The Banality of Systemic Injustice

People expect evil to come with horns, pitchforks, and an obvious bent toward cruelty. That is, when we meet someone who has done or approved of great evil, we expect them to be obviously angry, psychotic, and express delight in their vileness.

Real evil in our real world is seldom like that. Our villains seldom arrive dressed like Cruella Deville or Sauron. But we still expect those that participate in something really bad to be obviously evil. Wicked people who do wicked things rarely have the flair we expect, which should teach us something about the nature of evil.

Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, helps undermine the expectation of an entertaining bad guy. She does this by presenting a portrait of perhaps the most boring and petty man in the twentieth century who orchestrated some of the most unquestionable evil in the history of humanity.

Who is Arendt?

Others are much better equipped to give a more detailed history of the life and work of Hannah Arendt. This BBC interview of a scholar who has studied Arendt offers a decent overview.

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Arendt was herself born in Germany and was a Jew. She left Germany in 1933 ostensibly to study, but eventually emigrated to the United States, where she remained a citizen until her death in 1975. It is for good reason, then, that Arendt felt a keen interest in the Holocaust.

She is best known as a political theorist, though her work is more broadly philosophical than most political discourse of our day. She was also a journalist for the New Yorker, who happened to fund her trip to Jerusalem to see the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The book that resulted from her trip to watch the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, caused a significant controversy in that day, with apparently coordinated efforts to undermine its spread. The main thrust of the controversy was Arendt’s indelicate handling of the apparent Jewish cooperation with the Holocaust.

That claim, even in this post, is somewhat remarkable and needs some nuancing, but it plays into the general idea of the banality of evil.

Arendt argued that the Jewish community participated in their own extermination because they largely cooperated with the beginning stages of the Holocaust. This sounds like victim blaming—and perhaps it is to a certain degree—but reading the book, that does not seem to be her intention.

What is true is that the Jews in Germany and the other occupied nations rarely resisted the ever-increasing encroachments on their liberty and deprivations of their rights. The community, by virtue of being administratively linked through and led by the synagogue, had recognized structure that often worked with the Germans, always hoping that cooperation at each stage would end the problem.

In some sense the Jews did cooperate in their own demise, though it is not clear whether overt resistance would have been successful. Arendt’s intention does not appear to criticize the Jewish community for their cooperation, but to explain why the mild-mannered Adolf Eichmann was able to help murder millions with little or no violent effort.

I leave final resolution of that controversy to others, but believe Arendt to be helpful on some points even if she is outrageously mistaken on that one.

Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann is the stereotype for the mid-level bureaucrat who is exceedingly efficient at making things move without understanding what exactly what was happening or why it could possibly be bad.

Based on Arendt’s description, which begs to be believed on the grounds of credo quia absurdum if nothing else, Eichmann had little animus toward anyone. He was a boring man, who lived a boring life, and did extraordinary evil because it is what the boring system he participated in required for “success.”

While the world—Arendt included—expected a slavering war criminal spewing anti-Semitic epithets from the witness stand, what they saw was someone who did not believe himself to be a war criminal because he was simply doing his job. Arendt reveals Eichmann to be a splendid manager but a terrible human.

The unthinking reader might succeed in passing over the horror that Arendt depicts, but the observant ones will recognize that Eichmann is frightening because he is so ordinary.

Why does ordinariness frighten? In this case because he managed to participate in such unthinkable evil with such a clear conscience. It is clear from Arendt’s description—which is corroborated by other historical sources—that Eichmann did not consider himself guilty of anything in particular.

In other words, Eichmann’s banality is frightening because we are so susceptible to it.

Systemic Injustice

Eichmann shows us what it is like to participate in systemic injustice with a clear conscience.

I recommend Arendt’s book to readers—particularly contemporary evangelical readers—because it shows without question the power of an unjust system, the difficulty in extricating oneself from it, and the importance of resisting such systems.

Eichmann saw himself as an idealist. According to Arendt, “An ‘idealist’ was a man who lived for his idea—hence he could not be a businessman—and who was prepared to sacrifice for his idea everything and, especially, everybody. . . . The perfect ‘idealist,’ like everybody else had of course his personal feelings and emotions, but he would never permit them to interfere with his actions if they came into conflict with his ‘idea.’” (42)

Though Eichmann was aware of the Final Solution, which he knew included killing the Jews, he had absolutely no sympathy. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” (49) He was fundamentally a man that saw serving the system as the highest end, regardless of the cost.

The inability to speak Arendt refers to is that Eichmann was unoriginal in his thought patterns. He knew talking points and catch-phrases but was blissfully unaware of the conflicts internally between them and did not understand the enormity indicated by his language. This was facilitated by the Nazi efforts to sanitize language and speak of things bureaucratically—using boring systemic language to mark overt evil.

One might consider examples in U.S. history such as the idea of “Indian removal,” “separate but equal,” and “reproductive rights” to see how terrible evil can be masked by euphemism. This system can roll right over conscience by convincing the actors they are simply scheduling train cars and not facilitating the deaths of millions of innocent people.

Conclusion

Arendt’s account of Eichmann is sobering in our world filled with systems and euphemisms.

While some of the pleas about systemic injustice are little more than complaints that life was not unfair in favor of a particular group, conservative Christians have for too long ignored the reality of systemic injustice and our own participation in it.

In many cases, we unknowingly participate in such systems and in others we lack the requisite compassion to see the impact of our participation. Eichmann in Jerusalem should cause readers to ask what ideals they are pursuing to the detriment of others and recognize that if that ideal cannot be achieved without the injustice it is not a worthy ideal. The ends simply do not justify the means and they never can.

They Thought They Were Free - A Review

Godwin’s law is that the longer an online debate gets, the more likely it is that someone will make an analogy to Hitler. One corollary to the law is that the person who makes the comparison loses the argument.

A reductio ad Hitlerum is a rhetorical device altogether too common in internet dialogue used to show someone how they are evil just like Hitler. Adolf Hitler is, of course, one of the few human beings that people can nearly universally agree is the embodiment of pure evil.

But if Hitler was the embodiment of pure evil and the German people put him into power, how did he either trick them or force them to make him the supreme ruler of their nature? Or, more sinisterly, was it that the German people were somehow an evil people themselves who saw Hitler as the embodiment of their nation.

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The third option is helpful wartime propaganda, but unlikely to be convincing in the presence of real, live Germans who may think differently, but who are pretty clearly not the embodiment of evil. This leaves the first two as possible options.

In the late 50’s, journalist Milton Mayer set out to figure out how Germany was led to elect Hitler—even to cheer him on—despite the evil that he embodied. Mayer, an American of German descent and a Jew, went to Germany to spend time with common men in a small town in Germany to figure out how they were duped.

