Defending an Unfettered Free Market? Christians give up the moral high ground yet again

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 “Unfettered Free Markets Suck.”  

-Adam Smith’s great, great, great, grandson

I have just finished Barry Asmus and Wayne Grudem’s book, “The Poverty of Nations.” In it they argue that prosperity is best arrived at by unfettered free markets, clear titles to property, and the rule of law – all of which make risk taking entrepreneurship possible. I agree with titles and law. I take issue with their first premise: the unfettered free market. I think that defending the unfettered free market is a mistake, especially for Christians. Before I attack it, here are some common arguments for the free market:

1) Free markets allocate resources efficiently. No one person or government can allocate resources the way competition, working freely, can.

2) Free markets take advantage of all of the information in a society, generating stability. No one bureaucracy can adequately plan the way every consumer’s needs can, stimulating through the mechanism of supply and demand, the fulfillment of consumer’s needs.

3) Free markets generate creativity and promote innovation. Steve Jobs says, “I can make a better phone” and we are all better off.

4) Free markets limit the abuse of power by keeping it distributed widely, into the hands of each and every consumer.

These all contain at least an element of truth. And, although I am acquainted with both Barry and Wayne and think highly of them, I would like to push back against the idea of unfettered free markets…[1] Unfettered free markets are simply not, to use a common colloquialism, “all that.”

1) Competition is imperfect. Agents in the UFM (unfettered free market) will naturally conspire to decrease competition – oligarchies anyone?

2) Bidding is also. The UFM assumes that we are all equally free to “bid” for services. Children and future generations, for example, are not. Companies can and do work against their own long-term interest for short-term gain (Chinese air pollution reaching American shores and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come to mind).

Photo credit: Lea Kelley

Photo credit: Lea Kelley

3) Cost divergence = markets that aren’t really “free”: The UFM assumes that the nominal cost (what I pull out of my wallet to buy a car) and the real cost (all of the expenses of driving my car: cost to build the roads, lost opportunity cost of land under the freeway, pollution cost of car, cost of administering and policing the roads) are equal. They are not. A government was probably involved in taxing consumers to cover the real cost. Societies’ must provide infrastructures. Do you want that infrastructure planned and inspected by disinterested parties or the company profiting from the bridge you are driving on? Thought so.

4) Socialists are happier. If the UFM was the best economic system then people living in them should be “happiest.” In fact, that is what Dr. Grudem and Mr. Asmus tell us. Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear that out. (http://goo.gl/FZSKVL) Bloomberg reports, The “happiest people,” year after year live in Northern Europe: 1) Denmark, 2) Norway, 3) Switzerland, 4) The Netherlands, 5) Sweden. All are tightly controlled economies. The U.S. ranks 17th.

So color me a believer in some government regulation of economies. Unfettered free market systems regularly create long-term nightmares that people band together and elect governments to solve. Drive up the I-95 toward Philadelphia. It looks like a scene from the movie Soylent Green. Consider also the chemical companies in East St. Louis. Those companies spent 100 years gerrymandered out of the school district of their plant workers so that they didn’t have to pay for schools for their own employees children…even as their toxic sludge oozed up into the basements of those schools. Humans can and should band together to make sure that some decision-making is centralized for the common good – automobile safety regulations, and eliminating lead paint on children’s playground equipment come to mind.) The issue is to figure out which regulations are “doable” (like lead paint) and which are not (a $30/hr. minimum wage) and then give government the teeth for enforcement. A government with no teeth is no government (Insert name of any one of dozens of countries with ineffective/corrupt governments here).

Regulating human selfishness is, by the way, biblical:

1)   “The love of money is the root of evil. The UFM assumes that I will love money and my self-interest…not God and neighbor. Do we really want a system that glorifies our sin nature, rather than one which acknowledges but works to moderate it? (1 Timothy 6:10)

2) Scripture assumes that humans, because of sin, are not “free,” but natural oppressors of other humans. (See Amos 2:6-7, 4:1-9). Has an unfettered FM really insured human thriving? Ask the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. O wait, we can’t.

3) We are told to “Bear one another’s burdens.” (Gal 6:2) Let’s employ the hermeneutic principle known as “the clear meaning of words: “Bear”: to carry.” “One another’s”: someone else’s. “Burdens”: That which is heavy.

4) Generosity, the “re-allocation of wealth,” was commanded of individuals (Deuteronomy 23:24-25) in early Israel…but the early government was too weak to provide services. To maintain a completely individualized system leaves aid unevenly distributed-a burden upon those in places with more poor. In an era with more social organization we can do better.

