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Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part II)

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I left off in the first part of this post with the statement that the primary role of government should be to protect its citizens.  This is where a government MUST legislate morality. I often hear people say, “You cannot/ should not legislate morality…” and you may have gotten the impression from Part I of this blog that this was my view as well, but I actually disagree wholeheartedly with that mentality. Morality is the ONLY thing which a government should legislate. Morality is the only metric which can be consistently applied. I should be clear though, morality and religious faith are two different things. Morality refers to the actions which logic and natural law dictate are acceptable or unacceptable. Religious faith is that which we choose to believe because of revelation by God (or a prophet).  A government cannot effectively legislate virtue or faith, but it can and MUST legislate to minimize vice. A law which requires all citizens to be kind and forgiving would be impossible to enforce, but a law which prevents citizens from murdering each other is about as basic and fundamental as we can get for legislation. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong. Even those who don’t acknowledge or understand the bible will still generally agree with that statement.  The society needs to determine a baseline of conduct which can be applied universally – a set of morals that all citizens can be held to. The purpose of this baseline is to offer citizens the freedom and safety to act virtuously according to their own beliefs and callings.

A secondary role of government is to empower its citizens in the direction of the morally good beyond that baseline and/or contribute further to the betterment of society as a whole.  There is a big difference though, between empowering people and coercing people to do something.   When the government wishes to promote a certain good, the most positive way to do that is to remove the road blocks which keep people from doing it to begin with and incentivize the action where possible. The US government already does this in some cases, for instance providing tax deductions for raising children or for making donations to charitable organizations or for buying energy saving home accessories. I think it can do more though and it would do well for our current politicians to make this the central focus of most legal policy.

Government has a constitutional right to levy taxes. I don’t always like it, but I get it. They need money in order to pay the bills that they incur to protect us and maintain order in our society. I think though, that the government would do well to use taxing power for positive reinforcement instead of punishment and coercion. For instance, instead of an individual mandate to get health insurance with increasing tax penalties, why not just offer tax incentives for signing up which decrease over time?  The government has a vested interest in people getting health insurance, because uninsured citizens usually end up sending the bill to the government through ER visits, not to mention higher chance of spreading disease etc. If the government is going to save money by a person’s actions, it makes sense to incentivize that action.  I think that statement could be applied to much of the tax structure. The government has certain fixed costs which can’t be reduced by individual actions (i.e. legislative overhead, military, emergency services, inspection and regulation etc) but much of the money that is spent by governments can be greatly offset by individual actions.  Parents who school their own children are providing a service which relieves the government. They should get a tax credit. A millionaire who hires a full time staff to take care of his estate should not be getting taxed on the money that he uses to pay those employees. The government is already getting tax money from the staff, and the millionaire is fueling the economy and putting cash in more people’s pockets who might otherwise be collecting unemployment (instead of stashing it in his hedge fund).

NOTE: I am not a huge fan of straight tax cuts for the rich with the expectation that they will spend it on things which will boost the economy. That may happen, but I think it’s more likely if you tie the tax cut directly to purchases and hiring which definitively boost economy.

To this point I’ve focused mostly on the government side of things, but religious organizations have a lot to do on their side as well. I think much of the confusion which has come about in this arena is due to the fact that there has been little to no discussion in churches about the role of government and its limits. Groups are eager to promote possible laws that can support their religious agendas (virtuous or otherwise) and horrified when laws are proposed or passed which seem to advocate conflicting views. In many cases, these reactions are well-founded, but I don’t hear too much conversation about why it is the government who should be handling the issue instead of individuals.

I think the goal of Christians and the goal of government officials should be to work the government out of as much of its job as possible. The more that individuals contribute to the betterment of society, the less the government will need to do. The more that the government promotes and fosters those activities, the more prevalent they will become.

AMDG

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Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part I)

March 24, 2014 3 comments

There has been a great deal of controversy and discussion over the years in circles at every level of society about the role of religion in politics and government. I think the central cause of this controversy is that we have forgotten the purpose of both institutions and ignored the potential and dangers (and historical faults) of each of them.

Government exists for the protection of its citizens and to ensure order in society. Today in America (and even more in Europe) government has become the catch-all institution for handling the needs and wants of its people. Some consider this transition to be major advance in society. The upgrade in a sense from your basic run-of-the-mill government.  In many senses, it is easy for a Christian to appreciate this view since many of the services which the government ventures into are ones which the Church pioneered (i.e. public health care and education).  Isn’t it wonderful that the central authority of the land is now providing such altruistic services which were previously only available in the isolated locations where religious orders were available and had capacity? Now it’s available to the masses! What could be more charitable than wanting that? What could be more heartless than wanting anything else if that was an option? But I think that perspective misses a central aspect about Christianity, and humanity at large.