The result of Mayer’s journalistic efforts is contained in the book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. The book was originally published in 1955 but was republished in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press. The volume’s republication is timely as Europe and the U.S. wrestle with the rise of populism in the face of economic difficulty and political destabilization. In some ways, we are living in a period very similar, which means that if we are to avoid (or overcome) the great evil of our age, we must be prepared to learn the lessons from history.

The book is a collection of interviews. They have obviously been edited to focus the reader on what Mayer himself saw, but the portraits he paints of the ten Nazi men that he befriended and interview do not bear the marks of caricature. Though he had every reason to be repulsed by these people who had supported the regime whose crimes are now the most readily useful hyperbole, Mayer presents his subjects sympathetically and, we may presume, fairly. If what he depicts is really true, then we have good cause for concern.

It becomes clear throughout the book that none of the people being interviewed consider themselves bad people—their loss in World War II was an unfortunate reality they were coping with, but even the public discovery of the mass murders in the concentration camps did not convince these men they were culpable for such great evil. Though the world may have viewed Germany broadly as somehow complicit in the extermination of the Jews, homosexuals, and other “unfit” populations, these men clearly do not believe they are criminals.

As the interviews explore the mindset of these Germans leading up to and during WWII, it becomes clear that these people—not to say all Germans—actively supported Hitler’s social program. Hitler solved unemployment, bringing relatively prosperity to a large portion of the population. He helped bring them out of the depths of depression and give them a sense of national pride, even after the stinging defeat and economic reprisals of the Great War. A rising stock market, so to speak, was a bigger concern than the dispossession of a small minority of the population.

The Nazis were unquestionably anti-Semitic. That was in the DNA of the National Socialist party, very clearly written in Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. At first, when the vitriol in Hitler’s book might have been more striking, it was apparently not commonly read. To be fair, how many Americans have really read The Art of the Deal or The Audacity of Hope? Even if those books had alarming theories in them, it would be altogether easy to minimize their implications or ignore their severity, trusting the sluggishness of bureaucratic government to minimize the impact of any excesses of thought.

As it turns out, the people Mayer interviewed were largely indifferent to anti-Semitism or actually anti-Semitic. The culture shaped them to be so, with frequent political rhetoric designed to show them how unjust the economic systems were and how the Jews had taken advantage of the rest of the population. Eventually people started to believe that, so that when the synagogue was torched it did not seem to great a travesty and when the local policeman was given the order to collect his neighbor for relocation and forfeit of his property, it seemed simply logical given. The program of anti-Semitic action was introduced slowly and incrementally so the German people had little sense of outrage at the next “little” encroachment on the lives of their Jewish neighbors, though all the while the kettle was getting hotter.

One of the key elements of the Nazi program was about distracting people from thinking about fundamental concepts like truth, justice, and holiness. As this conversation between a German academic and Mayer illustrate, distraction was part of the program of social change:

You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.

‘Those,’ I said, ‘are the words of my friend the baker. “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.”’

‘Your friend the baker was right,’ said my colleague. ‘The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your “little men,” your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism have us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and “crises” and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the “national enemies,” without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?’ (167-168)

Though the Third Reich replaced Christian belief with a pagan-infused religion with Christian trappings, the religiously devout were led to abandon their faith for German unity. Though their neighbors were displaced and abused, they assented or failed to resist. The intelligentsia and the common man were played by Hitler and his administration—made ineffective—and they allowed it to happen.

This book is powerful. Not primarily because I believe the present administration to be equivalent to Hitler’s, but the social climate seems to be laying the groundwork for a similar horrible power in the U.S. or even in Europe.

We are not to the stage of Germany in the 1920’s, but it is as if we are being groomed for that condition. Our call should be to resist. Not merely to resist the politics of the “other side,” whichever side that might be, but to resist the moral formation that will enable us to countenance the grave, overt, and unforgivable injustices that the Nazis were able to perpetuate. This may require us to put down our phones, read fewer blogs, and contemplate more fundamental things, like hope, love, truth, and faith.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

12 Rules For Life - A Review

Depending on who you read, Jordan Peterson is either the scourge of the hour or the timely herald of reason crying in the wilderness. Relatively unknown until the last few years, he now has millions of followers on YouTube, more speaking engagements than he can handle, television interviews, and has reached a level of notoriety that only our wired world can manufacture.

His latest book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson offers some self-improvement tips for his readers, but has stirred up controversy with a variegated mess of adulation and castigation from critics.

Peterson as a Cultural Phenomenon

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The reaction to Peterson has been polarized both from Christians and non-Christians. He seems to a sort of Rorschach Test that draws predictable reactions from the same old crowds.

Peterson’s rise to public notoriety came when his resistance to a speech control law in Canada hit the news. He indicated that he would resist the law requiring him to use sexually dysphoric people’s preferred pronouns. This resistance was widely publicized even though Peterson made it clear that his opposition is to the legal mandate of a certain accepted civility rather than a disapproval of transgenderism or even a desire to offed—in fact, he indicated he would use people’s preferred pronouns when they requested.

Normally this sort of resistance to the Zeitgeist comes from people that are quickly exposed as “uncultured,” “boorish,” or “ignorant” by the media. This sort of rejoinder tends to result in being celebrated by one cable news channel, ridiculed by another, and disappearance after a week or so. Even tenured professors like Peterson are usually subdued, squashed, and even fired after expressing cultural opinions like the ones he has offered.

That has not happened with Peterson. Instead, his appeal has broadened, he has weathered the storm, and he continues to have a voice in the public square.

A significant reason Peterson has been able to maintain his position is that he seems uniquely equipped to handle the rhetoric and bustle of our knuckle dragging media culture. In an extremely hostile BBC4 interview, where the interviewer intentionally misrepresents his position repeatedly, he remains calm, corrects her, and even manages to get her to stop and think. Most cultural rebels spontaneously combust in confrontation because they lack the self-control and reasoned care that Peterson demonstrates.

If there is only one thing Christians can learn from Peterson, it is how to manage controversy in this age of garbled communication and bloviating. He manages to hold well-reasoned views publicly and generally not get drawn into shouting matches or bluffed into silence. He communicates clearly and his words are carefully chosen and well-considered.

Of course, his resistance to the identity politics of the left, including his open scorn of some of the pseudo-disciplines in academia like feminist studies and its variants, has made him a darling of a growing, vocal, and toxic group of people on the political right. Some like Peterson because he delivers what they most want—liberal tears.

