Wayne Grudem’s Misuse of Scripture in “Politics According to the Bible”

I’m reading Wayne Grudem’s recent book, Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010). A conservative, Grudem is responding to books from the left like Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics. In my opinion, he makes some good points and some not so good points. Since this blog focuses on money, simplicity, giving, and justice, I thought I’d offer an evaluation of Grudem’s sections on “economics”, “private property”, and “giving to the poor”. In this area, I’m very disappointed. I’m quite concerned that Grudem’s biblical foundations are deeply faulty, and that many Christians who read him are being led to very wrong conclusions and opinions. His treatment of both Old and New Testament texts is vastly different from ours in the Lazarus at the Gate / Global Poverty Impact curriculum. And since Grudem’s book seems like it is meant to also be a textbook for seminary students, I want to offer a few thoughts on it for the readers of this blog.

In his chapter on Economics (chapter 9), Grudem takes the Bible as affirming private property. He seems to take this as an absolute: in fact, the right of the individual to acquire as much wealth and private property as possible by all lawful and moral means. He begins by quoting the prohibition on coveting (Ex.20:17) as assuming private property in the sense that he means it. He immediately condemns communism, or public ownership, on the grounds that it seeks to abolish private property. He cites Leviticus 25:10 as an example of how God returns land and property to individuals – a quotation I will evaluate below. He quotes 1 Samuel 8:10 – 18 (the warning of Samuel to Israel that a king will tax, take, and enslave) as evidence that big government power is an evil. He believes that economic development is God’s clear intention for the creation. He affirms the money currency and free markets as the direct derivation from biblical principles. He affirms the Bible’s concern for the poor but critiques government attempts at alleviating poverty. He believes government should encourage businesses. He believes taxes should be as low as possible for all individuals, and lower than 20% for corporations. He comments on capital gains taxes, income tax rates, and eschews a higher tax rate on the rich. Based on his reading of selected Scripture, he believes that God gave people the unlimited right to pass on economic inheritance to their children (Proverbs 19:14; Numbers 27:8 – 11) and that government should not interfere with that (Ezekiel 46:18). He says, “The Bible clearly takes the side of individual ownership of property. My conclusion is that the estate tax should be permanently repealed.” (p.309) Etc. etc.

For the moment, I’ll set aside the fact that American wealth is, to a very significant degree, built on stolen land (from Native Americans, Chicanos, and Mexican Americans), stolen life and labor (from African Americans), stolen wages (from underpaid immigrant strikebreakers to today’s migrant workers, with underpaid women throughout), and stolen health (from people affected by pollution, toxins, harmful products, workplace injuries, etc. who went without legal defense). I’ll only address Grudem’s misuse of various Scriptures which undergirds his thinking about economics and private property.

Even though we cannot reinstate the Law of Moses as if we were Mosaic Israel, it is still valuable to discern principles that we will find developed further in the rest of Scripture. One lesson is that in Israel, wealth was God’s blessing for all, including future generations. Leviticus 25 is quite significant because in this section we find the clearest statement about God’s desire for Israel’s use of the land over time and as it relates to family and “private property”. But Grudem truncates it down to the individual.

Leviticus 25 demonstrates that God’s vision for biblical Israel was virtually the opposite that Wayne Grudem has for America. Israel divided its land up by clan and family in a roughly even distribution, starting from the point they settled the Promised Land. The fiftieth year was called a “Jubilee year.” It was a “reset button.” During the Jubilee year, people returned to their ancestral lands (Lev.25:13), even if they were indentured to someone else in a debt-contract. They did not pay for the remainder of the debt contract that they left unfulfilled. Land, too, would return to its original tribal and familial boundaries (Lev.25:14 – 28), so people could not be permanently displaced from their ancestral lands. In other words, land could not be permanently bought or acquired. If an Israelite fell upon hard times and was forced to sell family property, a kinsman-redeemer was required by Law to intervene (Lev.25:25 – 28). But even if there was no kinsman-redeemer, that Israelite would be restored to his ancestral land at no expense!

