All posts tagged “sin

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Repaso: October 25, 2013

1. Screwtape in the 21st century
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent interview with New York magazine turned a lot of heads, not least because he mentioned he believes the devil actually exists. While sharing some further thoughts on evil, he referenced The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, prompting Casey N. Cep (@cncep) to write for the New Yorker on the question of Screwtape’s continuing intrigue 70 years after publication:

For believers, the letters are theology in reverse, teaching the love of God through the wiles of the Devil, but for all readers, regardless of belief, the letters frame human experience as a familiar sequence of trials, from how you take your tea and what parties you attend to the sort of person you choose for a partner and the sort of politics you espouse. As Justice Scalia said when he invoked “The Screwtape Letters,” “That’s a great book. It really is, just as a study of human nature.” The novel remains wildly popular because whether or not you agree with Lewis and Scalia that the Devil is real, the evils promoted by Screwtape—greed, gluttony, pride, envy, and violence—most certainly are.

2. Philanthropy’s original sin
Does the presence of one virtue cancel out the absence of others? William A. Schambra writes in The New Atlantis:

Philanthropy has many wonderful qualities — and never tires of proclaiming them, for one quality it sorely lacks is humility. It regularly thumps itself on the back, for instance, for devoting some $300 billion a year to good causes. And though philanthropic spending on social causes is dwarfed by that of the government, foundations proudly claim that dollar for dollar their spending is in fact more effective than the government’s. While government tends to stick with the safe and the routine, philanthropy regularly and energetically seeks out the next new thing; it claims it is at the cutting edge of social change, being innovative, scientific, and progressive. Philanthropy, as legendary Ford Foundation program officer Paul Ylvisaker once claimed, is society’s “passing gear.”

3. Forgiveness and criminal justice
Jeremy Chen (@germy224) makes the case in this Shared Justice editorial that the way our prison system is run should be a matter of public concern:

The  statistics are grim. As of 2009, the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world (0.743 percent). Two-thirds of former prisoners repeat offenses within three years of confinement, and more than half are re-incarcerated in the same time. In light of these bleak realities, the ideas of restorative justice might seem to herald a promising – even Christ-like – solution for change. But can such an idealistic ethic work for public justice? Is forgiveness something that governments can do, and if so, is it even desirous for them to do so? In other words, can restorative justice ideas begin to inform the way public justice is done, especially in the context of the government’s criminal justice work?

4. The limits of hospitality
Andi Ashworth, whose husband produces hauntingly beautiful music, has a knack for a different sort of creativity, in the form of hospitality. Her book, Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring, by the way, comes highly recommended by someone who does hospitality as well as anyone I know. But Ashworth says she has learned that sustaining a lifestyle of hospitality for the long haul requires setting boundaries:

Hospitality, simply put, is a lifestyle of sharing. It’s big enough to extend across a lifetime, and small enough to elevate a simple cup of tea and conversation into something important. The needs we come across, including our own, will guide us. Whether sharing a meal, an afternoon, or a bed for the night, there’s a time for everything. A time to offer and a time to rest, a time for family and a time for strangers, a time to refresh others and a time to be refreshed.

5. I Am Mountain

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Repaso: Chris Wright interview; refugees in Lancaster; science in a fallen world; most read books; Jeppe on a Friday

1. Chris Wright interview
Chris Wright, Old Testament scholar and head of the Langham Partnership (a ministry started by John Stott), was interviewed on the UK-based Nomad Podcast about mission in the Old Testament and gives his perspective on what appear to be ethical conundrums in the Bible. Here also are my notes from a talk Wright gave when he was in town earlier this year.

2. 25 years of refugee resettlement
My former boss, Sheila McGeehan, is profiled by Church World Service for her decades of work resettling refugees in Lancaster. I love the way refugees and immigrants have turned Lancaster City into such a unique, vibrant place, and though she’s too modest to take credit, Sheila has played a big part in that:

Not many people can claim to have resettled thousands upon thousands of refugees to their hometown – but Sheila McGeehan can. Since she began her work with the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program (CWS/IRP) 25 years ago, she has introduced refugees from all around the world to Lancaster, Pa. – the “tranquil, prosperous, safe, pretty” city she loves. In turn, newcomers from Russia, Vietnam, Sudan, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Burma, Bosnia, Iraq and numerous other countries have transformed this small city in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country into what McGeehan calls a “very cosmopolitan” community, population 55,000-plus.

