Thursday, December 27, 2007

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 16)

Civic Virtues

As we interact with the people around us, we can show love to them in many important ways. Simple neighborliness is a key aspect of living the Christian life. We should serve those we live near and work for the common good (commonwealth). We should cultivate hospitality, gracious and truthful speech, and etiquette. And if the people with whom we live scorn our faith, we should endure persecution with grace (Rom 12:14ff; 1 Peter 2:12).

Christians can also contribute to community development in both concrete and relational aspects. The “new urbanists” are an example of some thinkers (not necessarily Christian) who are trying to develop what a virtuous civic development might look like in its concrete and spatial aspects. Some new urbanists are extreme and utopian in their views; nevertheless, they have some ideas that are valuable. Philip Bess has provided this “creed” of new urbanism.

1. We believe that individuals have both rights and obligations, that individual well-being requires good communities, and that liberty is not license.

2. We believe that individuals should have as much freedom as justice allows.

3. We affirm the political principle of subsidiarity, which holds that political decisions for the common good should be made at and through the smallest and most local institutional levels possible.

4. We believe that the Urban Transect as a principle both promotes and accounts for the widest possible variety of free, just and environmentally sustainable human settlements.

5. We contend that traditional towns and urban neighborhoods demonstrate historically that they both support and are supported by the free exchange of material goods and ideas, including private property.

6. We profess traditional urbanism in all its manifestations through the Urban Transect as the best way for human beings to organize and make human settlements.

7. We fight for those who desire to live in compact, mixed-use, mixed-class walkable communities, in the proximity of open landscape and a public realm of plazas, squares, and pedestrian-friendly streets.

8. We fight for the legal right to build traditional towns and neighborhoods.

9. We hope and believe that the merits of traditional towns and neighborhoods, manifest in various specific local forms, will cause traditional urbanism to once again someday prevail as a cultural norm.

10. We work for the common good now, and for the common good of future generations.[i]

The relational aspects of community building are just as important. The church body itself should be the supreme expression of genuine community. Christians do not have this kind of spiritual unity with the people who live in our communities, but we can still have a commitment to the actual people with whom we share our lives. This has always been a strength of folk cultures, but modernization worked to remove this from our lives and replaced it with the weak but titillating relationships on MySpace. Christians should make efforts to know our neighbors and develop face-to-face relationships with people. Hospitality can be a major expression of Christian love in a society decimated by fractured relationships.[ii]

Christians can also show love for God and others by the way in which we embrace technology with discrimination. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 is a classic text on this. Christians are neither ascetics nor hedonists, although unbelievers might call us both. We simply operate according to a wholly different perspective on this world. This world is passing away, but we live for what is eternal.

Our present society places great stock in technological progress. In fact, we may fairly say that we live and die by technology. This is only logical if we worship Man and his greatest achievement, Science. But as Christians, we see the race of Adam for the farce and failure he is, and we put our trust only in the Second Adam, the God-man Jesus Christ. This means that while we will certainly use technology for the glory of God, we can never trust in it to achieve the good life.

Neil Postman, a leading social critic of recent years, has posed some helpful questions in his work, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century. Postman did not attempt to think biblically. Nevertheless, he did manage to keep technology at a sufficient distance to criticize it thoughtfully. Here are some questions he recommends.

1. What is the problem to which this technology is the solution? He goes on to write, “This question needs to be asked because there are technologies employed – indeed, invented – to solve problems that no normal person would regard as significant. Of course, any technology can be marketed to create an illusion of significance, but an intelligent, aware person need not believe it.” As Christians living in light of eternity, we should understand our problems and their solutions primarily in terms of what will allow us to participate with Christ in his mission. Technology must serve this goal.

2. Whose problem is it? Just because “everyone” “needs” a given technology does not mean that you or I need it. Since we have different goals, it may well be that we do not need what the rest of the world needs. Conversely, we may need things that the rest of the world would scoff at.

3. Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution? Whether we pay attention to it or not, there are always trade-offs involved in adopting any given technology. Too often, we don’t pay attention, and we are caught spiritually unprepared for the changes that technology brings. The industrial revolution is an example writ large in the history books, but we could multiply more mundane examples in everyday. A growing family may opt to solve their scheduling issues by buying another car. This will certainly bring certain benefits. But it will also bring challenges that the family may only be dimly aware of until it has taken its toll on them. As Christians, we must be seriously concerned in our day about the institutions of the church and the family. We dare not rush into a technological solution to woes which cannot be solved by technology. The technology we do adopt must be done with eyes wide open to the possibilities and also the problems. Church historian Carl Trueman has astutely pointed out that the church has never learned to deal adequately with the widespread use of the automobile.

