporters, Hillary supporters, Trump supports, Kasich supports, Libertarians, #NeverTrumpers, and people of every other political stripe. I never want to unnecessarily offend and that’s often where political speech goes.

Second, so much of political thought is based on human wisdom and does not have the same weight as “thus saith the Lord.” As good or bad as some economic or political theories are, it’s just hard to defend many of them from Scripture. Since I’m a pastor in the business of proclaiming the Word of God above all else, I don’t want my political opinions to get entangled with what is more Scripturally certain.

Third, I don’t want to get distracted from the gospel. It’s Jesus that will transform the world and he does it through his life, death, and resurrection. That’s the message of life and hope. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that message.

On the other hand, while the gospel is not politics, the gospel does have political implications. Those who follow Jesus commit to following him in every area of their lives, and politics are not an exception. Voting, or choosing not to vote, is not morally neutral behavior or one based solely on personal preferences or opinions. Many political issues are based on human wisdom but others are questions in regards to what is good, and right, and just. Political engagement is a way that Christians can honor God and love neighbor, or it can be a way we dishonor God and neglect our neighbor.

I don’t want to influence your vote because I care about political power or political results. Political power can be good when used for justice but it can also seduce and corrupt. Political results are in the hands of the sovereign God. No, I care how you vote** because I am charged with the duty of discipleship (and not only in my role as a pastor, all Christians are called to be disciple-makers.) I care about how you vote because of the Judgment Seat of Christ where we will all be called to make account for our actions, whether good or bad, and how we act or fail to act politically comes under that same judgment.

Here’s my other dilemma: How then do I go about giving instruction on such matters? There are a couple of things I’m not comfortable doing – endorsing a candidate or using a position of influence to speak about matters of purely human wisdom. I’m not comfortable with this course of action for a few reasons, but the main reason is that it only gets at the surface off what is really going on. I see politics as a “lagging indicator.” Politics is always a few years behind culture. And culture comes out of a broad world view. For Christians, our worldview should be shaped by knowledge of Scripture, plus a desire to love God and love neighbor. This is the root. My aim in discipleship is to first discern the root issues and then to address them through Scripture. The benefit of this is that it not only eventually percolates back up to a political symptom (Lord willing) but that, more importantly, it’s essential to disciple-making in the first place, even if it never has any political impact.

This is part of the reason why I’ve written the blog posts that I have. I want you to know that abortion is an injustice against the weak and powerless and is an offense to the image of God. I want you to know that racism is a problem and that the body of Christ has a role to play in national healing. I want you to know that we need to examine our anger and look for constructive solutions. I want you to know that God cares for the aliens and strangers, even while that leads to uncertain political conclusions. I want you to know that political idolatry can lead to fear, hatred, and a compromised conscience. I also want you to know that not voting is an option, if the alternative is a vote between two evils. My aim is to focus on the gospel and the whole counsel of God and simply allow them to have the political consequences they might naturally have.

I really have no idea how I’m doing in this. It’s quite possible that I’m being too vague, that I lack courage, or that I am too concerned that I might offend. If so, I apologize. Or it’s possible I’m being too vocal, lifting issues higher than they should be and causing a distraction for some. If so, again, I apologize. I’ve swung wildly throughout my life. When I was a teenager I was convinced that pastors should be vocal political activists and that those who didn’t, failed to because of a lack of conviction. Later, I took the opposite position, coming to the conclusion that pastors should avoid political discussions at all costs. This election cycle has pulled me back to somewhere in the middle. Please pray with me as I try to navigate this rocky terrain.

* Note 1: “You/your” is specifically directed towards followers of Jesus. If you’re reading this and you are not a believer in, or follower of Jesus, this post probably doesn’t apply to you. It is pastoral in nature, not really generally political.

** Note 2: I don’t mean to say that there is a one-to-one relationship between proper discipleship and the “right” candidate. Followers of Jesus will disagree on some things politically, but that doesn’t mean they’re somehow “less than” if they happen to disagree with me. I expect a certain amount of healthy political diversity within the body. But, I do believe that biblical ethics and values do put certain limits on who we could vote for and maintain a clear conscience. There are certain candidates or laws which I would counsel Christians not to vote for and feel pretty certain about my conclusions.