3. Science in a fallen world
Jason Summers, a real-life scientist, has written a new essay for Q Ideas, calling Christians to faithful engagement in science:

Taking seriously our uniquely human role as practitioners of science, Christians must approach science with a deep grounding in theology and proper understanding of its practice in society. The most significant questions about how science is to be practiced in a fallen world will be settled on the field that spans the two poles of antithesis and common grace. But, if we are to have meaningful input in answering these questions we must heed Pope’s admonition to “check yourself before you wreck yourself” (as a more recent poet has phrased it). Overemphasis of common grace in the practice of science diminishes the unique epistemic perspective of Christians to the extent that faith is made private. In contrast, an overemphasis of antithesis magnifies issues of “ultimate explanation” to the extent that artificial barriers are created to use of valid theoretical constructs. Both distortions are barriers to creating a God honoring culture of science within a society that is pluralistic and fallen, but redeemed and image-bearing.

4. The most read books in the world
A guy by the name of Jared Fanning created an infographic featuring the ten most read books over the past fifty years. Some would be expected, but some are a bit more puzzling. (HT Jesus Creed)

5. Jeppe on a Friday
Here’s the trailer for a “collaborative neighborhood documentary,” set in Johannesburg, South Africa and showing “a day in the lives of eight residents of this area on the brink of massive change.” It looks really fascinating. (HT polis)

Repaso is intended as a thought-provoking compilation of news and commentary from the past week related to the intersections of faith, development, justice and peace. As always, I welcome your thoughts on any of the links and ideas in this roundup!

[Photo credit: eattheblinds.com]

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Jesus, friend of chorizeros

This year for Holy Week I thought I’d re-post something from two years ago. It’s the basic gist of a sermon I gave at a small church in San Rafael de Vara Blanca, Costa Rica, where I was living at the time.

Several weeks ago, shortly after I arrived here in San Rafael, my friend Tomas introduced me to the pastor of the local church before one of the services. That morning during his sermon, the pastor called on me by name several times, which I suppose was a way to make sure I was paying attention. I’d nod vehemently and perhaps mutter an amen. The following Sunday he did the same thing, four or five times. One of those times, he went so far as to ask if I’d do the sermon some upcoming Sunday.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, turned out to be that day.

In preparation, I read and re-read and re-re-read the biblical account of Jesus’ triumphal entry, but nothing was really coming together for me, and in the end I landed on Isaiah 53, which is fitting for Holy Week, albeit more of a Good Friday passage.

The theme of the chapter, as you may know, is the woundedness of Christ as foretold by the prophet Isaiah. It’s a brutal passage, really, full of words like suffering, pain, pierced, crushed, wounded, oppressed, afflicted, a lamb to the slaughter and cut off from the land of the living. But it’s also a wonderful passage, especially because in it is the tremendously good news that by his wounds we are healed.

I spoke in the sermon about our brokenness, our woundedness, our sin. It’s pretty obvious we’re in need of healing, if you take the time to stop and think about it. When we do our own thing, when we play by our own rules — when we wander off like sheep, as Isaiah puts it — things get pretty screwed up really quickly. And there’s generally quite a lot of collateral damage.

Not to get all sociologically insightful on you, but as people who have been nurtured in a society that highly esteems personal liberty and individual rights, I think we often make the costly error of reading the Bible as if it were addressed primarily to isolated individuals having their “quiet times” with God. But taking a step back, remember that the Old Testament books were addressed to the people Israel, and the epistles of the New Testament (at the very least) were addressed to churches.

With all of that in mind, when Isaiah writes that “by his wounds we are healed” it follows that he actually does mean we. There’s a communal element there, which is really good news because of that collateral damage I mentioned earlier, which we have all undoubtedly experienced. Our woundedness has everything to do with the fact that we interact with people who, like us, are broken and sinful.

So the question I posed to the church, and the question I pose to you, is this: what will we do with our wounds and the wounds we have inflicted — knowingly or not — on others? Will we hide them, pretending that we’re mostly healthy people, that we’re not wounded and that we do not wound others? We might try for a while, but we won’t succeed for long.

The tremendously good news, then, is that Jesus — by whose wounds we are healed — didn’t come for those who had their act together. He came for the notorious sinners, the ones who seem to fail at hiding their brokenness, the ones who were just waiting for someone to offer them a new and better way of life, to offer them healing.