One danger for Peterson and his fans is getting sucked into the vortex of sewage in the nationalist right and alt-right. These groups are cheering Peterson as a long-awaited hero. This increases the left’s hatred for him and may draw some well-meaning Peterson fans beyond what he seems to intend.

To be clear, based on my reading of Peterson and what I’ve seen of his videos, he does not support the ideologies of nationalists, overt racists, and conspiracy theorists. In fact, he is careful to set limits on what he is and is not saying. However, we’ve so deeply drunk from the well of belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and the friend of my enemy is my enemy that Peterson serves as a scapegoat or talisman for groups that haven’t really considered what his message is.

Peterson and Christianity

The reception of Peterson among Christians has been similarly mixed. Among revisionist Christians who generally accept and promote whatever counter-Christian social mores the culture adopts as a matter of course, Peterson is anathema for not agreeing with them. However, among orthodox Christians, the opinion of Peterson is widely varying.

There is good reason for both positive and negative reception of Peterson’s message. It depends on why Peterson’s message is received and what the recipient is intending to glean.

For example, Peterson’s resistance to the cultural tide of the domination of supposedly oppressed ideologies is helpful. He has showed that it is possible to resist the current manias of our day and yet survive. Also, Peterson seems to be honestly seeking the good of his audience, particularly young men who have been told they are oppressive and evil simply for being men. He speaks with a sort of compassion and in that way represents a good and helpful voice for our time.

On the other hand, Peterson represents a dangerous temptation to some Christians who are more interested in a certain place in society than truly orthodox belief. Peterson is well-versed in Western culture and has a good grasp on the Bible as literature. He interprets the Bible using the methods common among theological liberals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In other words, there is a strong Judeo-Christian ethic and an invigorating call to arms based on the canon in Peterson’s message, but it denies essential elements of Scripture, like miracles, the resurrection, and the supernatural in general. Some Christians may follow Peterson and pick up well-reasoned resistance to cultural tides in some areas while imbibing unhealthy theology in the other—and that error may cause confusion in the pews.

The task for the discerning Christian is to learn what can be learned from Peterson, while resisting the error. This means that pastors and leaders within orthodox congregations should not rush to recommend Peterson’s work to immature believers, because it may be caustic to their faith.

A Review of 12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is Peterson’s second book. His first, book Maps of Meaning is a much more academic volume that was released in 1999. Peterson is both a professor and a practicing clinical psychologist, which seems to have previously directed his efforts toward the counseling room rather than the written word.

According to the introduction, this volume sprang out of a post Peterson wrote on a website called Quora, where anyone can pose a question, anyone can answer, and the crowd votes to approve or disapprove the answer. He provided a lengthy list, some serious, some humorous, of responses to the question, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” Peterson’s answer went viral and, after Peterson himself went viral over the political correctness law, he got a book deal that resulted in this volume.

There is nothing earth shattering about his rules, but the reception of this advice indicates he has struck a nerve with people that want to live well, but don’t know how. As a general rule, the advice is pretty good, too.

Most of the “rules” are just good advice: Present yourself well, because you’ll be treated better and have more opportunities. Don’t hang out with people that will harm you and drag you down. Discipline your children appropriately, using the means with the lowest force possible. Stop worrying about everyone else and their problems if your life is in shambles. Tell the truth and do not lie for any reason. Celebrate the joy of life in others, especially kids, as they explore the world around.

Although I would qualify some of the rules Peterson offers, they are generally pretty good advice. For example, one thing I would qualify is that Peterson advocates staying away from people that will harm you. This is good advice to a certain extent, because it keeps people out of trouble. However, it may cause some readers to avoid the sorts of people that most need help and lash out in their confusion. There is plenty of meat in the rules, but the reader must be prepared to spit out a few bones.

I won’t take the time to summarize each of the rules and critique them, since the list from the table of contents fairly indicates the content of each. It is worth discussing the general framework behind the rules.

Peterson’s Philosophical Foundations

Peterson is a Jungian Existentialist. Jung was a contemporary of Freud and generally friendly, but Jung’s philosophy (the underpinnings of his psychology) took a different turn. Instead of focusing on repressed sexual urges and presuming an Oedipus complex in everyone, Jung built on the evolutionary thinking of his day to build a theory of collective human consciousness arising from our ancestral heritage.

The key to understanding both the benefits and dangers of Peterson rest in knowing a bit about Jung. I am certainly no expert, but a quick bout of internet research shows that Peterson has done little more than modernize and popularize some of the core tenets of Jung’s thinking.

Much of the argument in Peterson’s book assumes that proper human behavior is based on a collective consciousness from evolutionary theory. Thus, Peterson defends hierarchy by noting that even relatively simple creatures like lobsters have a hierarchy, therefore humans should anticipate hierarchy in their social orders and reject the notion that there can be a perfectly egalitarian society.

This sort of argument is what angers Peterson’s critics on the left, because to their ears, Peterson affirms the evils of the patriarchy, inequality, and everything they dislike about our current social order. Since Peterson actively rejects the notion that patriarchy, sex difference, and white power are solely responsible for all the ills of this contemporary age, his critics on the left equate his arguments with the Alt-Right, Fascism, and whatever else they happen to hate that day.

It is pretty clear from reading him that Peterson is not arguing for anything like an Alt-Right position, despite attempts to paint him in that corner. His position is much more reasoned and more nuanced. Privilege exists, but this is majority privilege, not specifically white privilege. Therefore, the response should not be to shame white people for their genetic makeup, but to teach people to navigate the power structures to overcome privilege.

On this point, Peterson’s common-sense approach with a hefty dose of personal accountability will be attractive to many conservatives—both Christian and non-Christian. Yet, this is also the point at which Christians need to be the most careful in imbibing or spreading his message because it is entangled in a form of the naturalistic fallacy. Peterson assumes that what is in evolutionary history helps reveal what ought to be, as if humans have reached a sort of pinnacle of development based on everything that has gone before. If absorbed without due caution, such belief can justify a lack of compassion for the poor and the weak who “deserved it” or were simply bound by genetic misfortune to be at the bottom of the heap.

A second point of caution, which also arises from his Jungian foundation, is on the use and truthfulness of myths. In concert with many scholars, particularly German scholars that were his contemporaries, Jung taught that religions were explanatory myths that developed from the collective human experience. Christianity was a more advanced religion, but that is not because it is true, simply because it has more truth encoded in its scriptures and practices than earlier religions.

Such an approach enables Peterson to decode the Bible and other ancient texts to reveal psychological truths that can be applicable today. Christians should be careful embracing Peterson on this count, because he is teaching Enlightenment hermeneutics with an evolutionary twist that ascribe value to the text but deny its supernatural power.

