CHRISTIAN LIVING

21Jul

Our Love Affair with Fair

Two stories with no apparent relationship — making certain “good” teachers are spread “equally” throughout the schools, and the number of deaths in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

Look, when militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality. More than 200 Gazans have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, according to United Nations officials; one Israeli has been killed. In any case, Israel’s long-term interest lies in de-escalating, not moving to the ground war it now threatens. –New York Times

Today, the Obama administration is asking states to create plans ensuring that all students have access to effective teachers — and it will publish profiles of all states that will include information about where children from minority and low-income families aren’t getting their fair share of these teachers this fall. –Politico

Like two kids arguing about how to equally split the last piece of cake, we live in a world obsessed with fairness. But is our obsession helping? Or is it ultimately hurting? Let’s look at the these three cases — Israel and Hamas, the distribution of “good” teachers, and the splitting of a slice of cake.

The slice of cake is easy for several reasons. First, it’s a zero sum game for this particular slice of cake; once the cake is eaten, it’s eaten. There may be other cakes, but there’s only so much of this cake. Second, it’s easy to see how much cake there actually is, and to judge that both of the kids want some. So it’s easy to judge the requirements (both kids want some), the resources are finite (there is only one slice of this cake left), and the results (the resulting slices can be weighed and measured to determine if the split is really equal).

The cake might be simple, but what about the distribution of “good” teachers? First, is this a zero sum game? Are there only so many “good teachers” available in the entire world, and only a specific number trained and graduated each year? This rather mechanistic view of humans is not only unreal, but insulting to the teachers themselves. Of course teachers can improve (or degrade) in their abilities over time, and of course more (or fewer) people might choose to become a teacher. So the supply of teachers is not fixed, and the “distribution of good teachers” is not a zero sum game. Second, how do we judge the desire of various school districts for “good teachers?” Is there some way we can survey all classrooms in all districts and determine the proportion of motivated verses unmotivated students? In fact, how do we know the “good teachers” aren’t, in fact, “good” because they are teaching motivated classes, rather than unmotivated ones? Finally, how do we measure the results of “good teacher equalization?” In short, there’s no way to measure the results.

What about the “equivalence” of Hamas and Israel? We’re often told that because more Palestinians are killed that Israeli’s, and because “Israel” has “better weapons,” the “fight is unfair.” But what does “unfair” mean here? When a bully starts a fight, do we really expect the bullied to only do what the bully does — or should the bullied have the option of fighting with all the weapons they have at their disposal? If your daughter is being raped by a thug with a knife, is it “unfair” for her to pull a gun — or call the police (who will bring a gun)? Again, this isn’t a zero sum game at all — lives are at stake, as well as the existence of a nation. “Unfair” doesn’t come into the picture here. Second, do we even bother to judge the desires here? When was the last time you heard that Israel wants two states, and Hamas doesn’t? If motives matter, then why aren’t the motives in play here? Finally, how would you measure the results? Is it really only okay to measure the number of dead, or must we also measure the number of dead within each age group, socioeconomic status, race, and religion? What is a “civilian?”

In the real world, our obsession with “fairness” hurts more than it helps. We think the number of “good” teachers is like a slice of pie that can be split evenly among all possible schools. We think the number of dead should be split evenly between Israel and Hamas, or the “fight is unfair.” The number of dead isn’t what matters — what matters is who attacked whom, for what reasons, and what the response options on the table are.

We need to dump our obsession with fairness, and come back into the real world, where the slice of cake isn’t fixed, and motivations and measurable results count.

16Jul

Our Self Centered Selflessness

So let’s say you want to start a business — maybe an ice cream store. You go through the process of finding a location, looking at suppliers, examine what sort of ice cream to sell, etc. Then you start the actual process of starting the process, and run into the wall of bureaucratic forms, regulations, and bribes (yes, bribes — what else can you call it when you’re told to give money to a private organization to “offset the environmental impact” of your business?).

What are all these rules for?

If you ask any random bureaucrat, they’ll be glad to tell you. All these rules are designed to protect the people, to protect the environment, to protect the vulnerable, to promote social justice… All these rules are really, really, selfless.

If there is one thing we have become really good at, it’s convincing ourselves that we’re selfless and caring while we’re in the process of destroying people’s lives and opportunities.