A truly Christian nation, by its very essence, must offer freedom. Freedom of religion and freedom for virtue.  A Jewish or a Muslim nation can look to their religious origins and see that the great leaders of their faith in their sacred writings placed their religion at the center of their civil law. Members of those faiths can understandably look to that as a model for their current times. As a Christian, however, I do not have that option. True, my sacred writings include the same ones that my Jewish brothers and sisters reference, but my faith teaches that those writings are fulfilled in the Gospels – in the life of God incarnate. The Old Testament demonstrated our fall from original grace and freedom, into slavery of sin and the laws designed to show our hearts when they were straying. The New Testament is an invitation to each individual to lead a life of freedom and virtue. Jesus made it very clear that he came to change our hearts. The law was a guide for our actions, but as long as we DESIRE to break it, our heart is where the problem lies. And Jesus came to heal our hearts.  His contemporaries expected the standard of religious rule, but instead he came humbly and offered all people a choice.

I think some Christians (myself included) don’t think about this fact in the context of modern government. I can logically see that many Jews didn’t accept Jesus because he didn’t come as a military and government leader to reestablish the kingdom of Israel on earth, but then I catch myself rationalizing that the gospel could have spread so much faster if it was part of the government. Maybe that’s true, but if it is, God didn’t want it to spread faster. If Christ wanted his religion to be a civil law, he would have shown us that in his life and the lives of his apostles would have continued that legacy.  Instead, we find that Jesus told his followers “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” We find that early Christian communities who most fully understood the gospels, “kept everything in common… no one was rich and no one was poor”   but they didn’t do it because they were forced to by the government, they did it because they were compelled by love. Christianity is a call to holiness – a call to be set apart – a call to virtue. And you cannot legislate virtue. It would be like taking a picture of a $100 bill. You can make it look the same, but it would lose the original value. The $100 bill has value because it’s backed by the U.S. treasury. The picture is not.  Similarly, acts only have value as virtue when they are backed by the intent and desire of the actor. A man held at gunpoint and forced to give someone money is not being virtuous, he is being mugged.

Now, some would argue, “OK, maybe it’s not virtuous if you are being forced into actions which we would otherwise consider good, but at least we get the result. Forcing rich people to feed the poor still results in people getting fed. Isn’t that good enough? Aren’t we achieving the proper end-state?” to that, the only Christian answer is “No, we’re missing the point.” Sure, it’s good to see that poor people get food, but Christ did not instruct us to go forth and legislate feeding of the hungry, he told us to do it ourselves.  Now, I’m not implying that the government has no responsibility here, I’m simply implying that it is not where Christians should be assigning the responsibility.

The part that really irritates me about many recent legislative attempts at solving social woes is that the generally favored solution is to pawn the sacrificial aspect off onto someone else.  Imagine if a man were driving home from work one day and saw a kid on the street starving and homeless. In the kindness of his heart, he decides that no child should endure such suffering. So he gets out of his brand new Mercedes walks over to the little one and says, “Child, I don’t know what your past is or what your problems are, but you will never starve or sleep on the street again.” With that, he grabs the child by the hand and walks down the street into a small inn. He asks to speak to the owner and when he meets her, he tells her that this child was out on the street and he would like her to make sure that this child has food to eat and a bed to sleep in for as long as necessary.  The owner is touched by the man’s generosity and, after discussing the details of expected care and supervision, asks how he would like to set up payment for this arrangement. With that, the man looks at her and says, “Oh, you seem to have misunderstood. I won’t be paying for this, you will. You see, I was generous enough to recognize the child’s need and the fact that you could provide a solution. You get to be generous enough to provide it J  By the way, if you fail to provide the standard of care we discussed earlier, I will see to it that your business fails (and yes, I have those kinds of connections).” With that, he smiles, walks out the door struts down the street and hops back into his car and drives home to his 8 bedroom mansion where he tells his wife and three cats about how generous he was today.

Over and over, our legislature seems to pass laws which it is exempt from (take for instance the Affordable Care Act), and we as voters look to solve our nation’s problems by asking other people to shell out the money or provide the services (i.e. tax hikes only on the rich to pay for our national debt or special programs that effect everyone). It may seem to make sense from a utilitarian perspective, but it does not add up from an ethical or theological point of view. Sure, I may be voting for a solution to the problem, but as a guy who makes less than $250k per year, I’m really just voting for someone else to fix my problem.

I should be clear, I don’t have an issue with tax brackets which increase at certain income levels, but voting on a measure that benefits everyone at someone else’s expense just rubs me the wrong way.