This also means that children and grandchildren would not be penalized for the laziness or misfortunes of their parents and grandparents. Because land was wealth, there were very strong measures taken to ensure that, over time, no family and no individual could accumulate land at the expense of someone else (which was, incidentally, the only way to accumulate it). God was weaving a deep principle into Israel’s existence: ‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me’ (Lev.25:23). God was reminding Israel of their status as ‘aliens and sojourners.’ They did not, in fact, own the land. God did. And their experience of that reality lay in the fact that God pushed a “reset button” every fifty years on land boundaries, so that every Israelite could enjoy their ancestral land as a gift from Him as if they were first settling the Promised Land! This was something like what humanity should have experienced had the fall never happened: God was bestowing the garden land to humanity and every family would have their own portion.

Imagine if the United States followed a policy of land restitution to Native Americans, African Americans, and Chicanos. We would have a very different situation to say the least! Or, imagine if there were some way to design a social system so that the children and grandchildren of parents who fell on hard times would not be punished for what happened in the generations before them. Instead, our social system forces children of lazy and criminal parents to swallow their parents’ choices, as if we could safely assume that children of those people will share their parents’ characteristics. And, we essentially say that many of the poor are poor because they keep having children. Historically, European American people infected by the disease of racism allowed children of black slaves and sharecroppers to inherit all the unmitigated disadvantages they could handle, and more. Even for people who claim to be without racial prejudice, which may be the case on a personal level, they fail to see how the economic and legal system we have perpetuates injustice by forcing children and grandchildren to bear the brunt of all their ancestors’ misfortunes and choices. From 1979 – 2007, the income gap tripled. In roughly the same period, the racial wealth gap between white families and black families increased by fourfold. But the Mosaic arrangement of land and wealth in ancient Israel would have alleviated all that.

I am incredulous, then, that Grudem can read Leviticus 25 and still say, “The Bible clearly takes the side of individual ownership of property. My conclusion is that the estate tax should be permanently repealed.” (p.309) How can he wrench the idea of “private property” out of its context and foundation in Leviticus 25? For people to have the unlimited ability to accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children is precisely the opposite of what Leviticus 25 says. And quoting Proverbs or any other Old Testament passage about “inheritance” or “hard work” is of absolutely no use for his case. That is because every other Old Testament passage takes Leviticus 25 as the starting point and foundation. So “inheritance” in Proverbs includes God’s “reset button” of land redistribution to its original intended boundaries and nothing beyond it. It most certainly does not imply that parents should have the ability to pass down unlimited amounts of wealth and property to their children, especially when they gained it at someone else’s expense, but even when they gained it “fairly”.

Contrary to what Grudem thinks, there is not even a notion of economic or technological progress in Israel’s Scriptures. In fact, an overarching spirit of anti-progress is bound up in the Mosaic legislation to prevent Israelites from displacing each other from the land. Land was the most desirable economic commodity of ancient times, the driving force for economic growth and trade, the symbol of status, and the factor of production attached to power in that era, which is significant in that Israel valued land even more, perhaps, than other civilizations did. Their land was the tangible manifestation of their covenant relationship with God. Yet precisely because of this, land was frozen in its distributed arrangement by tribe, clan, and family.