5) There are numerous injunctions to create government. Scripture repeatedly advises the appointment of “judges” – administrators of law and social organization (2 Sam 7:11, 1 Chronicles 17:10, 1 Chronicles 26:29, 2 Chronicles 19:5.) This starts when Jethro sees a need (Exodus 18:13-27). He then creatively solves the problem by generating a new solution: judges for disputes. Why can we not utilize this same method in economics?

6) Did I mention that Jesus told us to share? More than once, too: (Mark 10:21-22, Luke 6:20-21, Matt 25:34-36, Mark 12:41044, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 16:19-25, Luke 11:39-42, Luke 12:16-21).

The question is how best to administer sharing and some regulation for the common good. In Acts, the church gave that task to deacons. Are church buildings and local deacons the most efficient way to care for the poor? Perhaps in some places. Probably not in all places.

And then, there is still that question as to where the “happiest people” live. Again, the data says that Dr. Grudem is wrong. It is NOT the places with the most open and most unfettered free markets, but specifically those places in which markets have some public controls to protect consumers.

The sad thing for me is the way much of the American church defends partisan policies (no economic limits or regulations…Somalia comes to mind) as if this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Do I really need to say that it is not? I recently posted on FB my joy that a friend, a music minister at his church, and brought to the U.S. as a 9 year old, received Deferred Action to be able to work. Christians railed against this…against a Christian music minister being given the freedom to  work in the market as the result of his parent’s illegal actions 15 years earlier. It generated 120 comments in 24 hours.

And we wonder that Christians are no longer seen as crusaders for good? O how we have fallen. In the 1840’s 1/3 of active abolitionists were ordained clergy. The church, once seen as a bastion of care for the less fortunate, is now seen as a tool of tax and charity avoidance. God’s people are commanded to care for the widow, orphan, and alien (Jeremiah 22:3, Exodus 12: 49, Mal. 3:5, Ps. 82:3, 68:5, 10:17-18, Ex. 22:22-23)  …And yet we argue for a free market for all…unless, of course, you might not be able to produce papers when stopped for Driving While Brown.

Julian the Pagan, in his (362 AD) campaign to revive paganism wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by our priests, the impious Galileans (Christians) observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Where did this spirit go? Once upon a time we Christians were known for our love and self-sacrifice. We were known as great defenders of the week and great lovers of those in need.

Will the church reclaim a moral high ground? One in which we love our Lord and His least, last, and lost more than we love protecting our markets, our assets, and our borders?

 

 

[1] Barry is a great guy and a friend of Young Life. Wayne is also a very nice man, a best selling author, and has a most amazing array of memorized Scripture.

 

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Does your ministry lose steam at the end of the year? We all know that finishing well is important, but like a fatigued runner, we often lose our stride a bit at the end of the program calendar.

Now we have a fabulous group of youth workers. They love God, one another, and they really care for our students, most of whom are the entry point to the church for their families. But it is the end of the year and…

  • Games become a little less purposeful…and a few kids stop coming.
  • Instead of carefully planning the meeting so that all things work together to build Christian community and take kids deeper in their faith, the various components begin to stand alone…and a few more kids drop off.
  • Bibles aren’t opened and read by students quite as much.
  • Leaders start doing more – more sharing, more preaching. Students start doing less – and passive kids quickly become disengaged kids.

This happens every year in youth groups all across the country.

For us, this came to a head at our end of the year badminton tournament last week. The kid across the street, a young man we have been inviting to youth group for three years, showed up. O, he joins us occasionally for games and food, but he skips out when students go inside for worship through song and scripture…after eating, of course. Last week he handed me a badminton racquet and asked if I would be his partner for the tournament. I am not a youth leader and had a bunch of stuff to do, but one look at his insistent face and I heard myself saying, “I would love to. But if I do, you stay for Bible study.”

“Deal!” He said, sticking his hand out to shake.

Two leaders were standing behind me. The older one had missed the planning meeting. He whispered to the younger one, “What is the Bible study?”

“We are just having fun tonight.” She said.

His reply, “Hey, our core values include ‘don’t waste kid’s time’ and ‘have fun with a purpose.’ A kid we have been inviting for three years just said he would stay for Bible study. You get a song. I’ll do a message.”

In a highly unlikely turn of events, the neighbor and I won the tournament. As the mob tromped from backyard to living room, the neighbor kid proudly paraded the trophy inside over his head.

