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Apr 15, 2008

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Viola Larson

Michael,
Thank you for these posts. Although I am not particularly interested in McLaren's book I am learning a great deal by reading your thoughts in dialogue with him. You should write a book!

Dennis Sanders

Michael,

A question: why do people believe in Malthus? I guess I don't understand that. It sounds hopeless instead of hopeful or trying to find ways to solve problems.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Viola. I have written a book. I finished a first draft about a year ago. However, I was unsatisfied with the second half of the book and felt like I needed to process some other issues. I do that by thinking out loud through the blog. Three series "Household of God," "Living Simply in Abundance," and "Economic Fallacies Christians Believe" were series I did in order to process. The last piece I wanted to process had to deal with the long view of economic realities in human history. This McLaren series has helped my there. As soon as finish this series and return from GAC next week my original posts may become less frequent because I'm going to focus on pulling this all back together in my book.

Michael W. Kruse

Dennis, I don't know that I have a simple answer for that. Whether by temperament or other factors, some people just have a hard time envisioning how dynamic evolving entities like an economy work. They find it hard to envision much beyond projecting current realities into the future.

Among intellectuals and academics in the West I think there is a predisposition against markets and the people who dirty their hands working in them. We have inherited this from the Greco-Roman world. It is all about the contemplative life and not the active life. Apocalypse (environmental or otherwise) created at the hands of those who spend their lives with filthy mammon dovetails nicely with these predispositions. The academic who goes through college on to a tenure track teaching position, or the pastor who goes straight through college, seminary, and on to pastoring, experiences income as something that comes as stipend unrelated to economic performance. They are very cut-off from the world most people in society wrestle with and regrettably often are critical of what they don’t understand.

In the case of McLaern and many who are attracted to this book, there is the whole issue of postmodernism. Progress, especially progress through technology and economic growth, are considered the quintessential marks of Modernism. Therefore, there is a predisposition to reject anything that smacks of these two. Malthusianism is pessimistic about technological capabilities to prevent the Malthusian trap so it seems like a perfect dovetail for folks who are already predisposed to distrust technology and economic growth.

These are just a few things that come to mind. What to do you think?

Jim Moss

Michael,

I admit that I have not read extensive amounts of your work, but what I have become familiar with seems to indicate a very positive view of wealth and material possessions - that it's acceptable, and even virtuous, for Christians to be rich as long as the wealth is used in the right way.

But in my experience, there are precious few people who have done with their wealth what Jesus commanded the rich ruler to do -"Sell all that you own, give your money to the poor, and come follow me."

Given this command and his other teachings on material wealth (practically all of which take a negative view), how do you square them with your positive view of private property and wealth-building?

RonMcK

Common good often leads to common evil.

Bring on that book. If you need a sympathetic critque, let me know.

Dennis Sanders

About the academics and pastors: I agree with you there they are somewhat cut off from the day to day life of most people. As a pastor, most of my ministry has been bivocational, so I understand the world a bit differently from other pastors. I think the church can be quite insulating from how the world really works and allows people to come up with crazy ideas that have no grounding anywhere.

A while back a pastor friend gave me this piece by Walter Bruggeman. He talked about how America was caught up in this consumer-militarism thing and how we need to reject this system. My friend thought it was great. I couldn't tell him that I thought it was pure crap. What did Bruggeman know about economics? It's one thing to say that as Christians we need to put people ahead of things and not get wrapped up in getting things. But I don't see how you can go from there to this odd theory.

In my view capitalism isn't good or bad. It can be used for good, or for evil. It's not a perfect system, but in light of other systems, it might be the best to help lift people out of poverty. I think people like McLaren need to really get out there and listen to economists and determine how we can best help poorer nations, instead of glomming on to the tired, anti-Western thought that seems so rife in mainline Protestant circles.

Michael W. Kruse

Good questions, Jim. My series on Living">http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/living-simply-in-abundanc.html">Living Simply in Abundance was my rambling attempt to explore some of these questions.

First, I wouldn’t agree that all teaching on material abundance is negative. It is much more complex than that. Material abundance was integral to the Old Testament idea of shalom and was a sign of the covenant. But the abundance was a communal abundance (as opposed to an individualistic “name it and claim it” mentality.) It would exist within the context of stewardship to God and generosity to the poor.

Second, the prophets condemned the unjust behavior of the rich (crooked transactions and corruption of the justice system) that created a host of injustices. They weren’t opposing wealth per se.

Third, with regard to the rich young man, note the list of commands Jesus lists from the Ten Commandments. They are the “horizontal” commands about human relationships. Which one is missing:

You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 19:18-19)

Missing is thou shall not covet. This man needs to be free from his covetous spirit. This is not a universal mandate. Jesus confronted others with possessions and did not make this demand. There were wealthy among the congregations in the rest of the NT and they remained wealthy.

Fourth, the two major themes in the NT concerning wealth seem to be:

1. Losing focus on God and making wealth an idol.
2. Exhortations to share with the poor and commendations for doing so.

Idols are invariably very good things that we elevate beyond their priority. Wealth is a very good thing. That is why it can lead to such powerful idolatry.

Wealth for wealth’s sake is arid. Wealth as an opportunity for expanded expressions of stewardship (in terms of greater productivity and generosity) is life giving. The growth and expansion of wealth worldwide has caused life expectancy to increase, infant mortality rates to plummet, the percentage of people living on the 1990 equivalent of one dollar a day to fall from 84% in 1820 to about 15% today (despite a six fold increase in population), entire diseases to be wiped out, the frequency of famine to radically decline, to name only a few things. My post earlier in this series on the cycle">http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/2008/03/mec-the-cycle-o.html">cycle of prosperity shows a model of why this is so.