It is not even as simple as the contemporary Roman Catholic posture, “Justice takes priority over progress, but progress that equally benefits everyone is acceptable.” The entire notion of progress is called into question by the Bible. It is quite impossible that Israel thought they should ever improve on the land as it was given to them. The sabbatical ordinances of letting the land lie fallow for an entire year reflects a certain ideal, the ideal of humanity simply receiving provision from the land in as undisturbed and unprovoked a manner as possible. Israel was to let the land experience Sabbath rest every seventh year (Lev.25:1 – 8 ) and every fiftieth year, that is, after seven Sabbath cycles (Lev.25:9 – 12). These Sabbath years for the land were more than simply a year of planned crop rotation to let the soil recover. It was an act of trust in God to provide what they needed, without agricultural planning, irrigation, or cultivation. Every seventh day, seventh year, and fiftieth year, Israel was to experience something of a return to the garden of Eden, eating freely from the land. Furthermore, it was impossible for Israel to plan intelligently for the future because God commanded the people to sacrifice the best tenth of their harvest (normally used for future seeding) and their animals (normally used for breeding). The embodiment of future economic certainty was destroyed to leave room for God Himself to supply it. Economic development under these conditions was not even an intellectual category for Israel. Improving domestic stock through intelligent breeding was literally laid on the altar. Thus, rather than seeing the land as an object God gave them to harness, Israel understood the land as God’s medium of blessing His covenant people. The land was one of Israel’s sources of identity. It mediated their existence. The promised land mediated between God and Israel in the same way the Edenic land mediated between God and Adam. The land was sustained by God (not by them) and supervised providentially by Him (not by them) in correlation with Israel’s obedience to Torah, not in relation to whether they used the best known agricultural methods, worked the hardest they could, etc. This is clear from Deuteronomy 11:11 – 17. Israel saw a significant distinction between their land and the land of other nations, like Egypt. God would bless Israel on their land because of their love for God and love for neighbor, the original responsibilities of both Adam and Cain. No other people had a land like this one. No pesticides needed. No chemicals. Organic. Sustainable. Tiny carbon footprint.

Furthermore, the Jews were not to loan money to each other at interest (Ex.22:26 – 27, Lev.25:35 – 38, Deut.23:19, Ezk.18:10 – 18, 22:12) which put a check on capital, the second factor of production and the driving medium for innovation. Banking as we understand it today, which already existed in ancient Babylonia and the Mesopotamian region according to Hawkes and Wooley, was impossible in Israel. With this prohibition, Israel had no incentive to profiteer at the expense of creation’s resources. They had no impetus for technological advancement, and the institutional motivation for economic growth was dismantled. Israel could not make human ingenuity part of the process of receiving God’s blessings from the land. They could not link the future to the present by means of money. They could not even describe risk in monetary terms, but instead had to place time and uncertainty into the hands of God. In fact, given that the practice of usury favors the wealthy, as they are the only ones with such capital to loan out, it is not surprising that God forbade usury among the Israelites. Once again we see God instituting laws that prevented the acquisition of more property, protected people from their own greed, mitigated against the permanent displacement of the homeless, and halted people from evaluating everything and everyone in terms of material wealth. The church during the Middle Ages likewise generally forbade the practice of interest-rate lending, carrying over the disdain for usury present in early Christianity and also in ancient Greece. Only with Calvin and his followers, with their reliance on trade and commerce for funds, did Christianity and usury become bedfellows. To ill effect: We have not had a vigorous Christian critique of banking for about five hundred years. It would come in useful right about now with the global financial system in a crisis.

When God revealed Himself personally in Jesus of Nazareth, he called his Jewish followers to disinherit themselves from the Mosaic land system (e.g. Matthew 6:19 – 34; 19:13 – 30; Luke 6:12 – 49; 9:51 – 62; 12:13 – 34; 14:25 – 35; 18:15 – 30; 21:1 – 4; etc.). He did this because of his global evangelistic mission; Jewish disciples couldn’t hold onto their ancestral lands and go out into the Gentile world at the same time! He did this also because the generosity of his people was now unlimited. God was no longer utilizing a stable economic system in which people were anchored in a land, which would then become a geo-political community. Instead, Christians are called by Jesus to be a mobile, flexible, pilgrim people, not claiming permanent roots in a land, but looking forward to reunion of the new heavens and new earth.