Peterson’s overt and public use of Scripture, however, does show that preachers that believe they need to pull the Bible out of their sermons and not refer to it as authoritative to communicate to people in this day and age are sorely mistaken. It is worth watching some of Peterson’s talks to see how he uses Scripture to make a compelling case for his positions. Teachers should be careful not to adopt the bad hermeneutic, but his method of communication is helpful.

A third cause for caution is the existentialist framework that Peterson brings to the table from his Jungian base. In brief, existentialism relies on the idea that we are making meaning and that our essence is formed by our choices. This is a much better philosophical position than nihilism, which presumes there is no meaning or truth in life, but it is dangerously anthropocentric.

Many of the critiques of Peterson from the left are attacks on his existentialism from nihilists. They have reduced life to a meaningless pursuit of individual power and autonomous individualistic freedom. Therefore, Peterson’s more optimistic—or perhaps stoic—existentialism creates difficulties for them, particularly since Peterson points to meaning not in creating hegemonies to subjugate the presumed powerful under the whims of the self-identified oppressed. Rejecting the oppressive force of the supposedly downtrodden, which Peterson does often, makes him persona non grata in the world of identity politics.

This is exactly the place where Peterson is both most attractive to conservative Christians and the most risky. He is effective at resisting the progressive movement, but he does it for the wrong reasons. Christians can learn from Peterson, but have to be careful to not swallow the existentialism he is teaching. Though there have been Christian existentialists (e.g., Kierkegaard) who are helpful, that epistemology does not entirely line up with Scripture. We are not meaning makers, we discover the meaning that God has already woven into the universe, revealed in creation and, more clearly, in Scripture.

Peterson seems like a hero to many on the right because he is effective in frustrating the bullying of the progressive left. He may be an ally in that cause, and his methodology may be informative, but we should be careful of adopting his whole worldview because it is not one that has been well-formed and seasoned by God.

Conclusion

Church leaders should consider reading this volume and watching some of Peterson’s videos for several reasons.

First, Peterson has obviously struck a nerve with a broad swath of people. Though we should not run after every earthly trend to copycat it, he’s found an audience hungry for meaning and is giving it to them. We should consider how the church can offer true meaning rooted in the cross of Christ.

Second, Peterson is an example of communicating counter-cultural ideals carefully, clearly, and well. His rhetoric—especially his ability to maintain his poise when attacked—is something pastors, teachers, and average Christians will only need more skill at in the future.

Third, Peterson reveals that teaching the Bible in public to non-Christian audiences is not off-limits. He teaches his version of theology with boldness and clarity. We have the better message, let’s see what can be gleaned from his tools.

Fourth, the Peterson phenomenon is fairly well recognized. This book could be the contact point in a deeper conversation leading to evangelism. There will be young men in your church reading and watching Peterson, leaders need to be aware of him to help the flock sort out the good and the bad.

At the same time, Christians should be cautious in rushing to celebrate Peterson too fully. There is a lot of good, but it is wrapped in old time theological liberalism. We can do better. But we have to do better, and Peterson’s advice would be for us to continue to do better. So, let’s do that as we find meaning in the good news of Jesus Christ.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is Still Valid, Despite Mass Incarceration

This post is a second part of a review of a recent volume arguing against mass incarceration. I elected to post this portion of the critique separate from the initial summary review because the primary issue of the book is important and the positive potential of the book in facilitating a discussion of mass incarceration should not get buried by the significant problems in the theological argumentation of the book. However, the overall argumentation of the book against penal substitutionary atonement, which is a large portion of the second half of the book, deserves further critique.


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There are several significant flaws in the latter portion of the recently released book, Rethinking Incarceration. The first problem is methodological, the author relies almost exclusively on secondary and tertiary sources for historical data. Gilliard makes sweeping generalizations about, for example, the Puritans while only citing one source two or three times in a particular chapter. This pattern is repeated with his survey of the history of the penal substitutionary atonement, which he erroneously begins with Augustine. In his summary of the atonement in the writings of Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Aquinas, Gilliard cites Thomas twice from an original source. He uses quotations from the others but draws them from secondary sources. This is problematic because it is clear in his summary of the doctrine, that Gilliard does not adequately understand the doctrines that he is critiquing and is relying on the interpretations of others to formulate his argument. There are several points where the theology he is describing is unrecognizable to someone familiar with the primary sources.

A second major problem is also methodological and has to do with an overreliance on a few preferred sources. In the chapter on early American prison reforms, the author cites one book by Jennifer Graber so many times that it is unclear what independent thought went into the chapter. It also raises the question why a young associate professor in a religion department at a Texas state school should dominate a critical chapter of the volume, which is intended to substantially transform the contemporary understanding of a central Christian doctrine. Additionally, when the same chapter uses the term “Protestant reformer” repeatedly to refer to Quakers engaged in work toward prison reform, rather than to refer to the Protestant Reformers as they are commonly understood, it leads to questions about the author’s basic understanding of theology. The theological analysis of the entire section is also made less plausible by the failure to deal with the important question of (a) whether Quakers are actually Christian, (b) if they are Christian, whether they can assumed to be Protestants (unless that means simply not Roman Catholic), and (c) given their marginal nature within the Christian tradition due to heterodox beliefs, whether the work of the Quakers can be considered representative of the broader Protestant tradition. It is not clear whether this analytical ambiguity is native to Gilliard or if it resides in the only published monograph of his major source.

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/NHFe30j2APe

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/NHFe30j2APe

The second point leads into a third problem, which is a failure to deal with any counter arguments. Gilliard stacks up a lot of arguments against penal substitutionary atonement, but because he uses critics who do not actually hold to penal substitutionary atonement to prove his point, none of his criticisms stick. Additionally, a casual reader should be left with questions about why one would hold to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement when Gilliard has arrayed such a strong group of quotes from people that oppose it, which may be the purpose of writing this sort of book. The major issue is that his failure to engage proponents of penal substitutionary atonement means that his thesis is largely based on hearsay and, based on the evidence he provides, is not logically valid.

In order for the theological argument in Rethinking Incarceration to be valid, it would need to have several coherent premises:

P1. Mass incarceration is a problem.
P2. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is theologically incorrect.
P3. Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration.
C1. Therefore, to solve the problem of mass incarceration, Christians must abandon Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

Gilliard does an adequate job, especially for a popular level book, in supporting premise one, which is an important accomplishment.

However, because of the weakness of the research, as represented by the book he has written, Gilliard provides very little support for premise two. He has amassed a number of voices calling for a doctrinal distortion of Christianity and mashed in some unsupported theological statements from his own perspective, but he never actually engages with an adherent of this one particular theory of the atonement.

