Tag Archives: Justice

Book Review: The Poverty of the Nations

First sentence confession and disclaimer all in one; I chose to order and review this book from Crossway’s Beyond the Page blog reviewers section expecting to disagree with it. I was fairly sure that I would find myself uncomfortable with some of the conclusions of the authors but because I value listening to voices other than my own or those in my camp I resolved to challenge myself with what appeared to be some thoughtful arguments on Christianity and the value of Free Market Capitalism.

How wrong can one man be? I downloaded this book months back and despite being an avid reader I plodded through this book a few pages at a time finding any reason to read anything else but this. If I had not agreed to write this review in exchange for getting a free copy of this book I am confident I would have recycled this book months ago. Honestly I have plenty of stuff on my book shelves I don’t agree with but which pushes my thinking, challenges my assumptions and helps me organise and develop my own thinking better. But this is poorly written, filled with mad tilts at straw men and stingy representations of opposing arguments.  It almost reads like a propaganda document for the free market system rather than a well thought out and reasoned piece of writing by two well-respected professors in their fields.

I grew up in and completed ¾ of my schooling under the apartheid schooling system. As a result I am well versed in this kind of one-sided, parochial presentation of the virtues of a particular system, whilst never allowing the recipients to examine the full range of data for themselves. If you read this book with no prior thought to economics or economic systems (and I am no economist) you can only conclude that anyone who does not support the free market/ capitalistic system is a complete idiot. There is little generosity to the opinions of others; lampooning and presenting the worst or weakest side of opposing systems are common in this book. There is no concern to honestly examine the strengths of for instance democratic socialism or the very obvious weaknesses in the free market system that a growing number of reputable voices are raising. At times it felt like the book was caught in the Cold War or the Middle Ages, arguing against Soviet style communism or feudalism. Which are useful as examples but are hardly the economic questions that the majority of the books audience are wrestling with. Furthermore the almost canonisation of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth of the Far East without so much as a footnote to the hugely destructive social issues and dehumanization arising from the triumph of greater economic growth left me cold.

Four final thoughts before this descends into the level of a rant…too late you say?

1. The book’s claim to be a Christian book is only borne up at times by an horrific use of out of context verses. A blatant desire to conflate the free market system with biblical economics is deeply disturbing. Even if you do not think the free market/capitalist system does not go against the Bible it is still a rather large leap of justificational logic to imply that it is a biblical system. The “economic system” we see in the Bible is far more nuanced than any one system, and if anything has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized rather than the increased creation of wealth for the already wealthy.

2. On that point just recently, I heard Professor Piet Naude from the University of Stellenbosch Business School suggest that we have to examine the assumption that “all the boats in the harbour” rise with the creation of wealth. The free market he said has been excellent at creating wealth but very weak in distributing it. This is not an usual insight but a widely acknowledged, contemporary challenge to the free market system. Yet Grudem and Asmus all but ignore it and write instead as if the free market is the saviour of the poor. History simply does not bear that up, even in the United States. I cannot believe the authors are unaware of this. Is their commitment to free market capitalism so deeply entrenched that they are able to simply waive this aside as a petty criticism not worth engaging in?

3. The pro-American bias of this book is hugely off-putting. God Bless America we have the worlds best economic system if only the poor Africans would listen to us. They might not have said this, but I heard it loud and clear. If I was reading a hard copy of the book rather than my kindle I would have been sorely curious to have tested the aerodynamics of this patriotic drivel at times.

4. No matter what the merits and advantages of a free market system are, and I am convinced there are many, this book sadly merely demonstrates for me the problem of allowing privileged westerners with unchallenging assumptions to write books. I have greatly benefited from many of Crossways resources but this is not one. It is poorly argued, parochial and almost without merit. The few thought-provoking moments that I did encounter in the book were so overpowered by the negatives that at 400 pages it just was not worth it.

I gave it one star on Amazon simply because there was no category for “makes excellent recycling.”

The Geography of Power and Privilege

First pile of books plundered from library

First pile of books plundered from library

This is the year I have finally started my Masters in Missiology (the study of missions or the study of “what the heck are we meant to be doing and how should we do it” as I prefer) through the University of Stellenbosch. I have harboured a deep desire to study further for many years but due to time, finances and circumstances this has never been an option. Until now… so due to a happy confluence of circumstances (Sovereignty if you will) I am able to dedicate a significant portion of my time to academic study of the next two years.