4. What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem? Postman writes, “It is doubtful that one can think of a single technology that did not generate new problems as a result of its having solved an old problem.” True. This is because at the root man’s problems are not technological. They are spiritual. Our ultimate needs are not for faster travel, faster communication, improved manufacturing, lower prices, and more stuff. We need righteousness, which is as much as to say, we need God. He alone can satisfy our souls. Technology will never give us God (remember the Tower of Babel), and more often than not it turns into our god. But worshiping hard drives and fiber optic cables is pretty low if we want any kind of a life.

5. What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change? The obvious example Postman exploits is television. He correctly notes that Abraham Lincoln very likely would not have become president if there had been television in his day. Most political analysts credit John F. Kennedy’s victory in his campaign for president at least in part to his ability to look good on television. Because of television, those who are good at projecting personality and are good at delivering the sound bite acquire great social clout which they otherwise would not have had. In order to use technology wisely, we must be aware of this.

6. What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

Interestingly, from a Christian vantage point, I am not as pessimistic about technology as Postman seems to be. That is because I serve a God who is providentially directing this entire universe to his good ends. I also have a commission from him to exercise stewardship over this earth, using the capabilities he has given mankind. Furthermore, I have a commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations. Therefore, I am not at all afraid of developing new technologies. However, I do not want us to trust in technology to solve our problems, to give us a better world, or to make us happy. That is idolatrous. Let’s be aware of the real possibilities and problems with technology for our ultimate goal of glorifying and enjoying God forever. And remember, “The present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31).

Business practices are another important way in which Christians can show civic virtues. Christians must operate ethically with biblical stewardship, not bare profit, as the driving motivation and guiding principle. In Faith in the Halls of Power, D. Michael Lindsay profiles several business leaders who are attempting to apply their Christian faith to their business practices. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, chooses to keep his restaurants closed on Sundays and donates tens of millions of dollars to philanthropic causes. The company’s statement of purpose says that the firm exists “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” The president of ServiceMaster, C. William Pollard, told Lindsay that his faith made him realize that the firm had to be a moral community for shaping human character. [iii] These examples of thoughtfulness, while not always robust, are heartening, and these are the kinds of things all Christians should be conscientious about.

Though we might not immediately think of it, medicine is also an important arena of civic virtue. The health care industry has mushroomed into a major economic and ethical battleground in recent years, due to the increasing expectations of the populace, increasing technological capabilities, and increasing government involvement. There is no way to deal with all of the issues here, but at the very least Christians must be ethically informed in order to make wise and righteous judgments. We must reject all immoral medical practices, such as abortion and euthanasia, embryonic stem cell therapies, and reproductive technologies which destroy human life and separate reproduction from the context of heterosexual marriage.

We should be very skeptical, at the least, about all of the talk about “rights” to medical treatment. The scripture tells us that if we have food and clothing we should be content. The Bible does not give us a right to take something that belongs to someone else in order to get what we want. If I get cancer, I have no moral authorization from God to compel you to pay for my chemotherapy. If you wish to give me the money, that is right and good. But you ought not to be forced to contribute totally apart from all considerations of personal and covenantal responsibility. All federal programs for the redistribution of wealth and mandated health coverage fall afoul of the biblical principles of personal property ownership and responsibility. Federal programs cannot fulfill the biblical injunction to love our neighbor, for our neighbor is someone we can see, know, evaluate, and respond to with compassion. Government programs of necessity call on us to “help” nameless, faceless “poor” people, when we have no control over who truly needs help and what true help really is.

Christians should enthusiastically support and encourage all ethical medical advances, such as stem cell therapies derived from adult tissues or cord blood. We should encourage new developments in biological understanding and treatments of diseases. We can be thankful to God for all of these developments.

I would caution us to remember, however, that we should never expect medicine to solve all of life’s problems. Medicine can never deal with the spiritual aspect of man, and it does great damage to individuals, families, and societies when we try to solve spiritual issues with medical treatments. Christians can be a great example to the world in this regard, as well. When we refuse to medicalize sin, we can point the way to the cross of Christ, which is sinful man’s ultimate need.

Last but not least, Christians must strive for a biblically informed view and practice of state government. Such government is given by God and is good. Yet because humans are sinners, it is always in need of correction. This essay is not a treatise on politics, but let me suggest four things relative to cultivating faithfulness in regard to the government.