Life is hard. It’s harder still when an entire class of people with their hands out stands between you and success. Unfortunately, that’s increasingly the problem, all around the world. A recent New York Times piece tells the story of a Greek woman’s efforts to survive that country’s financial collapse. After losing her job, she tried to start a pastry business, only to find the regulatory environment impossible. Among other things, they wanted her to pay the business’s first two years of taxes up front, before it had taken in a cent. When the business failed, her lesson was this: “I, like thousands of others trying to start businesses, learned that I would be at the mercy of public employees who interpreted the laws so they could profit themselves.” –USA Today

What has really happened, of course, is that we’ve developed a “caring class,” and we all pay them to care about lots of stuff for us — because we’re too busy, we’re unable to care (you have to be an expert to care), or… Whatever. We just prefer to pay someone else to care for us. Just as nations used to (still do) hire mercenaries to fight our wars, we now hire entire armies of mercenaries to care.

There is a problem with all of this, of course. It doesn’t work when it runs into human nature. It turns out there’s a lot of money to be made in the caring business. Al Gore flies around in a really expensive jet because he does a lot of caring about the environment for us, after all. If you’re paid to care, you don’t want anyone to find out that they can care for themselves, right? Hence we build entire bureaucracies that care — and the folks who work in said bureaucracies don’t want to lose their jobs in the caring business.

There’s another way in which caring can make you a lot of money — you can care about solving societies problems in a way that directly profits your business. For instance, George Soros has asked for risk insurance for companies operating in war torn parts of the world. Not that his company’s operations in these very same war torn parts of the world have anything to do with it.

The bottom line is this: there’s a reason the Scriptures, and the Rabbi’s believe that charity and generosity should be up close and personal. There’s a reason charity, in the Scriptures, is tied to actual one-on-one relationships.

Because without the personal element, selflessness all too often, and all too easily, becomes self centered.

25Jun

Materialism

It should be fairly obvious — to anyone who actually thinks — that materialism is a muddled worldview. As an apologetic challenge, the true materialist is about the easiest foe you can face, for it is a completely self defeating line of thinking. It all comes down to this simple statement:

If you truly believe that all your thoughts are simply the result of random material causes propagating from some distant time in the past until now, then your thoughts about where your thoughts came from are not more true or false than any your thoughts themselves.

In other words, materialism fails because it assumes something is both true (our thoughts about where our thoughts came from) and outside truth (our thoughts) at the same time. It is self defeating to the point of silliness. And yet… Materialism survives in our culture — in fact, it is probably the predominate mode of thought in our modern world. Don’t believe me? What is the first reaction to these problems: improving education, improving health care, taking care of the poor, or providing our children with a better future?

Spending more money. Or perhaps buying more stuff.

What might not be so obvious is that the failures of materialism in the realm of belief extend, as a worldview, into the world of living. Materialism fails not only as a belief system, but also as a way of life. This is not to say that material things are bad — there are a lot of laws around material things in the Levitical law code. Rather, as Christians who take the Scriptures seriously should well understand, taking stuff more seriously than people is a pathway to devaluing the stuff and the people. As C.S. Lewis noted, the easiest way to losing both the first and the second things is to put second things first.

But our first instinct is to buy more stuff. Take, for instance, the entire narrative the progressive left has adopted around politics — not just in the US, but globally.

If one book encapsulates what the political Left thinks of conservatives, it is What’s The Matter With Kansas? by the journalist Thomas Frank. In the decade since the book’s publication, Frank’s title has become synonymous with his primary thesis: Conservative politicians strategically use social issues to get blue-collar conservatives hot under the collar, then turn around and enact economic policies that do not actually benefit those voters. This is a perpetual frustration to right-thinking liberals, and a constant refrain in the op-ed pages of their right-thinking publications. How tragic that the low-income populations of red states should be so distracted by “values,” and withhold their votes from the party that would redistribute more resources to them. What a rube one must be to prize morality more than money! Ranking one’s priorities thus used to make you honorable. Now, in the eyes of coastal cosmopolitans, it simply makes you a sucker. –The Federalist

When people talk about “values voters” in a negative way, or people who vote “socially conservative,” they just mean people who value something other than more stuff. The counter reply is, of course, that if I’m buying more stuff for someone else, rather than for me, I’m “doing good.” That I can truly show I care by asking the government to do something for that poor person I saw on the street yesterday, or on the television screen this morning.