When the song finished we passed out Bibles and students read the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). The older leader retold the story of Jesus angering his home town to the point that they took him to the edge of a cliff to toss him off when he turned around and walked away through the silenced mob. He concluded with Jesus, the God of the universe in human form, whose life, death, and resurrection offering us the opportunity to be a Kingdom bringer (a Luke 4:18 life of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free“). He asked if anyone who hadn’t yet was ready to have “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19) by allowing the Lord, Jesus, to become their savior (John 1:12). Three hands shot up. One of them was the neighbor kid’s. He was waving and pointing to himself. The same young man who ignored three dozen invitations…who snuck home early another two dozen times…who had told us repeatedly, “I’m not into God.” That kid, with tears in his eyes, was smiling ear to ear, waving, and saying, “Me! I’m ready.”

And by letting our core values slip in end of the year fatigue we almost missed it.

“how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him?                                                                      And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?”    -Romans 10:14, NLT

So stay on your pace!

Three students had what they experienced as their first God moment Wednesday night. And we darn near dropped the baton in the relay between them and our God.

In track and field finishing well is called having a strong “kick.” Races are won or lost on the final straightaway. Most runners fade. Champions find another gear and shift into it, pulling away from the pack.

The baton we pass is nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus. So end strong friends. Find your kick. Because this race really does matter.

 

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What the heck are Anglican/Episcopalians? How “brand name” Christianity might bless you. (1 of 2)

In this post-brand era, why would anyone join a denominational church? 

Many are blessed by what they are experiencing in the post-denominational “generic” church that dominates the church-going landscape today. If that is you, I am glad and genuinely celebrate with you your satisfaction in God. Many others, however, are longing for something more: searching for something “missing” in their Christian walk.

Do you long for a faith that is more internal than external? More communal than individual? More rigorous on yourself and roomier toward others? More focussed on the world’s needs and less on the church’s? Do you long for a faith experience with access to the ancient wisdom of the faith and less wedded to our contemporary culture? If any of this resonates, to quote the old commercial, “this Bud’s for you!”

Yes, denominations may be dying, but Anglicanism* is growing, and rapidly. This is especially true among young adults around the world. Some of the growth of Anglicanism is in Anglican churches, but it is also occurring in the larger evangelical world. “Wait a minute?” You might say, “I went to an Episcopal Church and it was 75, 75 year-olds.” That may be true, but Anglican thought and practice is popping up everywhere these days-like at Willow Creek or among the 1000 young adults at PhoenixOne. What is Anglicanism? The simplest definition I have is Reformed-monasticism. Huh? Let me flesh that out a bit…

Anglican Christianity is not about rigidity, ritualism, or being locked into any tradition, old or new, that is not rooted in Scripture and found in the great arc of God working through history. We aim for both the message and methods of Scripture and the earliest Christians.

Now that you know what we are not, what are we? To begin with, Anglicans/Episcopalians are Christians. And Christianity is Christianity. However, Anglican Christianity is a unique and nuanced expression of the Christian faith.

To be grasped Anglicanism really has to be experienced, and more than once. Anglicanism is not about a different Sunday morning experience, but a different vision of life. As such it takes time to be captivated by it. Because it represents a different vision for life, explaining it is also complicated. Indeed, if you ask 10 Episcopalians to explain Anglicanism you may get 11 answers. Another difficulty is that, although we are such a large group worldwide, we are very small in the U. S. Because we are small, most people’s experience of the Episcopal Church is through the media. The Episcopal Church is not very much as it is portrayed in the media-any more than Pentecostals spend all of their time doing backflips down the church aisles or Bible church people spend their days shouting at folks. Anglicanism is more complex than the stereotypes and is differentiated from the other branches of Christianity in some very distinct ways. These distinctions include:

  • Protestant theology/catholic worship. This is where “Reformed Monasticism” comes in. The Episcopal Church embraces the theology of the Reformation with the worship practices and spirituality of the ancient Christians. By “ancient,” Episcopalians are not referring to the theological innovations and abuses of 1200-1500 C.E.,  but rather to the first 5 centuries of the church. That early period saw the New Testament written, confirmed which books would comprise the Scriptures, and developed the Nicene Creed which defines the Christian faith and answered the cults about the nature of the Trinity with a clarity that the faith still relies on today. That period also gives us a pattern of worship. That pattern dates from at least the early-100’s. Our worship is built around monastic rhythms of being immersed in and formed by the daily reading and praying the Scriptures together as a community (called the Daily Office), the weekly communal celebration of communion (called the Eucharist) and then living those rhythms out in the world to bring honor to God’s name and aid our fellows. You will notice that our words and actions in worship are God-directed rather than back and forth from stage to congregation.
  • We both practice and are led by common prayer: “Common” is an old word for “shared”. Churches are always trying to figure out what banner to unify under. For some it is the beliefs of a person (like the Pope or Mark Driscoll), for some a doctrinal statement (like the Westminster or Augsburg Confession). Episcopalians are unified around the idea of being willing to pray the same words together…the words of Scripture and the “safe,” vetted words of the church until God works out our stuff in our own lives. That comes from our roots in England as being Catholics, Protestants and social Christians all in church together. Some long for the idea of “purity” and uniformity of belief in the church. History and experience tells us that theological uniformity is a mirage at best. Being unified around praying the same words is a value that is both holy and extremely difficult to live out. This can be very frustrating as there are often people with us that we think are a bit crazy. They tend to think we are a bit crazy back. But we are attempting to err on the side of generosity and give people room to “work out their salvation” in honesty and sincerity, not to mention “fear and trembling.” So we agree to major on the majors and give room on the minors. What are the majors?
  • Majoring on the Majors: “The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” defines our “Big Rocks.” They are:  1) Scripture contains all things necessary to our salvation 2) The historic Creeds of the faith (Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed) as the sufficient doctrinal statements (which really means that Episcopalians see ourselves as “a church in relationship with other churches” rather than “the ‘true’ church”). 3) Our worship is ordered around the two sacraments that Jesus taught: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And 4) Churches are led by bishops who have continuity of relationship and teaching back to Jesus. (Btw, until the 1500s this was the only form of church leadership and to this day about 3/4 of the world’s Christians are part of churches led by bishops in lineal relationship with the first Apostles.)