In lieu of researching the position that Gilliard is critiquing, he substitutes assertions like the following paragraph:

“Penal substitution is a reductionistic theory that forsakes the embodied life, ministry, and relationships of Jesus, reducing Christ’s body to punitive surrogacy. Penal substitutionary says Jesus merely came into the world to clean up our mess. Outside of establishing the possibility of reconciliation (not by love), nothing else about Jesus matters, not the Spirit descending on him after his baptism, his inauguration of the kingdom of God, or his calling and sending of the disciples.” (pg. 159)

Notably, this paragraph is not a summary of a lengthy argument on this point, but a representative sample of the critical engagement offered in this volume.

The presentation Gilliard offers is certainly reductionistic. While it would be fair to say that at times evangelical Christians pay too little attention to other valid theories of the atonement, there are few, if any, Christians who would recognize their theology in the summary statements Gilliard offers. Even without raising the level of expectation of this popular level book to that of a scholarly monograph, it is fairly clear that Gilliard did not do his homework and is relying upon his readers to be similarly theologically ignorant.

The evidence Gilliard provides for premise three, however, is even less helpful. At best, Gilliard’s argument that penal substitutionary atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration is based on an association between correlation and causation:

P4. Some people that have been disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration (i.e., conservative evangelicals) hold to the penal substitutionary atonement.
P5. There are people who are engaged in the problem of mass incarceration who deny the penal substitutionary atonement.
C2. Therefore, belief in the penal substitutionary atonement causes people to be disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration.

Causal claims that move from doctrine to application are notoriously hard to defend for several reasons. Among them are the reality that many people do not always live consistently with the implications of the doctrines they believe. This may be because they legitimately disregard their doctrine for convenience, or it could be because they simply have not worked out a particular implication of their doctrine. Thus, for example, someone may have legitimately sound theology, but fail to recognize an inconsistency due to his or her cultural blinders. A second reason it is difficult as a critic to sufficiently defend causal connections between doctrine and a particular act is that, if the act is truly reprehensible, those who hold the doctrine would be able to articulate a reason certain doctrines do not lead to certain outcomes.

Gilliard is unable to overcome either of these difficulties because he fails to do the basic work of interacting with the primary sources (or anyone critical to his position) to develop his claim. In other words, Gilliard provides absolutely no evidence from the population he is critiquing to substantiate his claim. This makes his unconvincing plea to abandon the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement even less compelling than it otherwise would be.

A major problem in this volume is that the theological argument is driven by the desire for a different ethical outcome. That is, Gilliard is asking his audience to reject penal substitutionary atonement because it leads to systemic injustice, by his account. However, if penal substitutionary atonement is true and it leads to mass incarceration, then the logical conclusion is that mass incarceration is right.

As I have argued elsewhere, theology must precede ethics. When ethics becomes the motive force of theology, it often leads to different and increasingly severe doctrinal errors in other areas.

More significantly, making such fallacious arguments, particularly when attempting to convince the audience to abandon traditional Christian doctrines, often leads that audience to reject both the revisionist theology and the ethical claims that are obviously driving it. In other words, Gilliard risks causing a critical audience to reject the proper concern for the systemic injustice of mass incarceration by unnecessarily (and incoherently) tying a particular doctrine to a particular ethical outcome. It leads the people being criticized to make the opposite assumption that, since penal substitutionary atonement is biblically faithful, if it leads to mass incarceration then mass incarceration must be acceptable. This is similar to the effect the repeated efforts of revisionist Christians to criticize the theology of orthodox Christians into supporting the environment; the result has been a disinterest or outright aversion to proper biblical stewardship of creation. We can hope that Gilliard’s poor argumentation does not lead to the same effect on the issue of mass incarceration.

To continue to raise point after point where the argumentation of this volume is insufficiently supported risks digressing into abusive fisking. It is sufficient to say that this is another attempt to subvert the orthodox Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that has been done so poorly as to potentially hinder the author’s cause of theological revision.

Wealth is Good....When it has a Purpose

There is a prevailing myth among some in society that wealth is always a sign of virulent greed and that those who accumulate wealth have unjustly taken from others. There is sometimes truth in that; there are many times that people use unjust means to gain or hold their wealth. It would be wrong to draw from the abusive behavior of some that money is evil or being rich is a sin.

However, sometimes when people rightly argue against one wrong idea they fall into the trap of arguing for the opposite and equally wrong idea. Such errors are just as dangerous for people and societies as the ones that are rejected.

Used by CC License. Chainsaw by Aardvark Ethel. http://ow.ly/WLEP30hNnfG

Used by CC License. Chainsaw by Aardvark Ethel. http://ow.ly/WLEP30hNnfG

Money is not evil, but the love of it is the root of all evil. Being rich is not a sin, but it can open the door to a lot of misery in this world. Wealth is not good in an of itself, it is good when it is directed toward its proper purpose of glorifying God by helping people flourish.

Wealth is like a power tool. When a power tool is used for the purpose it is designed, then it usually produces a better result in a shorter amount of time than doing the same task by hand. However, when the wrong tool is used for the wrong purpose, terrible things can happen.

For example, a chainsaw can make cutting down a tree much quicker and easier than using an axe or a good old fashioned buck saw. But if that same chainsaw is used trimming toenails the results could be disastrous.

The comparison seems silly, but illustrates the purposeful nature of a powerful tool. The chainsaw was created for a purpose, which is not personal hygiene.

Everything God created was created for something. The world works best when we use created objects for their intended purpose.

Wealth can be an outstanding tool for encouraging human flourishing if it is used for that purpose. It can be a danger to people’s well-being if it is used or sought after for the wrong reasons.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he warns the young pastor to be content and not to chase after money. Though Timothy was a pastor, that warning is echoed throughout Scripture for all Christians to heed. Paul writes,

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:6-10, ESV)

It’s dangerous to get caught into the trap of loving money and pursuing it as an end in itself. That is the essence of greed. As Paul notes, the love of money can cause people to “wander away” from the faith. That it, not to reject it out because it is wrong, but to neglect it because something else—the pursuit of riches—seems more important.

There is more to Paul’s warning, though. People that become greedy and come to love money fall into “senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” When money becomes the focus of our desires, it can draw us away from God and cause us harm in this life.

Paul doesn’t leave us without something positive to focus on, though. He goes on to urge Timothy to seek something better:

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. (v. 11)

Some might think that Paul’s command to “flee these things” refers to money and see it as a call to poverty. That doesn’t make sense, though, since the phrase refers to plural objects to flee from. Most likely, Paul is urging Timothy to flee from the desire to be rich and the harmful traps it leads to.