But this is another front for materialism — and it doesn’t work any better. If you’re doing something to prove your heart is in the right place, it’s not. When you use someone else as a proxy for me, then you are still focusing on me. To put it in the words of the most famous progressive in the world right now (cobbled together from various places):

Empathy is at the heart of my moral code. … I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those who are struggling in this society. … Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. … If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves. -Barak Obama

Empathy, says Jean-Jacques Rousseau, means, “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow … it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer.”

in other words, when we empathize — particularly through the political process — we are actually using someone else as a proxy for our own feelings. We’re buying something for someone else to make ourselves feel better, rather than buying something for ourselves.

The Christian answer to this is to make charity personal and immediate. Charity begins at home, because the home is where we have the strongest relationships. As we work our way outward in terms of relationships, our charity falls off — from immediate family, to extended family, to people in our “tribe,” to those within our nation, to… The point is not to be cruel to those we don’t know, but to prevent us from using those we don’t know as a proxy for ourselves — to prevent, in other terms the idolatry of treating another person as an object which we can use to make ourselves feel better.

But the bottom line is this: materialism fails. It fails as a philosophy, it fails as a foundation for science, it fails as a worldview, and it fails as a way of life.

23Jun

The Freedom to Think

Assume, for a moment, that you’re looking for a job. Maybe this isn’t an assumption for you — maybe you really are looking for a job. What might you list on your resume to make yourself an attractive employee to a potential employer? Projects you’ve worked on, skills you’ve developed, charity work you’ve engaged in, organizations you’ve volunteered for… Maybe, if you’re a Christian, you should skip the last two.

A new study in the sociology journal Social Currents found that applicants who expressed a religious identity were 26 percent less likely to receive a response from employers. –Acton

Does that mean I should stop listing my second Masters level degree because it’s in theology? Or that I should reconsider my plans to attempt a PhD in apologetics? And what about my online persona? Every day, each of us leaks a ton of information about who we are and what we believe in. Google and the government, along with the various data brokers, are busily compiling all this information into a profile on each of us.

How long before posting a religious link on Facebook or Linkedin has the same impact as putting religious activities on your resume? Or are we already there, and no-one has studied the situation? Are we to come to the point where religious belief is a sign that someone is not trustworthy, or won’t work as hard, or won’t be as productive of an employee? Should this situation make us rethink our commitment to privacy?

Let me make another connection here — a connection you might not expect.

Our right to privacy is essentially a right of thinking, not of doing.

When we think of privacy, we think about privacy in personal things, like what we ate (or will eat) for dinner, or how our relationships are structured, or how much money we make, or how much money we have in the bank. But none of these are the essence of privacy. What is really the essence of privacy is to think our own thoughts, to dream our own dreams, to believe our own beliefs.

It is this right to privacy that is being taken from us. This is why the left places so much emphasis on controlling the schools, the entertainment industry, mass media, and the information brokers in our culture. They’ve discovered that the fastest way to a person’s actions is through their thoughts. If you can control a person’s thoughts, then you can control their mind. If you start early enough, you can discover precisely what children believe.

In addition to merely gathering overall performance standards, the government, through state and the federal education departments, desires to collect information regarding the student’s values, religion, family status, and attitudes. The purpose of collecting these types of facts is for “correcting” these alleged prejudices that parents pass on to their children. –Somewhat Reasonable

Then you can use that information to mold those little minds in the most effective way towards the goals you want to achieve — even if it means undermining the authority of their parents.

Maybe it’s time for Christians to opt out of the big data culture, from schools to Facebook, wherever possible. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to say I will not sit down, and I will not shut up.

Maybe, just maybe, Christians need to start valuing the freedom to think — before it’s too late to think the thoughts of a Christian.