This, I believe, is the great confusion of our political age.  We seek to legislate virtue and in so doing only create a resentment for it. The surest way a government can help its society thrive is by protecting its citizens against foreign and domestic evils and empowering them to exercise virtue to address the problems of their age.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit more about what that looks like, but in the meantime let me know what you think…

AMDG

Faith and History

March 16, 2014 Leave a comment

A few years ago, I posted a blog on Faith and Science which elicited a very logical and detailed response from a reader of the opposite opinion. I appreciated his comments because he made them in a dignified and logical way and expressed what seem to be many people’s reservations about Christianity and religion in general these days.

The first thing that I noted though, was that he wasn’t really countering my discussion on faith and science. Instead, he was addressing a separate issue of faith and history. You see, science and religion are fields which seek truth about very different aspects of the same reality. Where science seeks to understand how the universe works and how to control it, religion seeks to explain the meaning of the universe and Who or What created and already controls it. Science deals more with concrete realities while religion handles the realities that we can’t put our hands on.

History is an interesting topic because it becomes something of a meeting point for the two fields. Science uses its concrete methodologies to determine realities of the past, and many religions claim a God who has actively participated in history. Christianity, more than any other religion (that I know of), lays itself on the line in the historical stage. As a Christian, I believe in a God who sent his son, Jesus of Nazareth, as human being to live, die, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven. If those things did not historically happen, then my faith is false. What I have noticed though, is that the larger issue is that both faith and science have tended to overstep their bounds in trying to express their discoveries about reality. As I discussed in the original post, Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, has a rap for the insistence by church leaders in various centuries that certain physical realities were revealed by God in the bible and therefore irrefutable, when God was simply using the terms and culture of the current society to express the reality of his love and faithfulness. Conversely, scientists who make discoveries or develop theories about physical realities have on occasion claimed that their work points to a reality that either has no place or no need for God. However, the philosophical implications of those statements are well beyond the expertise and field of a scientist.   When both of these flawed perspectives make their way into historical discussions, the process generally results in tainted religion, science, and history.

If you have some time, please read the blog response to my initial blog below as well as my follow-up and let me know what you think. I’m sure there is much more perspective to be added on both sides of the argument and I welcome the discussion…

Read more…

Why I Love My Marriage (at 4 months)

March 9, 2014 3 comments

I have many reasons to be grateful for my life — certainly many more than I deserve. I have my health, my faith, a well-compensated job that I find rewarding, and have been blessed with great friends and family and memories of wonderful experiences all over the world. Yup, My life is pretty good. To be honest, it always has been.

Sure, I’ve had to deal with failure, rejection, pressure, negative influences, injury, nearly getting arrested (a story for another blog), loneliness and  burning out, but no matter how bad or depressing my life has been, I have always been able to fall back on realities that were more important, more permanent, and more positive than the negatives of those times. No matter where I was in the world and no matter how well or poorly the temporal things were going, I was grounded in the knowledge that my family would be there for me and my God loved me and was in control (making all things work together for good for those who trust in him [Romans 8:28]). It didn’t mean that I never had a bad day, or that I didn’t let things get to me, but when things did get to me, I could step back and choose to be grateful (even when every bone in my body was reacting with fear or depression.

None of that has changed since I have been married. I still have those same reasons to be grateful, but now I have another one. In fact I have dozens more reasons to be thankful and I have a beautiful, living, breathing reminder of those reasons constantly before me. Here are just a few reasons why I love married life:

– I wake up every day knowing and experiencing that a person has CHOSEN to love me freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully for a lifetime. The love of my family has been amazing  and constant throughout my life, but they were kinda stuck with me (and I’m so glad that they were!). In some ways, the same is true for God. Sure, He loves me more and better than anyone in this world (including my wife) ever could hope to, but that is true for everyone. My wife, on the other hand, made a commitment to me that she will not make with anyone else even though she could have chosen whoever she wanted. What an amazing experience.

-I get to fall asleep every night holding the woman of my dreams and realizing that it’s not a dream at all. After all the lonely nights praying and hoping and trusting that God would introduce me to the right woman in His time, it is such a sweet experience to lay down and rest with my arm around my wife and tangibly feel the completion of a void that I felt for so long in my life.

-Its not about me anymore. Given, it was never about me to begin with, but having another person intertwined in every aspect of my life has been a great reminder in so many ways that my decisions don’t just affect me, and my wife is such an inspiration to me both to lead the family and grow personally. Sure, there are moments that seem purgatorial (in learning and experiencing her expectations of facial care, for instance), but the sight of my wife and the ring on my finger are physical reminders of the calling that I have to lay down my life in love. Some might consider this the downside of marriage; the ball and chain, the forfeiture of freedom, but I think they are missing the point. As a human being, God made me because He loves me, built a need and desire for love and self-donation into my spiritual DNA. I will never be happy in this life until I’m taking the skills, talents, passions and gifts that God has given me and using them to give back to the world.  I discerned my vocation to marriage through prayer and recognition that the specific skills, talents, passions, gifts and experiences which God blessed me with were better suited toward devotion to one woman, and through that one devotion, bearing fruit to love and serve many more.