All of this, Grudem apparently rationalizes away. He never even considers the biblical theme of power and what Jesus and Paul might suggest about a fundamental redistribution of power. Much to the detriment of Christian scholarship, devotion, witness, love, and yes, political action. While Grudem is eager to criticize the consolidation of government power, he fails to mention the growth of corporate power and its skewing of American democracy. He doesn’t even consider the role of banks. If he had listened to populist Republicans like Kevin Phillips, who presciently warned us in Wealth and Democracy of the corruption of democracy and the perils of a financial economy, his book would have much more balance. But alas, he did not. I could hardly stomach how he addresses Native Americans in ch.15. To readers of this book, I can only say, “buyer beware.” To those who are in relationship with fans of the book, I can only say, “Please have them read this blog post.”

A Poem for Perspective on Wealth and Poverty

I recently rediscovered this poem, and it inspires me to keep looking to Jesus to help me give to the poor, as well as to work towards justice. It was written by a working-class Chilean woman in 1973, shortly after Chile’s president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown. A U.S. missionary translated the work and brought it with her when she was forced to leave Chile. It was published in the July 1985 issue of Sojourners magazine.

I am a woman
I am a woman.
I am a woman born of a woman whose man owned a factory.
I am a woman born of a woman whose man labored in a factory.
I am a woman whose man wore silk suits, who constantly watched his weight.
I am a woman whose man wore tattered clothing, whose heart was constantly strangled by hunger.
I am a woman who watched two babies grow into beautiful children.
I am a woman who watched two babies die because there was no milk.
I am a woman who watched twins grow into popular college students with summers abroad.
I am a woman who watched three children grow, but with bellies stretched from no food.
But then there was a man;
But then there was a man;
And he talked about the peasants getting richer by my family getting poorer.
And he told me of days that would be better, and he made the days better.
We had to eat rice.
We had rice.
We had to eat beans!
We had beans.
My children were no longer given summer visas to Europe.
My children no longer cried themselves to sleep.
And I felt like a peasant.
And I felt like a woman.
A peasant with a dull, hard, unexciting life.
Like a woman with a life that sometimes allowed a song.
And I saw a man.
And I saw a man.
And together we began to plot with the hope of the return to freedom.
I saw his heart begin to beat with the hope of freedom, at last.
Someday, the return to freedom.
Someday, freedom.
And then,
But then,
One day,
One day,
There were planes overhead and guns firing close by.
There were planes overhead and guns firing in the distance.
I gathered my children and went home.
I gathered my children and ran.
And the guns moved farther and farther away.
But the guns moved closer and closer.
And then, they announced that freedom had been restored!
And then they came, young boys really.
They came into my home along with my man.
They came and found my man.
Those men whose money was almost gone –
They found all of the men whose lives were almost their own.
And we all had drinks to celebrate.
And they shot them all.
The most wonderful martinis.
They shot my man.
And then they asked us to dance.
And then they came for me.
For me, the woman.
And my sisters.
For my sisters.
And then they took us,
Then they took us,
They took us to dinner at a small, private club.
They stripped us of the dignity we had gained.
And they treated us to beef.
And then they raped us.
It was one course after the other.
One after another they came after us.
We nearly burst we were so full.
Lunging, plunging – sisters bleeding, sisters dying.
It was magnificent to be free again!
It was hardly a relief to have survived.
The beans have almost disappeared now.
The beans have disappeared.
The rice – I’ve replaced it with chicken or steak.
The rice, I cannot find it.
And the parties continue night after night to make up for all the time wasted.
And my silent tears are joined once more by the midnight cries of my children.
And I feel like a woman again.
They say, I am a woman.

The Coming Collapse of Middle Class Giving

I just watched a youtube video of Elizabeth Warren’s 2008 lecture “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.” It was very clear and helpful. I’m going to distill it, and add a few thoughts of my own. I hope that you will chime in on a subject we haven’t explored yet: the intersection between promoting giving and politics. Why is this intersection important?

Between 1970 and 2007, the median 2 parent family increased expenses on:
* houses by 76%,
* health insurance by 74% (if healthy and employer-sponsored),
* cars by 52% (because families used to have 1 car on average),
* child care by 100% (a new expense),
* taxes by 25% (because moms are now working in addition to dads).