Although these things are notoriously fickle at the hands of supervisors and further reading here is my first attempt at articulating the area I hope to look at in my research.

“The effects of the apartheid system continue to affect the mission and the life of the church in Cape Town. In particular the long-term structures around which our city was re-engineered through the group areas act continues to entrench the division of races and economics in our city. The flow of power and of privilege very much follows the geographical contours of inequality in our city. The church has had a chequered history with these divisions at times supporting it, at times opposing it but mostly a quiet acquiescence through the development of a parallel structure of power and geography that mirrored, upheld or even enhanced the division of race and power. The post 1994 changes have mostly not brought about any significant changes in the geography of privilege and power. The evangelical church, by nature conservative lags behind entrenching often unwittingly the now traditional structures of power that so divide our city. What can the church do? Or perhaps more significantly what will the church do? Will we meekly wait for the city and the world to slowly and grudgingly change (if indeed we can even truly see our city redeemed) or will we act in spite of what we see, will we become a people of hope, willing ourselves to run counter cultural to the well established lines of privilege and prestige in our city. How can the church be a movement of hope in overcoming the geography of power that shapes and moulds our city still today?”

The Silence of Cheap Grace

origin_6801732893

“If we communicate only that part of the gospel which corresponds to people’s “felt needs” and “personal problems” (‘Are you lonely? Do you feel that you have failed? Do you need a friend? Then come to Jesus!’), while remaining silent on their relationship to their fellow men, on racism, exploitation and blatant injustice, we do not proclaim the gospel. This is the quintessence of what Bonhoeffer has called ‘cheap grace’. After all, ‘(God) is especially moved to wrath when his own people engage in such practices. It makes them disgusting in His sight, an offence to His nostrils; and in the face of this evil-doing He cannot stand their religious posturing. He cannot bear to hear their prayers; hates their festivals; is weary of their hypocritical sacrificings; views their faithful attendance at His house with loathing, as nothing more than an uncouth trampling of its precincts: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly”‘

David Bosch: Witness to the World p206

Photo Credit: joybot via Photopin

When Justice is Silent

South Africa, it feel like, is often on the brink of another violent protest.  The poor and the marginalized are frustrated. Their voice is not being heard. They are being ignored. As a result they resort to violence or vandalism in order to get a hearing.  Most often it works. Even if it is only to get the politicians to argue about whose fault it is.   This same philosophical dilemma was debated in the 1960’s between the older ANC members and the young firebrands like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.  In South Africa, we celebrate the results of their decision to engage in the armed struggle.  The ends it seems have justified the means.  I suspect among Christians this may be something of another elephant in the room.

When you are not being heard through the normal channels, do you do whatever it takes to get those with the power to listen?  And if these actions gain you a hearing or a victory are these actions then made righteous because of the favourable outcome?

I get it! On purely rational or even emotional grounds these arguments resonate with me. But the biblical reaction, I suspect, is something altogether different.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), for instance, Jesus clearly says, that our righteous acts alone are not enough to make us just in the eyes of the law. It is not enough that we do good deeds we must also desire to do that good.   It is not enough to not murder someone rather we must love them, even our enemies. It is not enough not to commit adultery rather we must be pure in heart. True righteousness, are righteous acts fuelled by righteous desires. Neither grudging righteous acts nor unrighteous acts in order to achieve righteous goals fit the criteria for true biblical righteousness.

Jesus’ words in Mark 7:14-23 make it clear that anger, pride and violence come from the unrighteous desires of our heart. Our actions are the overflow of our heart. If our actions are evil that is because our motives and desires are evil. Unrighteous actions cannot come from a heart that is righteous or which desires righteous outcomes. If the means to bring about the result are unrighteous then the result cannot be righteous. Even if the outcome is the desired outcome or the outcome benefits people – it cannot be regarded by God as righteousness.

A robust belief in the sovereignty of God confronts us with the reality that it is not all up to us. In other words Christians cannot partake in this type of thinking that believes that if we do not stand up for ourselves and make ourselves heard then no one will do it on our behalf. Or which says we must force them to listen to us, because if we do not do it then no one will.

So what do we do, when we are not being heard? When everything within us cries out for us to force ourselves to be heard? Do we “sell our soul” to commit injustice in order to fight injustice?

No, we go to the one who sees the injustice. To the one who always hears, always sees and always listens. We fall on our knees before our Heavenly Father, crying out for mercy, for justice and in repentance for our own hearts filled with violence and evil desires.