-I get to learn a whole new set of my own weaknesses. Once again, not a statement that most people jump up and down about in excitement, but it really is a pretty exciting and wonderful thing, because it’s the only way that I will truly grow. God loves me as I am, but he loves me way too much to let me stay there. In the invitation to marriage, God is allowing me to experience life from a completely different perspective. It’s almost like moving to a new country or starting a new job; you can ask people who are over there, and you can read books and study but in the end you will never really know what it’s like until you get there. Sure, finding some good books, and good mentors go a long way to make sure you choose the right location/job and are properly prepared, but there is always a learning curve. Even though that curve is painful and frustrating at times, It’s making me into a better person than I could have been had I not made that commitment.

-Every point that I wrote above is equally true for my wife, and I get to have the unique and irreplaceable role in this world of walking with her on that journey… our journey. Being invited to play such a pivotal role in the life of someone who I care so deeply for could not be a greater compliment or a greater incentive to step up to the challenge.

-We both saved sex for marriage, and now the act has so much significance to our relationship because it is a sign of everything we are sharing and aspiring to be for each other and for the world. The physical pleasure pales in comparison to the relevance of the embrace.

-We can (and do) talk about everything and anything. Sometimes, we don’t talk at all and we just share silence.

-We laugh SO MUCH. I don’t think I have ever laughed as regularly in my life as I have since my wedding day. Neither of us are comedians and it’s not like we are laughing all the time. But we know each other, and we can see and appreciate the ridiculous in so many of our daily activities and situations that we can’t help but laugh at the comedies of errors or irony along the way.

I can’t help but think that God is smiling and laughing with us 🙂

AMDG

these 2openhands have a new permanent accessory

these 2openhands have a new permanent accessory

Remember You Are Dust… Even Now

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Even though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, it is often more crowded than Sunday services. I don’t know what inspires so many people who don’t come to mass when it’s expected of them to come to celebrate the one day out of the year when someone intentionally puts soot on their face, but I have an idea… and that idea gives me hope…

I think everybody who walks into church has a unique history and motivation which has brought them there, but I have a suspicion that more of those unique motivations find their way into the pews on Ash Wednesday because they long for something that those ashes offer. Some of the people may not be a practicing Catholic while others are. Some of them may not care what is expected of them as a Christian while others do. Some of them may have gotten too busy for weekly mass while others haven’t. What is different about Ash Wednesday though, and maybe what they remember about it that keeps them all coming back, is the stark reminder that it offers of something that we all know. This life doesn’t last forever. Once a year, we allow a man to put the burnt remnants of palm branches on our foreheads and remind us that we will die. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”

We long to hear this though and we need to hear this, but we need it with the perspective that only Christ can give. This undeniable reality is present every day in our lives and in our media. It is portrayed as a tragedy or as a statistic or even as entertainment, but our Church reminds us that the reality of this “dust” is a sign of hope and an invitation. The first reading from the second chapter of the book of Joel is a prime example.

“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.

Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;

gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare thy people, O LORD, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, `Where is their God?’

Then the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.”

The last few times that I have heard it or read it, all of my attention for the better part of the day was wrapped around two words at the very beginning — “Even now”. Joel was talking to a people who were on the brink of disaster, who had gotten themselves into a pretty bad place with God, but his message was not condemnation, but invitation. He was telling the people, “IT’S NOT TOO LATE! EVEN NOW YOU CAN STILL BE FORGIVEN! EVEN NOW GOD WANTS TO MAKE YOU WHOLE. EVEN NOW GOD WANTS TO RESTORE THE RELATIONSHIP THAT YOU WERE MADE FOR.” And that is exactly what happened. There is plenty of death and destruction in the Old Testament, but God is always looking to save His people. The same is true now. Christ invites us “even now” no matter where we have been to return to him, not so that he can save us from death and destruction in this world, but so that he give us eternal life with him in the next.

Lent isn’t about finding a way to make yourself miserable for 40 days. It’s about setting your priorities: God first, everything else later. We make sacrifices to God as a reminder that He is more important than the things we sacrifice. Moreover, it becomes an opportunity for us to unite our sufferings with Christ who sacrificed his whole life because he loved us and he loved the Father that much.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation. Each person decides in their own way how or if they will accept, but it brings me hope to see so many people in the pews listening to God’s offer and bowing their heads to be reminded of their frailty.

AMDG

P.S. Another great example of that invitation is the song that is probably most synonymous with the service. I challenge you to pray the words of this song…

1. We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

2. We offer you our failures,
we offer you attempts,
the gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

3. Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain,
though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

4. Thanks be to the Father,
who made us like himself.
Thanks be to his Son,
who saved us by his death.
Thanks be to the Spirit
who creates the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.