19Jun

Jewish Charity

In Judaism, the idea of charity focuses on the donor and his relationship with the poor, not on the recipient. Its aim is to cultivate a sense of responsibility, as a moral and religious obligation. For this reason, the rabbis maintained that the donor should favor his relatives over strangers: “When choosing between your own poor and the poor of the city, your own poor come first.” By giving to those for whom he feels a special obligation, the donor expresses his self-understanding as a unique individual who takes responsibility for those around him. This kind of giving also underscores the fact that we are talking not about an act of “justice,” of satisfying the just claims of the poor against the wealthy but about an act of personal obligation stemming from his sense of responsibility for those around him. -Joseph Isaac Lifshitz, Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2012), 18.

3Jun

The End of Science

In short, since nearly everybody—left and right—agrees that “science” is “objective,” having the weight of “settled science” on one’s side has become practically the only trump card in highly contested debates of public policy. That’s exactly what’s going on in climate change debates as well, which is why the left is so keen to invoke the same authority. In many ways, this appeal to authority is just as misplaced in that context as in the abortion debate; while the findings of empirical science are clearly relevant in both contexts, they are not dispositive of public policy in either. –Public Discourse

The mad scramble to use science as the “final word” for everything has reached its peak; science is the ultimate arbiter, the final judge, and the ultimate court of appeal. From the broadest public policy to the most intimate details of our personal lives, we look to science to answer every possible question, to resolve every possible conundrum.

But what happens when we discover that science really doesn’t hold every answer? When we discover “science” has been twisted beyond recognition to support political causes — such as the global takeover through “global warming,” and the constant drumbeat of consumer warnings (anyone remember the robot from Lost in Space? Danger Will Robinson is the only thing he apparently knew how to say).

Ban plastic now!
Ban genetically modified foods now! (going all the way back to Mendel, apparently)
Ban guns now!
Ban coal now!

But what happens next? We’ve turned our tools in idols. What happens when we discover there is no god behind the silver image we’ve bowed before for so long? We’ll burn the idols, of course.

The way the mob works, we’ll end up repudiating all of science, and all those who have a “scientific bent.” We’ll kill them all as enemies of the natural order, burning their books in the streets. As a child who loves very deeply, and suddenly finds his true love untrue, our infatuation with science will soon become hate.

What’s a Christian to do with this strange situation? As the Church should have argued against putting science in the driver’s seat, the Church should also argue against banning science from the entire bus. Christians should have insisted, and should insist still, that science is the handmaid of great thinkers, rather than the single rule of faith that guides all thoughts.

A moment is coming when Christians can once again stand up and be countercultural — again, as in the past, in defense of true science, reason, and knowledge. Will we be prepared to rise to the challenge, or will we be swept away in the flow of history once more?

24Apr

Liberal Disarmament

Liberals can be disarming. In fact, they are for disarming anybody who can be disarmed, whether domestically or internationally. Unfortunately, the people who are the easiest to disarm are the ones who are the most peaceful — and disarming them makes them vulnerable to those who are the least peaceful. We are currently getting a painful demonstration of that in Ukraine. When Ukraine became an independent nation, it gave up all the nuclear missiles that were on its territory from the days when it had been part of the Soviet Union. At that time, Ukraine had the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. Do you think Putin would have attacked Ukraine if it still had those nuclear weapons? Or do you think it is just a coincidence that nations with nuclear weapons don’t get invaded? Among those who urged Ukraine to reduce even its conventional, non-nuclear weapons as well, was a new United States Senator named Barack Obama. He was all for disarmament then, and apparently even now as President of the United States. He has refused Ukraine’s request for weapons with which to defend itself. As with so many things that liberals do, the disarmament crusade is judged by its good intentions, not by its actual consequences. -Thomas Sowell

Weapons are the sinews of civilization — the problem is that liberals think being armed takes you back to a “lesser” state on the evolutionary scale in some way. Even in the purely atheistic view, however, being armed means extending your abilities, and hence is a step forward in the evolutionary scale. So atheistic liberals are inconsistent with their own worldview in this regard. No surprise there, right?

From a Christian perspective, being armed means I’m willing to defend two precious gifts God gave me — my life and my family.