The family paid 50% of its income for those five things above on 1 income back in 1970. But now, the family pays 75% of its income for those things on 2 incomes.

The family saved 11% of total income in 1970, and now we save a whopping 0%. In fact, we are in debt. We’re assuming more risk and stress. What happens if one parent loses a job or gets really sick? What happens if we need to care for elderly parents? So how in the world is the average middle class Christian family going to give towards global poverty, when we feel like we’re skating on the edge, or already treading water?

If I’m interested in giving, and in helping other people give, I’ve got to be interested in the system and not just individual choices. I’ve got to care about why our big “non-negotiable-feeling” expenses (housing in wealthy school districts, etc.) have shot up so much, not just why we are in more consumer debt. So why has this happened?

One reason is that in the 1970’s, bank mortgage law changed to consider 2 incomes and not just 1 income; that shifted the entire real estate market towards larger homes. Now in many places, it’s not even possible to get a mortgage without 2 incomes. We need to go back to smaller homes, so that we can afford mortgages on 1 income. We really have to consider living in intentional Christian community, in the city and the burbs. In the long run, Christian real estate developers and policy makers need to leverage their influence in city planning and housing policy. Bringing down housing costs would free up dramatically more money to give.

Our overall health has really changed over the last 40 years, too. For those of you who know me, you know that my family and I are really into eating healthy because society’s change in food is making us sicker. One in three Americans born after the year 2000 will have diabetes. So we’ve got to eat healthier and ask stores to carry healthier foods. We need to stop Monsanto and other companies making genetically modified food, which gives us allergies and inflammation. We need higher standards for testing and packaging. We need to stop giving $8 billion in subsidies to corn producers, which doesn’t go to the farmers anyway but rather chemicals and oil companies. And dare I say that we need a public option to drive down health insurance costs? Private health insurance companies made a 26% profit during 2009, during the depth of this recession! Why is insurance a profit-making industry? Lowering our health costs would free up more money to give in the long run.

We need to raise the tax rate on the rich. It’s fairly clear from the 1920’s, 1980’s, and the 2000’s that rich people do not stimulate the economy or create jobs. They put their money in risky financial investments that then “need” government bail outs. The rich give less as a % of their wealth, so helping the lower and middle classes will result in more giving overall.

We need to reign in banks and financial institutions. They changed the real estate market, then bet against middle class families in the mortgage crisis. They promote overconsumption and debt. They oppose the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau which is like opposing a “list of ingredients” on our food packaging, etc. And on a global level, the IMF and World Bank are dubious. The ancient Jewish, Christian, and Greek suspicion of interest rates was well founded, because they recognized how the rich could further take advantage of the poor through interest rate lending. Unregulated profit motives and unchecked private power will always grind down the face of the poor especially.

I’m sure you can think of more, and I’d like to consider it. If we care about giving, and especially middle class giving, then we need to care about the systems we live in, and not just individual consumer choices, as important as those are. What do you think?

Eating Healthy for Less

I’m experiencing a tension between spending less and eating more healthy food. Last year, we changed our diet to eat organic. This means we spend a bit more $ on food than we did before. Also, we use raw sugar, honey, or 100% maple syrup instead of white sugar and artificial sweeteners. As a result of eating healthier, the pain that I felt in my hands and wrists – which I thought was caused only by keyboard usage – went away! White processed sugar can be an inflammatory agent to your joints. Our kids’ piano teacher experienced the same thing with arthritic pain. Also, not surprisingly, we have less plaque on our teeth. The average American consumes between 3 and 5 pounds of added sugar a week, adding up to 200+ pounds of added sugar a year per person.