First, the government is accountable to God to operate in its proper sphere of jurisdiction with biblically normed justice in law and society, from the local to the international level, on everything from welfare to warfare. This is a tall order, and Christians have a multitude of issues here that we need to wrestle with biblically. If the government’s role is primarily to execute justice (Rom 13:1-7), then how can and should we operate in order to encourage and support the proper role of government while opposing its intrusions into other spheres? Here are some suggestions. (1) We need a major reformation of the tax code. Whatever challenges they pose, either the “fair tax” or “flat tax” ideas would be considerable improvements over the current convoluted system. The current system has been unjust ever since its implementation through the 16th Amendment to the Constitution. The government uses the current code to manage people’s lives through creating incentives or disincentives, and all kinds of special interest groups exploit the tax code for their own advantage. Furthermore, I would suggest that we outlaw property tax and inheritance tax, for these taxes blatantly violate personal property ownership and invade the covenantal economic unity of the family. I should make clear, by the way, that this is not an excuse to get out of paying one’s taxes. Christians should pay their taxes willingly. This is only a plea to work toward reforming the tax code because it reflects a government which is drunk on its own importance and power.

(2) We should return the family to its role of providing for its members while removing government from any primary welfare role. Families can do this even now without waiting for the government. Yet long term this will require reforming the legal code to support and encourage familial economic unity. For example, why should businesses be given the legal status of a person to insure the continuity of their properties, while families are denied this status? Also, Christians have for too long been complicit in actually asking the government to take over in these areas. Here is just one quote to jump-start your thinking: “The Christian who votes for measures that will subsidize his business is using his ballot to take money from someone else to underwrite his program. The parent who applies for a government loan to pay his child’s education is using government force to take money from some private individual to pay for his child’s education.”[iv] Families should be responsible to provide for their own. Churches could also provide the safety net needed for their members, privately run and funded charities could help to fill the inevitable gaps, and, as a last resort, local governments (principle of subsidiarity) could insure that the basic survival needs of food and shelter were met. To give one practical benefit, this would be a major factor in fixing the problems of health care. It would take the control out of the hands of the current “trinity” of health care – government, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies – and return it to the hands of patients and physicians.

(3) I suggest we refocus the government on enforcing justice rather than on accumulating regulation. Whenever there is widespread ethical confusion, the path of least resistance for the government is simply to pile on regulation to supposedly help the problems. But this rarely accomplishes much more than bloating bureaucracies. Along these lines there needs to be a major overhaul of the judicial system to incorporate true justice, such as generally eliminating the prison system and putting proper retribution and restitution in its place.[v] (4) I further suggest that we return productive roles to the private sector, such as education, and remove subsidy programs, such as in agriculture. (5) Last, we should reinforce basic property rights against all government incursions, such as occurred in Kelo v. City of New London (2005).

Second, we can support governmental civic virtue by incorporating the principle of subsidiarity. This is an idea developed in Catholic social thought that I believe is wise. It basically says that all social issues should be dealt with at the smallest possible level of social units. This is the opposite of top-down kind of government.

Third, in our current milieu, Christians must work to keep democracy in check with transcendent revealed moral truths. The central problem of democracy from a Christian perspective is moral autonomy. Since we as Christians understand that men are sinners who reject God’s law, we do not place unfettered confidence in democracy, just as we do not place complete confidence in any form of government. Democracy will not bring world peace, and the United States does not have a moral obligation to construct democratic governments across the globe.[vi] When government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is taken to mean that government is not accountable to God, we must cry “halt.”

Last but certainly not least, Christians should faithfully pray for their civic leaders, so that we as Christians will be able to lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:2).



[i] “Why Architecture Matters, Part IV” (June 28, 2007), accessed 5 July 2007, available from http://rightreason.ektopos.com/archives/2007/06/why_architectur_1.html.

[ii] See especially Alexander Strauch, The Hospitality Commands (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth, 1993).

[iii] Faith in the Halls of Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 180. Unfortunately, Lindsay also correctly observes that many evangelical business leaders gravitate toward the para-church model of ministry because it is run with corporate professionalism. Thus, he says, “The parachurch sector has become the fulcrum of evangelical influence in American society” (201). I believe this has contributed to the doctrinal instability, moral relativism, and individualism of American Christianity. Para-church ministry is always a genetic mutation of the results of the gospel which in the long run produces sterility. Cf. note 39 above.

[iv] R. C. Sproul, Jr. Money Matters (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1985), 134.

[v] For one attempt to wrestle with these issues biblically, see Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1991), chapters 11-16.

[vi] The U.S. government does have a moral obligation to protect its citizens, so in that sense the war on terror is just. Unfortunately, however, this has often gotten mixed up with being the good guy by installing democracy. This is not necessarily wise or just in every case.

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