16Apr

Tax Day Thoughts (A Day Late)

Alas, on tax day, even those who tend to think of wealth redistribution as some high form of Christian charity still try to come out on top, most likely believing that, when push comes to shove, they know how to spend their money more wisely than our bloated federal government. And, despite their conflicting cries of “greed” and “avarice” about their wealthier neighbors, they would be right. Assuming responsibility and stewardship at the lowest levels possible — through our own hands, by our own spiritual discernment, guided by not our own thoughts and inclinations — is bound to be more personal, prudent, and powerful in touching lives, empowering people, and unleashing human flourishing. Government has its legitimate purposes, of course, and our tax money can and should be used to fund those purposes in turn. Insofar as its proper role is being fulfilled and our tax money is being spent to cultivate the conditions for a free and virtuous society, celebrate we must. But true social justice rests on rightly ordered relationships — across families, churches, institutions, businesses, and governments. Achieving such a balance requires a rightly ordered imagination, and this, we should stop and note, means a proper understanding of where obligations ultimately reside. Allegiance to our local governments becomes part of that broader framework, but we mustn’t pretend that submission to the State’s planning priorities of 2014 is the preferred avenue for expanding our Christian witness. –Acton

9Apr

Why Sex and Race are Different

There is a common meme in our world today: Containing the sexual urges is like racism. These two things are just different ways in which we are overcoming the poor training (and religious repression) of our ancestors. By being less racist, and more sexually free, we’re becoming more evolved.

But is this true?

Every argument made in favor of racism were all about fear of the other, controlling a group of people in order to gain their labor, or believing they were somehow an evolutionary step “below us.” In other words, treating some humans as less than human. The entire racial equality movement, if you read any of Dr. King’s speeches, was all about treating humans as humans — respecting the image of God in man. It was all about, in essence, exercising self control to overcome and instinct and culture that feared the different, or refused to see those who are different as fully human.

What about sexual freedom? It is just the opposite. The sexual freedom movement is all about removing self control, bowing to the physical desires above all else — in fact, placing the physical desires above the image of God in man. The only controls the sexual freedom movement requires are the “control of consent” (which will soon give way), and the “control of the dissenters” (making those who don’t agree shut up).

So while the one is all about learning self control, and is a civilizing force, the other explores, promotes, and celebrates lack of self control, and thus is a destructive force. As sexual freedom increases, we can expect to see racism rise alongside it, as well as all the other hallmarks of poor self control (spending money on everything, widespread use of name calling, corruption in high places, etc.).

All of these, are, in fact, rising forces in our society. Has everyone really missed the many and varied stories of corruption? Corruption surrounds Barack Obama; reading the reports gives one the impression of a mafia kingpin rather than someone holding high political office. Local police forces have been corrupted with the power of taking anything they like from anyone in the name of keeping “the fruit of the drug trade away from the dealers.” Local governments have been corrupted with the power of eminent domain and taking value through environmental action. Abortion providers have been enabled in their corruption through a fear of touching the ever so important idea that abortions were actually more dangerous before they were legal. Government officials lavish themselves with better pension plans, better medical plans, and long and frequent vacations to desirable locals that the average citizen cannot even hope to access.

And we can’t see the tie-in to the drive for utter, complete, and unfettered “sexual freedom.” We actually think we’re more civilized, more “evolved,” because we give in to every possible sexual urge. “Life is short, have an affair,” right?

It is a telltale sign for our times that our most heated debates arise from the sexual faculties. We suppose ourselves enlightened in these matters, having matured far beyond the repressions and the taboos of our ancestors. One might note also that we have matured far beyond other qualities of our ancestors: their racism, perhaps; and that may be the best we can say for ourselves. We have matured far beyond their industriousness, their artistic skill, their loyalty, their honesty, their filial duty, their self-denial, their courage, their personal generosity, their purity, their neighborliness, and their reverence. Lawyers devour a full tenth of our nation’s income, as we take one another to court for a cross on the side of a public road, or a hot coffee that an old lady spills on herself at the drive-through—and that alone gives the lie to the single virtue we claim as our most precious. For we are, in fact, the most intolerant generation ever to walk upon the face of the earth. It is also telling that, in our arguments about those sexual faculties, we do what soft people do and not what virtuous people do. That is, we argue only about what is permissible. It is as if there were no such thing as sexual virtue at all. … We would not listen to a pickpocket lecturing us on contract law. We do not comb the ranks of deserters for work on the Military Code of Honor. Yet with regard to sex, we are told we must heed ourselves—and, generally speaking, we are a pack of fornicators, adulterers, porn-users, abortion-procurers, child-corrupters, and sodomites. –Public Discourse

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