Also, we now use whole wheat flour instead of white processed flour. White processed flour is just glucose; it’s stripped of the nutritious wheat bran and germ, leaving only the carbohydrate. The rise in American diabetes is probably due to the use of white processed flour. Many products say “Made With Whole Grains” on packages, but use dark brown colors and deceptive names; they actually have ordinary refined wheat flour as their main ingredient, since they are not required by law to disclose the percentage of whole grains versus refined grains. In fact, some processed flour has a harmful plastic called bromine. So we try to eat NO white flour products at all: pasta, bread, buns, muffins, croissants, pizza dough, almost all cereals, crackers, and flour tortillas. Instead, if we buy things from the store, we buy oatmeal, flax seed cereal, nuts, whole wheat pasta, and Ezekiel bread from Trader Joe’s. At Christmas we also bought a small electric mill that grinds whole grains into whole wheat flour. It was $250 but it saves us a little bit because we now make our own bread, pizza dough, and pie crust, which are delicious. (My pizza is pictured above, blueberry pie here…)

In general, I’m convinced that eating healthy will save us money in the long run, both individually and as a society. Our industrial food system is a long way from God’s good garden with fresh fruit galore. Anyone recommend good recipes that combine the values of eating healthy but spending less? Awhile back, I came across this on Huffington Post, and it had some decent recipes.

Economic Development and Modern Day Slavery

My friend Jimmy Quach works for Good Paper, a greeting card company that started in Rwanda. Their newest line of cards, Sanctuary Spring, is made by survivors of sex trafficking. The International Justice Mission phoned Jimmy last summer saying that they had just rescued 40 women who needed jobs right away, lest they be re-trafficked. Soon afterwards, Jimmy flew to Manila to meet with the IJM Manila office to get them set up as a production facility for Sanctuary Spring cards.

This is just one example of how economic development helps people escape from modern day slavery. It’s probably the best preventative measure we can take. In fact, I recently learned that what British missionary David Livingstone meant when he said, “Africa needs the gospel and capitalism” was in the context of trying to rescue Africans from slavery from Muslim slave traders. Although it sounds imperialistic, what he meant was, “Africa needs the gospel and economic development.” He wanted to make sustainable agriculture profitable enough so that people would not sell other people into slavery by force, trickery, etc. The term “economic development” wasn’t available to Livingstone at the time; so although he sounds wrong today, in fact, he was right.

In the first few centuries, Christians actually emancipated slaves by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands. Augustine and the Apostolic Constitutions tell us matter-of-factly that Christians regularly collected money during their services, not to just pay their clergy, but to purchase and free slaves. Eventually, from the 600’s to the 1300’s, Christians abolished slavery in France, Hungary, England, Iceland, the Netherlands, and the Scandanavian countries. Slavery existed everywhere else in the world; freedom was “the peculiar institution.” And although European Christians got mixed up in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they eventually abolished it once more. British Christians proceeded to use the British navy to shut down the slave trade in other countries, especially Muslim ones. I’m willing to argue that only Christian faith gives a clear moral and intellectual foundation for antislavery. I’ve done a lot of biblical research to substantiate that claim. Please ask me about it.

So let’s keep thinking creatively and effectively at combating modern day slavery. Some ways I know of are: Economic development, legal reform (when good laws don’t exist yet), legal advocacy (when good laws already exist), aftercare, and Christian evangelistic mission and community development. My thanks to Jimmy Quach and Sanctuary Spring for being more recent inspirations to me.

Motivated by Grief

After World War II, the U.S. set out to control much of the world’s wealth.  One of the chief architects of this order said, “[The U.S. has] about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”  (George Kennan, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948. Report by the Policy Planning Staff, Washington, DC: General Printing Office, 1976, pp 524-525.)  Thus began a subtle, new kind of Empire.  In 1953, the CIA helped organize a coup in Iran to overthrow a democratically elected president to ensure that Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would have access to oil fields.  The oil company renamed itself British Petroleum.  Intense anti-Western sentiment built in Iran as the CIA installed a dictator, the Shah of Iran.

The CIA opposed democracy and installed dictators in Guatemala in 1954, Hungary in 1956, Laos in 1957, Haiti in 1959, Ecuador and Congo in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1963, Indonesia in 1965, etc.  The list is depressingly long.  American business interests spread like a cancer over Latin America and Southeast Asia.

