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    The Church, The State, and Care for the Poor

    Friday, April 27, 2012, 11:04 AM [General]

    Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent speech at Georgetown University seems to have caused some of his Catholic brothers and sisters to take issue with Ryan’s budget proposal, viewing it as incompatible with Catholic teachings, especially in relation to care for the poor.

    This brings up an interesting set of questions: Does the so-called “Separation of Church and State” doctrine prohibit such connections in the first place? Doesn’t that doctrine make the influences of any religious group unwelcome when it comes to the affairs of state? What is the church’s relationship to the state when it comes to topics like this?

    First, as I understand it, the idea of separating church from the state was intended to prohibit the government from establishing a state religion. It was a clear reaction to the power of the Church of England, and the colonial framers of the US Constitution did not want to repeat what they considered to be an inappropriate alignment of power in Europe.

    Second, to demand that any persons holding a place of governmental responsibility disallow their religious influences and values as they engage in the processes of policy-making is not reasonable. Whatever has formed a person—religious faith, past experiences, reason, education, and so on—will become part of the lens through which that person sees how things should work in the world. No one comes to the governmental table (or any table, for that matter) as a blank slate.

    Having said this, I still have to wonder about the demands that religious groups—specifically Christians—can really make on the government. Certainly, in a culture based on individual rights, religious folks can makes all kinds of demands. But what is the place of Christian communities in the context of the nation?

    That the church at large would call the state to act justly and fairly is a good thing. However, is it right that we would expect the state to act as though it is the church? Again, I’m all for the state being called to justice and fairness, but in the end isn’t it still appropriate that faithful communities of Jesus continue to enact the realities of the kingdom of God, regardless of the acts of the state?

    In the CNN article about Rep. Ryan’s speech, a recent survey among American Catholics is cited that shows a decrease in concern for the poor. Could that be a result of the expectation that care for the poor is more a function of the state than it is a core expression of the church’s love for Jesus? If the state, even appropriately, enacts programs to care for the poor, does the church begin acquiesce its own identity in the world?

    (This post originally appeared at

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    Finding a Bridge Between Production and Consumption

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 11:05 AM [General]

    In his book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William Cavanaugh writes,

    “Consumerism is an important subject for theology because it is a spiritual disposition, a way of looking at the world around us that is deeply formative.”


    “The problem is a much larger one: changes in the economy and society in general have detached us from material production, producers, and even the products we buy.”

    There’s a way to test this out: Ask a child where fruits and vegetables come from. If the child names a grocery store rather than a farm or an orchard, then there is probably a disconnection between consumption and production.

    Ask the same child where your church came from. In fact, ask yourself the same question. How many people know that a number of thriving churches started out as small group Bible studies or as church plants struggling with meager resources?

    I have an idea. Let’s give this a shot and see what happens.

    Start buying produce from local growers rather than from big-chain grocery stores. Take your kids and grandkids along and help them see where things come from. Plant a garden and participate directly in the production process. Share the produce with your neighbors.Connect with an organization that supports fair trade exchanges and buy things from places where you can actually see who made the item you are buying. Learn to see that real human beings dirty their hands making the things we enjoy.Interview someone from your church who was involved in its beginnings, or at least who knows the church’s history. Help you and your loved ones to appreciate where buildings, parking lots, children’s ministries, etc. actually come from.

    None of these things will entirely break us from the ravages of rampant consumerism, but they might be ways to rebridge the gap between what we consume and the people and processes involved in production.

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    Is Compassion Misplaced?

    Monday, August 24, 2009, 2:23 PM [General]

    The release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has scandalized and horrified many. al-Metrahi's hero's welcome in Tripoli has enraged the people who still grieve the loss of the 270 people who died as a result of the bombing that took place twenty-one years ago. The rage that has been expressed through the media has been constant since al-Megrahi's release.

    I cannot fathom the pain that must be felt by those who lost loved ones in that bombing. The sense of injustice must be overwhelming for them. I understand the power of their emotions.

    Secretary MacAskill defended his decision by saying,

    "In Scotland, justice is tempered with compassion. That is why he has been allowed to go home to die.

    "I'm showing his family some compassion. I accept it is a compassion not shown to families in the United States or Scotland.

    "But we have values and we will not debase them and we will seek to live up to those values of humanity that we pride ourselves on."

    As I read his statement about the particular Scottish value of compassion, my mind went to a story told by the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann of his time of captivity in Scotland and England at the end of World War Two. Moltmann had been involved in the aerial bombings of strategic locations in Holland and was captured toward the end of the war. When the war ended, he and others were kept in the camps for the purpose of re-education so that they might return home to Germany and create a new culture there. 

    When Moltmann and his comrades learned of the Nazi atrocities in the death camps (as regular military, they had not been aware of the genocides), their shame was overwhelming. Many refused to return to Germany. Moltmann, however, found forgiveness in a way that he could never have anticipated. In the preface to his book, The Source of Life, he reports this experience:

    “In Kilmarnock the miners and their families took us in with a hospitality which shamed us profoundly. We heard no reproaches, we were accused of no guilt. We were accepted as people, even though we were just numbers and wore our prisoners’ patches on our backs. We experienced forgiveness of guilt without any confession of guilt on our part, and that made it possible for us to live with the past of our people, and in the shadow of Auschwitz, without repressing anything, and without becoming callous.”

    I have to wonder: Is there actually something embedded in the hearts of the Scottish people that allows such forgiveness in the face of obvious and confirmed guilt? Moltmann goes on to give an account of his confrontation, after his conversion to Christianity, with some Dutch theology students who relayed the effects of the bombings in which Moltmann had participated. Yet, through tears, these students reached out in forgiveness and embraced their German brothers, claiming that it was only through Jesus Christ that such forgiveness could take place.

    I don't know which is more troubling to me: The sense of injustice seen in releasing one convicted of the deaths of so many people, or the disturbing ring of the Gospel in the actions of Secretary MacAskill. Jesus pointed out the counter-intuitive nature of life in the kingdom of God:

    "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

    I know nothing of Secretary MacAskill's religious leanings. But I have to wonder if it is possible that the permeation of the Gospel in a culture can actually produce a counter-intuitive response to hatred and violence that becomes scandalous and incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Certainly Jurgen Moltmann, even before his conversion, experienced forgiveness in that context and now, it appears, so has al-Megrahi (or at least, compassion).

    I continue to grieve along with those who lost loved ones in the bombing of PanAm flight 103. At the same time, my hope is that the Gospel of Jesus will continue to permeate our lives and culture. The counter-intuitive nature of the kingdom of God will continue to disturb us, but perhaps that is how we Christians might be the light of the world.

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