We petition the one who has all the power to soften the hearts of those in power, to calm the restless spirits of those who would resort to violence. We pray that we may persevere to do what is right even when it feels foolish and powerless. We trust that God sees, God hears, God acts and He will do what is right.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  Will we trust God’s unseen hand at work today in the midst of chaos and uncertainty?

Too often, when the pressure is on, our theology is revealed, and it is revealed to be man-centred and not God centred. We are found to be those who trust in the immediacy of the hand of man rather than the seemingly hidden hand of God.

All true theology is cross-shaped. The cross demonstrates once and for all that God takes injustice seriously.  At the cross God has dealt decisively with injustice.  Wicked and unjust acts do not escape punishment. And not only the institutional or systemic injustice against which we protest but also the self-centred injustice that lurks within our own hearts.

The paradox of the cross is that whilst God takes injustice seriously, he is also the one who, in mercy, lays down his own life, in order to redeem us from the consequences of our sin. At the cross we see justice and mercy hand in hand.

It is the cross which must drive all our thoughts and actions against injustice. Work hard against injustice, cry out for change, lay down your finances, your time, your comforts and your preferences in order to bring about change. Get involved in change in your community. But fight to remember that a fight for justice must always come from a heart that knows and extends mercy. Mercy not only to those who are victims but also to those who are the perpetrators. That is the scandal of grace.  Grace offers humanity, forgiveness and love to those who would dehumanise, humiliate and oppress.

When we remember the cross we are compelled to cry out, not only for the victims but the oppressors also. We must ask ourselves what does it mean to bless, to serve and to love, not only the victims but the oppressors too. We cannot dehumanise, demonise or hate those who are as much the recipients of Jesus grace and mercy as those whose needs we feel. The way of the cross is a mystery, a paradox, an unnatural, uncomfortable, irrational way of following Jesus who holds grace and mercy together as he builds his Kingdom of peace, healing, justice, mercy and forgiveness.

 

Stop Spiritualizing the Bible when it comes to Social Justice

Christopher Wright on the evangelical tendency to spiritualize the Bible when it comes social justice and economic exploitation.

“This spiritualizing way of interpreting the Bible, and the missiological implications that go with it, requires us to imagine that century after century, the God of the Bible was passionately concerned about social issues – political arrogance and abuse, economic exploitation, judicial corruption, the suffering of the poor and oppressed, the evils of brutality and bloodshed. So passionate indeed, that the laws he gave and the prophets he sent give more space to these matters than any other issue except idolatry, while the psalmists cry out in protest to the God they know cares deeply about such things. Somewhere, however between Malachi and Matthew, all that changed. Such matters no longer claim God’s attention or spark his anger.”

The Mission of God p280

Why your Bible teaching is not enough

This past weekend I went to a conference that in all honesty I would never have gone to a few years back.  And if by some miracle of teleportation I had found myself there, I am sure I would have been incapable of learning from those whose stories are so different to my own.  At times I suspect radically different.  (I say suspect because that really was not the point of the conference and neither I nor they presumably felt the need to get into our differences)  Perhaps even different to the extent of the basic tenets of the gospel different.  But yet I must confess there was something vibrant, something alive about their faith and their spirituality, something deeply attractive.  Something I wanted…

For all my good Bible teaching and wrestling with exegesis I suspect my life, my spirituality, my faith is often as dull, as rational, as safe and as attractive as a three-day old sandwich. You could eat it but given the choice you would probably choose not to. How can it be that having given years of my life to studying the biblical text, fine tuning my doctrine and training other to go and do likewise I can now find myself deeply attracted to the spirituality of those who I have regarded as having a “lesser theology”?

The obvious first point of examination must be the possibility that my theological convictions are wrong? I have tossed that idea around a bit lately and while I can conclude that I have moved on a few issues, it is more the moving of nuance than of relocating to a different theological neighbourhood altogether.  Perhaps, I am being naive but I am not sure it is my theological convictions that need moving.  It is my heart!

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Doctrine matters!  Right doctrine leads to right living – breaking down the walls of exclusion, eating together, loving one another, joy, hope, freedom and life.  Bad doctrine leads to division, strife, confusion, bitterness and hatred, just read Galatians if you are not convinced.

If this is true, and I would stake my life on it being true, then how can it be that those whose of us who have spent most of our lives studying, teaching and contending for what I would regard as good doctrine have lives that are so profoundly mundane and unattractive?