I give because I want to be generous, and because I want to express my grief in love.  “But that sounds like being motivated by guilt.”  No, I’m not motivated by guilt.  True guilt requires direct action to the people I directly hurt.  But in the political-economic context in which we live, neither the hurt nor the recompense is so direct.  So I give because the system is unfair and because I grieve it.  A good deal of the money we have was built on the suffering of other people.

Jesus called the rich ruler to give up all he had (Lk.18:18-30).  The ruler could not.  Then Jesus met Zaccheus (Lk.19:1-10), the filthy rich chief tax collector whose wealth flowed from the reality of Empire.  He sat at the top of a pyramid of lower ranking tax collectors; they got their wealth by collecting taxes for the oppressive Romans and skimming off of the Jewish people.  Zaccheus was able to give up his wealth.  Perhaps he was motivated by an appropriate guilt, to some degree, since he promised to give back four times the amount he had defrauded people; it was a direct action towards specific people he had wronged.  But perhaps he was also motivated by grief, since he also gave half his money to the poor, right off the bat.  Was he able to do so because he knew his money came from an unjust system?  Because he was already uncomfortable?  Was he already growing in his conviction that Empire was wrong?  Did a new identity with Jesus empower him to act on what was already gnawing on his conscience?

This kind of grief is one aspect of love.  “You were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!”  (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, grieve and mourn?  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, long for the comfort of the poor?

Profile: Bread for the World

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.”
Leo Tolstoy

As you think about what organization to give to this season, consider this:  One of the best ways to help the poor around the world is for Americans to dismantle our own power.  Twenty billion of our tax dollars go to support mostly large agribusinesses.  In turn, they overproduce crops (watch the documentary King Corn) and then outprice Third World farmers in their own markets.  A legacy of the Great Depression when we wanted to help small farmers (which made sense then), farm subsidies now support huge farm companies (which doesn’t make sense now).  A Nov 2005 report says that 62 cents of every dollar that a U.S. farmer makes is funded by a government subsidy. In the last decade, recipients of the farm subsidies (in the five and six digits) included John Hancock Life Insurance Co., Chevron, banker David Rockefeller, basketball star Scottie Pippen, and former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay. Yes, these guys are “farmers.”

You would think that Democrats and Republicans would unite to get rid of these subsidies.  Democrats because they are for the poor and against corporate welfare, and Republicans because they are against government interference in the free market.  But those who benefit from the U.S. Farm Bill have been tenacious.

That’s one reason I support Bread for the World.  BTFW is a Christian political advocacy group whose goal is to end hunger.  They do excellent research and mobilization.  They help congregations and other groups write to their elected officials.  For example, Boston College’s Asian Christian Fellowship decided to do a letter writing campaign to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, asking him reform U.S. foreign aid policy so that it would be independent of U.S. military goals and truly attentive to the world’s poorest nations. And they take stands against the current U.S. Farm Bill, which will come up for a vote again in 2012.

BTFW also focuses on domestic poverty and hunger.  On Dec. 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law.  It reauthorizes funding for national child nutrition programs such as school lunches—the subject of BTFW’s advocacy during the last two years.

In many ways, giving towards political advocacy like BTFW is less “sexy” than giving to a charity or economic development organization doing direct service.  I’m less sure exactly how money is being spent.  I’m less sure whether the money I give is “making a difference.”  And yet, perhaps this is a reason to summon even more spiritual discipline (e.g. like giving in secret from Matthew 6:1 – 18) and Jesus’ love.  Let’s face it:  Sometimes we feel more powerful and “in control” when we give money to people “charitably”, even if we know we sit on the backs of those very people in the first place.

For more information, visit the BTFW website at www.bread.org.  It’s a great resource with up to date statistics, policy analysis, and Bible studies on God’s command to care for the poor.