Why is this important? Simply because it has a high probability of blessing you…and of other’s being blessed as a result of what you receive as you “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)

 

Youth Ministry after “Cool Church”: Sample Youth Teaching on Genesis 1 & 2

Youth leaders always want to know what theory looks like in practice. Here is an example of one component of a youth group meeting: the teaching time…

Our church plant has a small youth group (usually about 25 students) with 6 very committed young adult volunteer leaders. They recently began a semester of working through the Old Testament.

For Genesis 1 and 2, instead of a sermon or video, the group was divided into two groups by gender. In one room the boy group read Genesis 1 together several times. In the other the girls read Genesis 2. Each group took notes and discussed what the text said and emphasized for the hearers. Then they outlined the chapter. The leaders gave guidance in the form of questions to take the students back to the text when they started reading into it. On a large poster board with colorful markers, each group drew a graphical/artistic representation of their chapter. Then they came back together and the students taught their chapter to the other group from their poster. Having students teaching one another engaged students in the learning process in a way that was wonderful. By the end, each group knew the contents of both chapters.

Then one of the leaders did a wrap-up to help students get the “big picture” and think theologically about their lives – a 7 minute mini-message on “Have you noticed that the first two verses of Genesis One say exactly the same thing your biology teacher taught you?” After reading Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, the leader gave a message that went like this:

Did you notice that both Christians, who think God is the author of life and truth, and scientists, who observe life, have the same version of what happened in the very beginning of the universe? Does that surprise you? More subtle though is the enormous difference between the two narratives. Science, not as a discipline but as an “ism” (called materialism) follows a very different narrative. BTW, We are not anti-science here, but materialism is a philosophy of life that what you see explains everything that is. When you know what materialism teaches you might choose to reject it.  For the materialist, time and chance explain everything. For the Christian, the hand of a loving Creator is the ultimate explanation. For the materialist, because they believe only in time and chance, all of life is an accident. For the materialist, you might be “unique,” but you are a unique accident.

On the other hand, for the Christian, all of life is a gift. Life was made on purpose, with a high and holy purpose. So, in the Christian narrative, you matter. What you do matters. What you don’t do matters. Everyone around you matters to God too.

Think of the difference the narrative you believe about your life makes: Can you see how what you do with your life gets shaped by the narrative you believe about who you are? What choices do you make with your life when life has no purpose? (Discussion)

How does it change your choices if you are absolutely convinced that you and everyone else was created on purpose, with a purpose? (Discussion)

If the materialist story is true, nothing you do matters. You don’t matter. If the Christian story is true then everything you do either spreads our Creator’s beauty and redeeming love or shuts it down.

Which narrative do you see being played out around you? What might life look like if everyone you know, new God’s love for them in Christ? You see, both the Christian and the materialist see the same events, they just interpret them differently.

Which narrative would you rather follow with your life? Thinking about what you said in our said in our discussion, why is it important that your friends know “the hope that is within you”?

As a result of the teaching time students left with the ability to tell us what Genesis 1 & 2 actually says…and what it doesn’t say. They learned something about exegesis: letting the text, rather than other’s ideas of the text speak. And more, they left with a powerful doctrine of Creation and can tell you why that doctrine is important. They went to small groups and prayed passionately that God would help them stay clear on who they are and whose they are…and that they would have boldness to share with their friends the Good News of God’s love in Christ-because of how desperately their friends need a different narrative on which to base their life.