In the gospels, many of these notorious sinners turned out to be tax collectors, those who abused their positions of power to achieve great monetary gain with no apparent concern for their dismal social standing in street corner public opinion polls. Here in Costa Rica there’s a great word for just this sort of thing. The word is chorizodefined formally as a “willful action or act of corruption to gain public funds.” One who engages in chorizo, then, is a chorizero.

So in my sermon I talked about the tax-collector-turned-disciple Matthew, a chorizero if there ever was one. Jesus called Matthew to follow, and next thing you know, they’re eating dinner at Matthew’s place, along with a whole motley crew of chorizeros and other scoundrels. The Pharisees, professionals at hiding their own woundedness, took issue with Jesus’ apparent lack of discretion. To which Jesus responded that he had not come for those who had it all together, but for those in desperate need of healing. So that’s either really good news or really bad news, depending on whether we’re honest about our wounds, self-inflicted or otherwise.

But even if we’re honest about our wounds and we accept the healing Jesus offers, the pain tends to linger for a while, and we’re often left with scars, in some cases permanently. These spiritual and relational scars, like all the miscellaneous physical scars we carry around on our bodies from years of wear and tear, give us opportunities to tell the stories. Not just stories of being wounded and of wounding others, but of being healed, and even of being used by God as instruments of healing in the lives of others.

And on that note I closed the sermon, reminding the church and myself that God does not bless us and heal us just for our own sakes. He blesses us and heals us so that we in turn may bless others, so that we might be instruments of shalom — undoing, by his grace, a bit of the collateral damage all around us.

If you’re wounded, this week is for you.

[Image credit: Woodcut by Sr. Mary Grace, O.P. via elmiradominicans.blogspot.com]

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Repaso: Market economy vs. market society; Easterly for president; Brooks on original sin; Latin America’s prison problem; interview with Kuyper translator

1. Market economy vs. market society
Brian Dijkema comments on Michael Sandel’s piece in The Atlantic, “What Isn’t for Sale?” — which has to do with “the hidden costs of a price-tag society.” Sandel makes good arguments, Dijkema says, but Gideon Strauss made the same arguments seven years ago:

There are many spheres of human life where economic considerations appropriately play a role but do not dictate decision-making. Families, schools and hospitals all have to balance their books—but they don’t exist to balance their books. In each of their cases, love, learning, and care, respectively, trumps the bottom line. One of the great challenges facing us is cultivating a society in which economic markets can flourish, but without overwhelming other spheres of human life.

2. Easterly for president?
The World Bank is looking for a new president, and among others, Jeffrey Sachs is working hard to position himself for the job. When I heard that, I immediately thought of Bill Easterly, Sachs’s arch-nemesis in the field of development economics. I waited for him to speak up. Well, Easterly wrote this passionate op-ed, showing pretty clearly how he’s not the man for this particular job:

I would not lead the World Bank by perpetuating the technocratic illusion that development is something “we” do to “them.” I would not ignore the rights of “them.” If the New York Times should happen to report on the front page that a World Bank-financed project torched the homes and crops of Ugandan farmers, I would not stonewall the investigation for the next 165 days, 4 hours, 37 minutes, and 20 seconds up to now. I am deeply moved by the universal agreement that my decades of experience in development do not qualify me for the job of World Bank president. I would not lead the World Bank by hiring myself.

3. David Brooks on original sin
It’s not every day a New York Times columnist refers to John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis in the same column, but David Brooks does so here in an effort to make sense of the actions of Sgt. Robert Bales, who recently “snapped” and killed 16 Afghan civilians. Our worldview, he says, doesn’t adequately take sin into account:

Any of us would be shocked if someone we knew and admired killed children. But these days it’s especially hard to think through these situations because of the worldview that prevails in our culture. According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil. This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.

4. Latin America’s prison problem
Following the huge prison fire in Honduras last month, the New York Times takes a look at the broader problem of overcrowded prisons and substandard justice systems across Latin America. The story is here and there’s a photo essay accompanying it.

5. Interview with Kuyper translator
The Patheos Book Club has chosen Abraham Kuyper’s recently translated Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Christian’s Library Press) as its latest book. I read it earlier this year, and really appreciated it. They have an interesting interview with Nelson D. Kloosterman, the book’s translator. Here, he explains why he thinks translating Kuyper for English readers is important today:

First, educational: to overcome ignorance of a vibrant tradition of integrated Christianity that seems to be slipping into obscurity as another generation of Kuyper-knowers passes on. Second, evangelistic: so that the English-speaking world may benefit from ideas that have empowered believers for several generations in terms of public Christian cultural witness and service. Third, apologetic: so that both the advocacy and criticism of Kuyper’s proposals can be evaluated in terms of the very words of Kuyper himself, rather than in terms of any selective spin to which his ideas may up to this point have been subjected.