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #2

I love the Lord of the Rings story, especially the struggle of Frodo against the Ring of Power.  Frodo chooses to take the Ring to the place where it can be destroyed. But as soon as he does, the Ring starts fighting him.  It tries to take him over.  It desires to put him into harm’s way.  Frodo wrestles against the Ring all the way to the volcanic fires of Mount Doom where it could be unmade.  But when he gets there, he gives in to the temptation to wield the power of the Ring.  Like others before him, he fails to destroy the evil.

That is an incomplete analogy of Jesus’ own experience.  Starting from his birth on that first Christmas, Jesus took on the same selfish, corrupted, and damaged human nature that each of us has.  John said, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).  John could have said that the Word became soma (a body) or anthropos (a man); but he used the word sarx (flesh) to denote corrupted human nature – as Paul said, “Nothing good dwells in my flesh” (Romans 7:18).  From his birth, Jesus wrestled against his own human nature.  It tried to make him take the easy road, or embrace the selfish cravings, but Jesus refused; instead, Jesus struggled victoriously against his human nature.  He never sinned; instead, he forced his flesh to comply with the love of the Father at every moment.  Unlike Frodo and the Ring, Jesus couldn’t take it off his humanity; it was himself!  And unlike Frodo, Jesus had to die himself in order to finally vanquish the sinful human nature he had taken on.  Jesus succeeded where none of us could possibly go.  He defeated the sinful nature.  But he rose new in his resurrection, as a God-soaked, God-drenched human being – a new human being.  And Jesus is able to share the Spirit of his new humanity with us, to make us into the truly human people God has always wanted us to be.

That is the central truth about Jesus’ grace towards us.  In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul gives his ultimate rationale for Christians to give their money generously to the poor:

9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.

The entire arc of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are his “grace” – χαρις, strength.  Jesus “for your sake…became poor.”  That is, he became human.  But “through his poverty” he offers us what God values most:  the new and transformed human nature of Jesus, which is soaked through with God’s love.  In fact, sharing in Jesus’ new, God-soaked humanity by his Spirit makes us “rich.”  What does that make us?  The people God has always wanted us to become – the generous, sacrificial, loving, and strong people who bear His image into the world.

By the same grace of our Lord Jesus, we are called to struggle against our own selfishness and greed.  By his strength, we fight our own weakness.  By his victory, we fight our temptation.  By his grace, we resist our own ungraciousness.  By our giving by his Spirit, we show forth Jesus’ own self-giving.  We reveal the very Jesus who was rich and became poor…so that the poor might become rich indeed.  To whom will you let Jesus give through you this Christmas?

The Story of All Our Stuff

My friend turned me on to this website:  www.storyofstuff.com.  It gives a quick and sobering summary of where all our STUFF comes from.  Our “designed for disposal” economy, the toxins we make, the labor injustices, our overconsumption, and the methods of disposal are all terrible.  Please watch it, decide on what action you can take, and forward it on!  Especially to anyone who doesn’t “get” the issues of sustainability and justice that we’re facing.  Our system is in crisis!

For a focus on electronics, see this website:  www.storyofelectronics.com.

Solar Lanterns

I’ve been looking for ways to give to Pakistan since the floods earlier this year, since the U.N. called the Pakistan floods the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history, with more people affected than the South-East Asian tsunami and the earthquakes in Haiti and Kashmir combined.  I came across Eco Energy Finance which is distributing $12 solar lanterns in Pakistan made by Greenlight Planet.  These lanterns are clean energy sources.  They recharge in 4 hours of daylight and last for 16 hours.  They can replace kerosene lamps, which are environmentally costly and carry risks of accidental burning.  They provide badly needed light for rescue shelters and health clinics.  And they’re great in rural areas.

In the recent past, I’ve valued relief work but haven’t given there because I’m aware that ~95% of American charitable dollars given overseas goes to relief already.  But ideas like the solar lanterns catch my attention because they touch on larger issues (accessibility, environment, energy, health) and point us all towards technology for the future.  Anyone else know of ways to give like this?