I suspect that what we need is not more information but rather some deep contemplation, sustained meditation and some profound experiences of the Spirit as we seek to live the information that we already know.  We have become drunk with our quest for more knowledge.  Like giddy schoolgirls we flock to hear, download and read yet more and more information on our latest theological crush.  And somehow as we “just teach the Bible” we expect that transformation will just magically happen.

What makes these “lesser theological lights” (by my tribe’s standards anyway) so effective and vibrant and attractive?  Faith.  They actually believe in a God who wants to redeem and restore all of creation.  So much so that they actually act on it.  They base their lives around it. Make intentional choices to be downwardly mobile, committed to prayer, reaching the lost in the toughest neighbourhoods, speaking out against injustice, racism and exploitation. When God says that money enslaves and that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, they listen, they obey and they build lives on the words of Jesus.  Faith.

It is after all not Bible teaching that matters but Bible living.  It matters not how well you exegete the text but how deeply the text exegetes you!  Will you follow where the text leads you? Will you meditate deeply on the implications of the text for your life, your aspirations, your lifestyle, the lost and the broken or will it merely become another interesting sermon to be tucked away until next we meet?  Will you follow the text to where it leads to the end of you and your resources?  Will you follow the text where it leads to a deep dependence upon the Spirit to lead you, guide you and sustain you for mission and in fact for life?

Strangely, I remain committed to my tribe theologically. Some days I wish I was not so convinced. But yet I long for my tribe to do so much more than contend for, teach, exegete and understand the truth.  I long for the days when evangelicals will be known for their spiritual vitality, their love for the poor, their stand for justice, their care for the planet, their love for homosexuals, their lives of simplicity and sustainability, their radical generosity, their fight against consumerism and wastefulness.

Not at the expense of the gospel proclaimed. But precisely because we have believed the gospel proclaimed we are no longer conformed to the standards (comforts, securities, importances) of this world but rather our minds are being renewed by that gospel.  Precisely because we have believed the gospel we will give our lives away in service of the last, the least and the lost just as Jesus gave his life away for us.  We intentionally join our small story with God’s Great Big Beautiful story of redemption, resurrection, restoration, hope and beauty.

Book Review: The Irresistible Revolution

I realise this review (in hindsight I am not sure this even qualifies as a review) is about five years after everyone else has probably read the book.  But it is one of the occupational hazards of being a incurable non-conformist… if everyone is reading it then I almost always don’t want to.

The book made such an indelible impression on me in a couple of ways that I thought I would scribble down my thoughts anyway.

This is generally an easy read, a bit repetitive at times, a bit circular in theme and logic at times.  It reads more like a story but a story with a definite agenda.  The theology is at times a bit wonky and at other times down right dodgy.  With a few good bits mixed in.  Although both Claiborne and I would calls ourselves evangelical I am not sure we would both agree on what that meant.  I suspect Claiborne has jigged the term a bit to his own end.  Tim Challies has a mostly decent review that looks at some of the theological problems a bit more.

The impact of the book for me is that here is a guy who tangibly puts his life at the service of his theology.  Here is a guy that has read his Bible and come to an understanding about what it means to follow Jesus and now he is doing it.  Again I do not agree with all of his thinking or actions but you cannot deny that here is a Christian who has put it all on the line to follow Jesus.

My biggest frustration after reading this book is less with Shane Claiborne (although there is quite a bit of that too!) but with those of us who have a better theology, a more robust theology than Claiborne.

Critique his theology all we like (and critique we must!) but let us ask ourselves what is the fruit of our better theology?  If Claiborne with his wonky theology can serve the poor, seek justice for the oppressed, move into the forgotten areas of our city and live and love there, practice community at a deep level, welcome the outsider, feed the hungry, question the rampant commercialism of our societies and then follow Jesus in counter-cultural ways that actually display the love, mercy and justice of the Kingdom of God. And there are some great stories of this in the book…

Then surely we who have better theology should be doing the kinds of things Claiborne is doing but just better, deeper and richer.  As our theology outstrips his so should our practice…

If we believe what we say we believe… then we ought to know better than him dammit…

Why should I have to read a book filled with wonky theology to be inspired to follow Jesus more radically and counter-culturally.

I am surrounded by those with better theology and yet our track record is terrible in most of the ways Claiborne and his community is brilliant – justice, mercy, community, serving the poor and  moving into the forgotten or undesirable areas of our city.