Saturday, October 22, 2005

Economic Illiteracy in the Pulpit

It is now quite fashionable in many Christian circles to be an “Environmentalist Christian.” Terms like “Creation Care,” and “Social Justice,” and “Environmental Justice” seem to roll off tongues like other media clichés. Caring for the grass and the whales is getting more attention in some church circles than clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.

Now, don’t think that I’m one of those callous earth-haters. On my little hilltop farm, I bred Jacob Sheep precisely because they were a rare and endangered species. Our garden is strictly organic, and I can spend hours sitting in a meadow, walking through the woods, or canoeing in a marsh. I have a great deal of respect for the cycles of the seasons and the rhythms of the year…yes, I do have a few drops of mystical Celtic blood in me...

But that doesn’t mean that in the passion of environmental exuberance I should cast all other important aspects of life to the wind. I still have financial and family responsibilities. Political and economic issues surround us all in a hundred ways every day. Issues of the very soul go deeper still…and yet, some of our religious spokespersons, in their genuine excitement for a reawakening of environmental consciousness, have gone so overboard as to overstep their expertise, preach a false and dysfunctional message, and mislead their flocks. I would suggest that the Ship of the Church is currently listing about eight points to starboard due to unevenly distributed ecological ballast….

I was used to this, of course, in some evangelical circles. “Creation Care” magazine and the social justice crowd there and at Eastern University offer a veritable smorgasbord of animal rights, anti-business socialists dressing up their philosophy in theology. As a participant in last years' "Microfinance and Environment Conference" at Eastern, I witnessed the fervency with which some other participants embraced feminist agendas and global warming hysteria. Fortunately, due to the fractious, decentralized nature of Protestantism, they can be ignored. It is more difficult when these views come from hierarchical leaders with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

On October 1, St Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, NY (the seminary of the Orthodox Church in America) held their annual “Orthodox Education Day.” The Rev. Thomas Hopko, Dean of the Seminary, gave a lecture geared for the clergy that I attended (and no, I am neither clergy nor a candidate for said position…). He declared that the problems of society could be summed up by the values embodied by the god “Nike.” On the whiteboard, he identified those ‘problems’ as being characterized as the “P’s,” writing a long list of words beginning with the letter “P” that were problematic. Among these were “Pornography,” “Power,” and “Prestige.” Then of course, he added the filthiest P-word of them all: “Profit.”

Apparently, it never occurred to him that the reason he was able to put on a pair of eyeglasses that morning was because someone earned a profit examining his eyes and making the frames and cutting the lenses. He didn’t stop to think that the whiteboard on which he wrote was made available for his use because the company that manufactured it made a profit. He didn’t quite explain how the enormous book sale taking place in the tent on the lawn outside the class was kept stocked with hundreds of titles without the mechanism of “profit.” Nor did he quite explain how a seminary could survive in high-priced Westchester County, New York without benefactors who make donations out of the profit made by their personal labor.

I am sorry to sound so sarcastic, but I am just so tired of clergy who insist on pontificating on economic topics, though they may be clueless on the subject. A roomful of young, impressionable black-robed students, clergy and clergy candidates sat nodding their heads in agreement…and I noted that St. Vladimir’s does not even offer any courses in business or economics. What half-baked notions will these men bring with them to their future homilies?

Last weekend I attended a different event, “Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity," sponsored by the Pappas Institute at Holy Cross College (this being the Greek Orthodox Seminary in the US). A wide range of speakers from both secular and sacred backgrounds presented a truly wonderful program – the best ‘professional development’ opportunity I have ever attended, in fact. Unfortunately, the scholarship was compromised by the presence of the Roman Catholic President (and treasurer) of Boston Catholic Charities, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir. Riding the “Social Justice” train, Rev. Hehir proceeded to criticize those who oppose taxation and programmatic largesse to help the poor. He stated that the philosophy of the [Roman] Catholic Church is such that one need not rely on the Church for implementing the church’s programs, but that other institutions – including Government – are appropriate and even necessary agents to achieve the Church’s goals. He defended Government taxation and wealth redistribution, because, (and I wrote this quote down)

“otherwise, the poor would be at the mercy of the generosity of individuals.”

Ummmm…..yeah? And? Who would you have them at the mercy of, Rev. Hehir? Of bureaucrats? Of Systems and Instructions (not that you have a vested interest in that, would you?) Of those who make their living by insuring the continuity of the poverty-relief system? Of those who take a cut of every offering made and give what’s left to the poor? How does a ‘man of the cloth’ take such a dim view of voluntary Christian generosity? Are you jaded because the world has not given to your institution as mush as you believe you need?

If I am ever destitute, I pray that I am held in the mercy of real people, of caring neighbors, of people with eyes to see and arms to hug - and not a waiting room and interminable lines at government institutions.

I should not end this without giving praise and credit where it is due. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in North & South America, also spoke. But the Primate’s talk consisted of a series of stories – vignettes of real people, how he has seen individuals helping individuals, even poor people assisting other poor people during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And the overwhelming sense he conveyed was that of our individual responsibilities to our fellow man and woman.

That is a breath of fresh air. I’ll continue to promote the importance of profit and economic expansion, and the need to voluntarily support the poor around us. And I think I’m in good company, according to the writer of Proverbs 31:10-31

10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. 11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. 12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. 13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. 14 She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar. 15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. 16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. 17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. 18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. 19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. 20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. 22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land. 24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. 25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. 26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. 27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. 29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. 30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised. 31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.