More importantly, however, Paul gives Timothy something to focus by pursuing spiritual disciplines. He urges Timothy to become more like Christ.

Paul’s message here is not that the material world is evil, but, rather, he is echoing Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount:

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33)

In other words, make the worship of God and the flourishing of people the main focus in your life and the other parts will fall into place. Money can be a useful tool to build church buildings, to feed the hungry, to invest into businesses that encourage cooperation in society, and to educate your children, to keep you fed and warm when you can no longer work. However, when money becomes the object you worship and ultimately pursue, it’s like using a chainsaw to trim your toenails.

The Character Gap - A Review

Sometimes psychological findings are presented as if they are deterministic: Murderers kill because they have a particular personality. Thieves steal because their minds work a certain way. Mothers love their children because of predetermined evolutionary conditions of our ancestors’ ancestors. Those who are obese have something their chemical makeup that makes them eat too much. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall ever be.

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When information is presented this way, it often leaves readers under the impression there is no path toward forming character. Behaviorally, our DNA is our destiny. This puts Christians, among others, in a spot of trying to argue against the trends of science because we believe that people can and do change. Thankfully, there are ongoing discussions in moral psychology and cognate fields that seem to point toward the possibility of real change and not simply coping strategies.

Christian Miller’s recent book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, is a prime example of using the empirical data from psychological research to show how humans can become better people. His presentation indicates that there are certain character traits tied to particular vices and virtues, but he also extends hope that character can be formed through purposeful effort.

The book is broken into three distinct parts. Part One contains two chapters and offers an introduction into the ongoing research on character and its importance. Chapter One deals with a basic overview of character. Chapter Two describes why character is so important.

Part Two consists of five chapters; it describes the shape of character in the modern world. In the third chapter, Miller shows the conditions that encourage people to help others. Chapter Four delves into the character that enables some people to harm others spontaneously and other people to be willing to harm with only minor encouragement. This chapter explains some of the results from the infamous Milgram experiment, and more recent research that continues to support those earlier conclusions. The fifth chapter surveys the psychological roots of lying, especially the motivations that undergird it. Interestingly, people tend to lie more to those to whom they are closer. Chapter Six explores the foundations of cheating. He shows that we are all likely to cheat at times, but rarely cheat as often as we have opportunity. In the seventh chapter Miller ties these elements together. The results of his research indicate that most of us believe we are good and virtuous, but very few of us are. We are not typically as bad or as good as we have the opportunity to be.

Had Miller left the book at that point, it would have been very unsatisfying. However, Part Three of the book is an explanation of how humans can improve their character. Chapter Eight gives several examples of ways that character can be shaped, like doing nothing, labeling people as virtuous, and “nudging.” These techniques have been shown to have some effect in some cases in resulting in better behavior, but they rarely result in exemplary moral character. The ninth chapter offers multiple stronger methods for shaping character. Having (and being) role models, choosing better situations (aka, avoiding temptation, and being self-aware are three of the more promising means of shaping character positively.  Chapter Ten works through character formation in a Christian context, where Miller shows how a healthy Christian community, informed theologically, can engender improved character in people. It is encouraging that he allows space for sanctification through the Spirit, though, understandably, he does not delve into the mechanics of that process.

The Character Gap is an encouraging book in several ways. It takes the evil in the world seriously, recognizes the bentness of humans, and unveils the reality of our own inconsistencies. Thankfully, however, he does not leave the reader in the muck and mire, but offers legitimate ways to improve. For non-religious readers, this will focus on structuring life toward community or self-chosen goals. For religious readers, the norms are already provided, but the empirical data he provides can inform the selection of behaviors. For example, the reluctance to help is often driven by others not helping. The logical response (if we want to be helpers) is to seek to always be the first to offer help or actually help and to surround ourselves with people who are helpers. Miller highlights the importance of creating structures that encourage good behavior, which is why our Bibles should be placed in prominent places: not so that we show off the Word to others, but so that we are more likely to partake of the divine revelation ourselves. There are dozens of other examples of ways that empirical data can shape how we structure our lives to help form us for good in this volume.

One of the more interesting aspects of this volume--which I’ve discovered to be consistent within the fields of organizational, behavioral, and moral psychology--is the promotion of a three-part character. According to Miller, someone who is virtuous, (1) does good actions, (2) does those actions in the right circumstances, and (3) does good actions for the right reason. True virtue is founded on a pattern of behaviors with these three elements. This is particular interesting as this formulation echoes the triperspectivalism of John Frame and the ethical framework of David W. Jones. The names for the aspects are different, but the parts correspond. This may be empirical evidence for the validity of these ethical schemas.

The limitations of this volume are caused by its format. The Character Gap is a popular level book that summarizes and makes accessible some of Miller’s more academic research. As such, there are times where the reader has to take Miller at his word, because the evidence is buried in a source called out in an endnote, and that source is barricaded behind a pricy paywall. However, it seems that Miller is arguing in good faith and so many of his conclusions are so commonsensical that there is little reason to doubt his findings. This is a helpful book that will inform the casual reader and can point the more engaged student toward further study.

Christian Miller has produced an excellent, accessible volume on human character. His arguments are well-supported, lucid, and offer hope for progress in character formation. Miller’s book should inform future discussions in Christian ethics and, perhaps, raise interest in the psychological study of character among moral theologians.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Reflections on "The Souls of Black Folk"

The quality of classic books varies based on a number of factors. Some old books stick around and continue to be read because they have historical value—they tell us something about how a particular group thought or lived at a given time. Some old books remain popular because they are foundational—they are so regularly referenced and alluded to by later literature that they are necessary for understanding culture. Some old books deserve to be read because they are fine literature and point effectively toward the good, true, and beautiful.

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I recently picked up W.E.B. DuBois’s classic volume, The Souls of Black Folk, because I believed it fell cleanly into the first category. It might one day fall into the second category, but I hope that we don’t need it to. I was pleasantly rewarded while poring through the book to realize it also fell into the third category as well. The Souls of Black Folk is an important piece of history, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature, too. That made this book an enjoyable (if convicting) read.

DuBois is best known to many of us because many cities and towns have an urban renewal center named after him. He was an influential voice for the rights of African-Americans and the pursuit of racial justice.

The Souls of Black Folk was originally published in 1903, nearly 50 years after slavery had officially ended in the U.S. However, this was also decades before the Civil Rights movement really got popular traction. The shame is that in many ways, despite the clear advances in legal rights for African-Americans, the situation has not changed nearly as much as it should in the past century.