That is my short answer to your question. Short being a relative term. :)

Michael W. Kruse

Ron,

LOL. We won't be alive long enough to fully address that topic. :)

Dennis,

Your last paragraph nails it for me. It isn't that some of the issues McLaren raises aren't valid. For me, it is that the are raised without historical context and divorced from dialog about these issues that has been going on by other brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jim Moss

Michael,

I more or less agree with your assessment of wealth and the Biblical witness. Well put.

Let me add, though, that I think we are too quick to downplay Jesus' command to the rich ruler and say that it does not apply to us. We are more like him than we probably want to admit, and perhaps our dismissive interpretations of this and other challenging passages on wealth reveal that we share his idolatry and his inability to give it all away.

In my own middle class life, I have not come anywhere close to renouncing wealth. It would be disastrous for both my personal and professional lives. But I do feel the weight of this command on my shoulders each and every day. It has led me to a greater awareness of and responsiveness to the issues and complexities of both local and international poverty.

Perhaps a little realism is what is called for here - a balance the rich ruler's story with ones like Zacchaeus, whose salvation involved giving away a sizeable portion of his wealth, but not all of it.

Michael W. Kruse

Well said, Jim. One of the things I've reflected on a great deal is the challenge that the changes of the last century or two have brought us. For the first time in human history we are seeing societies with widespread material abundance. I don't think our theology has caught up with our economic reality. Richard Foster defines simplicity as singleness of focus on God. How do we keep our singleness of focus in the midst of abundance?

Miroslav Volf writes:

"Given the paramount importance of work in both liberal and socialist economic social theory, it is remarkable that in our world dominated by work a serious crisis in work had to strike before church bodies paid much attention to the problem of human work. Theologians are to blame for the former negligence. Amazingly little theological reflection has taken place in the past about an activity that takes up so much of our time. The number of pages theologians have devoted to the question of transubstantiation - which does or does not take place on Sunday - for instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to work that fills our lives Monday through Saturday. My point is not to belittle the importance of a correct understanding of the the real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper but to stress that a proper perspective on human work is at least as important." (Work in the Spirit, 69)

I would expand his statement to include economics in general, not just work. Working in the marketplace is perilous and the seductive call of Mammon is ever present. Unfortunately, most people I know who work in the marketplace either feel ignored or condemned by the church. They see little connection between Christianity and their daily existence in the marketplace. We need to change that.

Jim Moss

Amen!

Jim Moss

And let me add that the temptation of Mammon is strong in the ministry as well. I'm not so sure I agree with Ron's assertion that pastors are out of touch with the real economic world. Academics, maybe - but not pastors. As a pastor, I deal on a daily basis with folks who are hurting because of the tough economic times in the small-town South. It occupies a lot more of my time than the theology of the Sacraments. :)

Michael W. Kruse

Holy cow! I massacred my last comment. I edited to make it intelligible. Glad you could translate. :)

I think must of us relate to issues you describe in terms of losing a job. But I’m also thinking of those who start businesses and run them. I have several Christian friends who are entrepreneurs. They see their business as an expression of their creative abilities. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I been a part of with these guys agonizing over whether they should fire an unproductive worker. Abut having to lay people off in a just and compassionate manner. Dealing with a client that has an impact on their financial viability but it is abusive to employees. Being asked by a partner firm to misrepresent product capabilities in order to get a deal. Personal failings in getting a little too cocky with financial dealings and getting over extended.

Then they go to church and hear how marketing is evil and business is all about consumerism (but please be sure to live a nice check in the plate as you leave the door.) Most pastors are not equipped to counsel folks like these and I think pastors frequently (though I suspect inadvertently) denigrate and discourage rather then inspire and encourage these marketplace ministers. These guys are solid Jesus followers and support each other but I know many others who believe the church has no connection to their daily living and experience the church as hostile to marketplace work. These are some of the folks I want to reach out to.

Jim Moss

I'm puzzled. We must have very different experience of pastors - possibly because we live in different parts of the country. I know a few pastors who match your characterization, but they are the minority.

Most pastors that I know are quite sympathetic to small business owners and their ethical dilemmas. We realize that they have been the backbone of the Presbyterian denomination for generations. It is possible to be critical of over-consumption and corporate greed while being good pastors to folks who are trying to run a business with Christian principles.

Michael W. Kruse

I suspect there is regional difference. I also live near the core of an urban center (Kansas City) that city also dominates my presbytery. That probably matters too.

I know pastors who do well with these issues. I know others who are well intentioned but often not helpful. I know several who are antagonists.

"It is possible to be critical of over-consumption and corporate greed while being good pastors to folks who are trying to run a business with Christian principles."

No disagreement here but I would maintain that this often happens in spite of, not because of, some of our academies.

Steve

If all Pastors and educators would provide for at least half of their income through other gainful employment then they would be more understanding of their students and congragations. If their work as pastors and educators couldn't be accomplished in the reduced time, we could hire more. Some of my best instructors at the university were businessmen by day and instructors by night. Also, pastors who have been or are enployed in other trades seem to me better able to relate to their congragations and treat them as equals and not as inferior. I realize most feel they don't have enough time to accomplish their chosen work, but maybe they should spend more time mentoring and training others to help accomplish the task.

Michael W. Kruse

In the MBA program I took all but two professors had ten or more years experience in a business environment. It was a much different world than my previous masters in the social sciences with profs who were 100% lifelong academics.

My sense is that most pastors do have a genuine desire to be supportive of people in their work lives. It just isn't something that you learn at seminary and pastor compensation is a parallel universe to the way most of us live. I don't know whether becoming bi-vocational is the answer. I do think a lot of good hard questions are being asked now about how we go about being the church.

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