Repaso is intended as a thought-provoking compilation of news and commentary from the past week related to the intersections of faith, development, justice and peace. As always, I welcome your thoughts on any of the links and ideas in this roundup!

[Photo credit: photo-dictionary.com]

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Citizenship and public policy through a theological lens

What does it mean to be a good Christian citizen?

If we’re honest, it’s not a question many of us think that much about. We know whether we lean to the right or the left politically, whether we favor limited government or not, and we may feel strongly about a number of hot-button issues. But have we considered how our theology and our understanding of Scripture ought to shape the ways in which we practice citizenship? Have we thought theologically about citizenship?

Being a good Christian citizen means a lot more than going to the voting booth once every four years and forwarding emails to relatives in the time in between. But an election year is as good a time as any to give some thought to citizenship and what it might mean for us to be good Christian citizens.

Stephen Monsma, author of Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy (Crossway) and former member of the Michigan state House and Senate, believes we need to start with the big story of the Bible. “Thinking about creation, sin and redemption,” he writes, “are crucial to right thinking about today’s public-policy issues.”

Creation. Sin. Redemption. Not where we usually start when thinking about public policy, is it?

Starting in Genesis, we see that when God created the world and put Adam and Eve in the garden, they experienced shalom. “Shalom,” Monsma writes, “is the peace one finds among people who delight in living, working, and achieving together.” That’s God’s design for life on earth. Obviously, that’s not life as we know it. Humanity disregarded God’s intentions and rebelled against him in sin. We see the collateral damage around us every day. But God didn’t give up on us. In Christ, he has brought about redemption —  restoring humanity’s relationship to God, and enabling us to be reconciled to each other and to the world in which we live. Shalom is a real possibility again. It won’t be fully realized until Christ returns and brings about the new heavens and the new earth, but there are bits and pieces of it everywhere, even in the places we’d least suspect.

Even in government.

Drawing on Abraham Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” teaching that there’s an important purpose in God’s design for every sphere of society, including family, church, state, business, art and academia, Monsma shows that despite what some Christians and pundits may lead us to believe, government does have an important role to play in the flourishing — yes, the shalom — of society.

In the first section of the book, Monsma lays out the biblical principles that are needed as a foundation before considering specific application in public policy terms. Building on the creation-sin-redemption motif, he argues that “acting as Christ’s agents of redemption in the political realm” we’re to support what is just. The Bible is clear in its condemnations of injustice, whether at the hands of his people, at the hands of unbelieving citizens, and at the hands of the government. Doing justice and working against injustice is a crucial part of what Christian citizens are to do in their own lives as they’re able, and they are right to ask the same of governing authorities. This is directly tied to the principle of solidarity, “the conviction that Christians cannot simply sit idly by when their fellow human beings are suffering and in need.”

While Monsma affirms the positive role the state can and must play, he also clearly understands its limits, and sees “civil society” (social institutions and organizations) playing a crucial part as well. Indeed, as Monsma says, some of the best work the government does to contribute to human flourishing is in partnership with nonprofits and social service providers, including many faith-based ones.

The second half of the book tackles specific issues: church and state; abortion and euthanasia; poverty; creation care; human rights; poverty in Africa; and war and terrorism. While Monsma wisely refrains from making pronouncements about the particular positions all Christians ought to take on each of these complex issues, he does explore them in detail and in light of the creation-sin-redemption story of the Bible, and carefully considering the implications of those central principles of justice and solidarity.

Thinking theologically about citizenship is an essential, ongoing process that will equip us to better participate in politics and civil society — not just once every four years, but as a regular part of following Christ and living in light of the implications of the good news, “far as the curse is found.”

Thinking theologically about citizenship should also give us a measure of humility, as we recognize the sheer complexity of the issues, and as we realize we’re not innocent bystanders in the undoing of shalom. May that humility serve us well as we in turn seek to love our neighbors as Christian citizens.

How might the biblical story of creation, sin and redemption change the way you consider citizenship and public policy? Are the principles of justice and solidarity central to your understanding of citizenship and public policy? If not, what principles are foundational for you, and how do they relate to the Christian story?

[Photo credit: latimes.com – a swearing in ceremony for 18,000 new U.S. citizens in Los Angeles in 2008.]