The book centers around a major problem in America. The problem is the color-line. Or, more properly, the place of people of color in a land that does not seem to want them. As DuBois writes,

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

That is a simple vision and one that should have come to pass long before this day. In some ways it has come to pass and things are hopeful. In other ways, if we are honest, it is a long way away.

The book as a whole traces out DuBois’s critique of the situation. It is filled with beautiful prose and clear evidence that DuBois had a fine mind and good education. DuBois provides a survey of the progress and sometimes lack of progress of blacks in the South. In some cases, they had advanced and were prospering. In other cases, the intentional roadblocks and legalized (or overlooked) abuses had managed to keep African-Americans back. His book is a short study in the need for careful study and the avoidance of generalizations.

This volume also offers a balanced criticism of whites. He notes,

First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,--needs it for the sake of her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others – usually the sons of the masters – wish to help him rise. . . . To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust. . . [but to critique those worthy of it is an imperative duty.]

In DuBois’s approach we see neither toleration of injustice, nor unfair animus toward those who did not create the problem. There is a message for a wide range of readers in DuBois, which should urge us to make things better without blaming those who did not cause the problem in the first place, even if they benefited from it.

One does not need to agree with all that DuBois writes to benefit from this book. This is the sort of book that, even if you disagree, makes you better because you have to explain why. For example, DuBois takes a somewhat dim view of Christianity in the book. There may have been good cause, particularly as Christians did not represent Christ well in many cases. But even though I disagree with his final analysis, his critique is written well and in good faith.

The Souls of Black Folk is the sort of book that is easily read in a few days and much easier to read than to read about. It is a book that should be more regularly included in reading lists, since it is clearly written and balanced in content it could easily be digested by a high schooler. This is a volume that gives insight into our time specifically because things aren’t as much better as they should be. For that reason, it is exactly the sort of critique of our thinking that so many of us need.

The Souls of Black Folk
By W.E.B. Du Bois

Rethinking Incarceration - A Review

Mass incarceration is a significant problem in the United States. The sheer number of people who are currently in the custody of the various levels of government is staggering. According to one advocacy group, approximately 2.3 million Americans were in some form of corrective custody in 2017. This is a dramatic burden to the population through expended tax revenue, but has an even greater cost for the families of those behind bars, for the communities decimated by this phenomenon, and the individuals who will be permanently marked with the status of ex-con or felon.

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The problem of mass incarceration is complicated by unequal racial outcomes, which indicate that approximately 1 in 3 ethnic minorities will pass through the judicial system and spend time in some form of corrective custody. This inequity helps continue the perpetuation of negative images of minorities and accelerates what amounts to a downward spiral in some communities. A large number of minorities are imprisoned; therefore, they are perceived to be dangerous, then they are watched more closely and given fewer breaks, which leads to a larger number of incarcerations. This has negative effects of the general population’s perception of minorities and the perception of the judicial system and police force by minorities. Add in some cases of real corruption and legitimate hostility on both sides and you have something like the stand off we find ourselves in now with people arguing about the importance of black lives versus blue lives.

With that background, the recent volume by Dominique Dubois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, is timely and takes on a very important topic. The book consists of two parts.

Part one lays out various aspects that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, with chapters on the war on drugs, a history of racial bias in law enforcement, an overzealous enforcement of law, issues with mental health and immigration, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This portion of the volume is largely sociological and helpful in highlighting important elements of a significant source of injustice in our nation.

Part two is a theological argument intended to move readers of the volume to a doctrinal foundation that Gilliard believes will undermine mass incarceration. In this section, Gilliard offers chapters on Quaker involvement in American prisons, prison chaplaincy, penal substitutionary atonement, restorative justice, and a concluding plea for activism in dismantling mass incarceration. This section of the volume is less helpful and less well done.

There are two apparent theses in this book. First, that mass incarceration is a problem with underlying systemic injustices in the American legal system. Gilliard handles that element of the book well. He researched that section well and puts together a solid argument that has potential to convince a skeptical reader.

The second thesis of the book is that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the cause of the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, Gilliard’s attempt at supporting this thesis is, at best, poor. By any fair measure, the theological argumentation of this section of the book is anemic and riddled with fundamental methodological errors, many of which should have been corrected prior to this book’s publication. These errors and the nature of Gilliard’s plea for rejecting the substitutionary atonement significantly diminish the value of this volume, in some cases making it more likely to cement bias against judicial reform among some conservative Christians than convince anyone of the issue’s importance.

Rethinking Incarceration is a useful book in that it raises awareness of a significant issue of systemic injustice. The work Gilliard does in highlighting the racial aspects of the history of mass incarceration is helpful. Unfortunately, by introducing a second thesis and calling for a rejection of a common, orthodox theory of the atonement and by doing so very poorly, Gilliard undermines the good work he does in the beginning of the book. My hope is that a better book from a more careful author will follow this book and lead to a continuing and more theologically robust discussion of this vital topic.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Celebrating Black History Month

Now that February has kicked off, social media streams are sometimes sprinkled and sometimes filled with celebrations of or objections to Black History month. For many, the celebration of Black History month is warranted and natural, but for others, there are questions why any special celebration is necessary.

History of Black History Month

Though it has its roots in the beginning of the 20th century, the first official celebration of Black History month was in 1976. Every president since that time has renewed that declaration.

The purpose of the first Black History month was to recognize the progress that the United States had made toward the fulfillment of the humanist ideals that framed the American Revolution. As Gerald Ford noted in his declaration:

The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.

Forty-two years later, there are some Americans who question the need to continue to celebrate the month, because they believe that the errors of the first two centuries of American history have largely been amended. However, a realistic look at the social and economic realities of our nations shows that even if the legal abuses of the Jim Crow era, post-bellum culture, and legalized slavery have been corrected, the long-term impacts continue.

Why is Black History Month Necessary?

Black History month, therefore, still serves to remind us of what ought to have been, what can be, and the work that is left to be done.

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Additionally, Black History month reminds us that despite the barriers placed in the way of success, progress, and achievement of African-Americans, these Americans still accomplished impressive things. The imago Dei can overcome, no matter how difficult other humans try to suppress its outworking.

Different groups will no doubt draw different themes from the celebration of Black History month. However, one dominant theme Christians—especially white Christians—can draw from the celebration of this month is how a bad doctrine of anthropology taints the water of society.

Consider that at the core of the abuses of Black Americans is and has been the denial of their full humanity. There is a reason civil rights protesters carried placards and wore signs declaring “I am a man.” This was not simply a political statement, but a profoundly theological one. As a nation, the United States neglected to acknowledge the full humanity of African-Americans. This was explicit in some of the early rhetoric supporting chattel slavery, where the ensoulment of dark skinned persons was denied as a way to justify not evangelizing them at first. Blacks were not simply treated like animals, they were described as animals--sometimes from the pulpit.

The celebration of the beauty of blackness, the accomplishments of African-Americans, and the distinct sub-cultures within the tapestry of African-American culture is good and right because it is a celebration of the full humanity of dark skinned humans. Black History month gives people of all skin tones opportunity to celebrate that goodness, even if it different than our own sub-culture's. It is a way to celebrate the common standing with a group whose humanity was previously denied.

Black chattel slavery as it existed in 19th century America was particularly damnable because it actively denied the humanity of the slaves, and of all people of color. This is why the comparison of other ancient slavery (e.g., the objection that all ancient cultures owned slaves) does not diminish the moral blindness and perfidy of slavery as it existed in the pre-Industrial West.

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But still, once the humanity of African-Americans was begrudgingly acknowledged by the abolition of slavery and eventually the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, much of the Land of the Free perpetuated the statutory abuse of humans by creating the Jim Crow laws. These are laws that in retrospect appear to be as preposterous as the school-kid fear of getting cooties. Think about it, whites were so disgusted with African-Americans they created separate water fountains so they wouldn’t get infected with blackness. More likely it was simply a way of showing that despite the legal acknowledgement of the humanity of African-Americans, whites could still deny them recognition of that fact.

The inefficiency and foolishness of these immoral actions will not cease to be an embarrassment to the United States. However, like all errors, it should spur us to do better. We can't overcome the embarrassment by ignoring the failures of the past, but only by doing much better in the present and future.

Black History month forces those of us in the majority to remember the foolishness of our forebears and to work to do something better in the future. Black History month also allows us to remember the amazing work of men and women who resisted injustice to accomplish significant goods, like the women depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, or like George Washington Carver, or like thousands of others who accomplished so much despite being oppressed.

Black History month is, in many regards, a celebration of the greatness of humanity. As often happens, the greatness of humanity is also demonstrated in stark contrast to the depravity of humanity. Don’t let the color of your skin allow you to miss the greatness of one group because your own group happened to be the villains in this story.

How to Celebrate Black History Month

Although there are and always will be ideological abuses within the groups that participate in celebration of any public movement, whether that is the environment, racial pride, or advances in workers protection, we should not fail to legitimately celebrate good things.

Celebrating Black History is celebrating the triumph of humanity. It requires remembering a not-too-distant past that is embarrassing, but which we never want to see again. Thus, a dive into African-American poetry, gospel music, and unique technological inventions of our fellow citizens does not need to fall prey to unhealthy identity politics, but should be a legitimate thankfulness for the persistence of impressive people in the face of significant opposition.

If our African-American neighbors happen to draw especial encouragement from this month, that is good and natural—it is empowering and encouraging to realize that your family has done something good and great, because it teaches you that you can, too. It does whites no harm to have African-Americans built up. There is an infinite supply of happiness in the world, which only grows when we share it.

Just as we celebrate the theological accomplishments of the early Reformers, so we should celebrate the accomplishments of people of color in the United States. Neither group is or was perfect, but the world is better for what they have done.

So, celebrate Black History month no matter the color of your skin, because as African-Americans advance, the whole of society gets stronger. That is a good thing.

Economics of Neighborly Love - A Review

Our economic activity, when done properly, is primarily about loving our neighbors. Neighbor love is not merely a description of so-called spiritual activities, like those done under the umbrella of a local church. Rather, neighbor love should shape everything we do in the home, in the marketplace, and in our neighborhoods.

In a helpful, recent book, Tom Nelson helps bring theology and economics together in a way the average Christian can understand it. His volume, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, weaves together many of the themes in the Faith and Work movement in a single, digestible bundle.

Nelson’s basic assumption is that we live in a fundamentally economic world. His is not, however, an attempt to reduce humans to homo economicus. Instead, he argues for understanding humans to have the imago Dei, which leads to a demand to live compassionately among others. His basic argument in the entire book is that the best workers make the best neighbors, as long as they are working for reasons that matter.

Humans are made to flourish. Part of that flourishing is having our material needs met. Another component of flourishing is pursuing a purpose higher than ourselves. Work is a primary means by which humans flourish.

One sign of flourishing (though not the only or even best sign) is material wealth. Such wealth is a resource to be stewarded for the glory of God and the good of neighbors. It is neither the reward for holiness as the prosperity gospel argues, nor is it intrinsically evil. It is a simply one way that God provides for humans to be fruitful.

Lest Nelson be guilty of reducing flourishing to the accrual of wealth, he quickly explains that intimacy with other people, godly character, and productively contributing to the world around are vital ways that humans are fruitful. Being fruitful and productive are ways that we love the world around us by making this world a better place.

All of the productivity in the world does not do any good, however, unless it is directed toward our neighbors. Nelson explains a vision, consistent with Scripture, of how godly people can engage in a relatively free market for the glory of God.

One way humans engage wisely in economic activity is to be generous, using our wealth to provide the means for the church to do good works in the name of Christ. Another way is to actively pursue the good of the materially poor around us. In the process of helping the poor, however, a biblically shaped worldview recognizes there are forms of poverty that no amount of material support will resolve. People are desperately need of the gospel, so we are called to demonstrate it through our actions and verbalize it through our language.

As part of our economic activity, Nelson also urges Christians to fight economic injustice, to show grace to the communities around us. Most of all, people simply need to get moving. It is altogether too easy to stay cooped up in our homes, never meeting our neighbors, and thus never learning how best to meet their needs. By making personal connections and seeking the common good in all of our economic activities—not just the ones where we spend and earn—Christians can demonstrate what hope looks like to the world.

The Economics of Neighborly Love is the sort of volume that makes a great introduction to a biblical view on faith, work, and economics. Nelson shows how the ordinary lives of ordinary Christians can be leveraged to make this world a better place for the love of God and the good of our neighbors. He presents a practical vision for Christians to be salt and light in the world.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this volume is that there is a way for Christians to show neighborly love not despite our economic system, but because of our economic system. Though Nelson recognizes that sometimes sinful people oppress others in a free market economy, he also recognizes that freedom is an important part of allowing people to fulfill their potential as beings imbued with the image of God. The freedom within the market system helps make financial prosperity accessible to many more people, which helps provide the resources for many forms of productive engagement with society.

Nelson’s book, however, will fall short of its final purpose if it fails to encourage Christians to live their lives for the good of the world around them. This is a book that deserves to be read, discussed, and shared widely as the body of Christ seeks to fulfill the greatest commandment by living out the second greatest commandment in a world of people who desperately need to be loved. The Economics of Neighborly Love is a volume that needs to be applied wholeheartedly, too.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.