Sunday, June 28, 2009

Citizenship and stewardship

This morning our NT lesson was 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15. It really got me thinking about the nature of democracy and federalism here in the United States. I think that the LCMS figures that it's a lesson in stewardship, tithing or giving offerings so that the church can use your money for missions and ministry. Which is excellent, but believe it or not, I think that it can also be used in a broader social sense. People talk about being a good steward of your own resources or Christian-environmentalism as being good stewards of the earth.

I contend that in America, with our unparalleled opportunities for participatory representative democracy, citizenship is a form of stewardship.

I know most of my dearly loved Republican friends might just cringe at this, but please continue to read the rest of this post after first considering the Bible exerpts:

Generosity Encouraged

1And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. 6So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

8I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

13Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little."
Now, the main message is clear- here these Macedonians who were poor themselves joyfully begged Paul to be able to help the needy in Jeruselum. How incredible is that? Seems like some of the most generous and caring folks are the ones with the least to give.

This passage fits perfect with the Midwest, rural ethos of "what goes around comes around," "be good to the people on your way up, because they're the same people you'll see on the way back down," "It never hurts to help," "we're all in this together," "to whom much is given, much is expected."

But like I said, I think that it applies to citizenship too. How can we be good steward/citizens? First we have to recognize and becareful about our predispositions toward the apparatus of participatory government. Reagan taught us to "fear big government." This has been the mantra of the right wing now for the last thirty years. This reflects what philosophers might call a "romantic" world view.

I hear you saying "Wha???!!" Here me out. When it comes down to it, there are basically two ways of looking at the world, Romantic or Rational. If it makes more sense, maybe we should say Idealouge or Pragmatic.

The Romantic or Idealouge frame of refference ascribes arbitrary meaning to virtually everything. It makes value judgements. Everything is either good or evil, black or white. Because of this, everything is seen in a state of conflict or competition- the ultimate battle. Also because of this, things, concepts, processes, philosophies, functions, groups are all assigned personalities as if they had consciousnesses and were sensiate, aware individual beings. Institutions, corporations, systems and ideas are given voices and accused of motives as if they were people.

Whereas the Rational or Pragmatic frame of refference remains a little more objective, things are merely things, incapable of making choices or decisions and incapable of having emotions or sympathies. Concepts, processes, philosophies, functions, and systems are structural elements to be arranged, utilized, analyzed and managed. They are only as good or evil as the people who use them.

Bottom line, Reagan led us to believe that government is the enemy, but if memory serves correctly, Jefferson intended that we ARE the government. FDR knew this and showed us how to use government as a tool.

A realist recognizes that we can never make things perfect, but the two frames of reference determine what you do with government.

Romantic/Idealouge- if you see everyone else as an enemy, trying to take away what you think is yours (like 17th cen. political phiospoher Thomas Hobbes, by the way) then of course you're going to be paranoid of government and excited by anyone opposes taxes and new programs.

Rational/Pragmatic- if you see everyone else as someone you can deal with, willing to give and take in order to protect your common best-interests (like 18th cen, political philosopher John Locke, incidently) then why not try to use government to find solutions to our problems when we need to? Taxes are going to be a necessary evil and a means to an end. The trick, just like with any practical science or simple machine, will be to leverage things so that you can hopefully get the maximum output for the minimal input.

Which brings me back to Paul's message of stewardship in 2 Corinthians 8.
Reagan (a major romantic/idealogue) advocated "trickle-down," supply-side economics. Cut taxes on the rich and corporations, instead depending on revenue from payroll taxes on workers. His theory was that those with the supply, would reinvest in creating jobs, spurring on the economy. Instead, it created a huge gap between rich and poor, eroding the middle class. He wanted less government intervention which led to rampant abuses and monopolies which essentially got is in the massive economic mess we're in today. CEOs making 800 time as much money as their workers, rewarded for incompitence and selfishness. Protecting corporate profits as if it were a moral imperitive. Granting corporations and industries first amendment rights as if they were citizens. All supply and no demand leads to surpluss- it's unsustainable.

FDR (rationalist/pragmatist) had instituted a progressive tax structure, meaning the more you could afford to pay, the more you were asked to pay. The demand-side economics of Henry Ford led him to pay his workers a good enough wage that they could afford to purchase the very product they built (without needing to rely on credit to do it) that was creating demand, creating markets. Eventually the supply side was driven to keep up. That was sustainable economics. Meanwhile the poor could climb into middle class security and the middle class could acend into upper-middle class afluence, that used to be the American dream. CEOs making maybe 8 or 10 times what their workers made because they were rewarded on merit, they earned their keep. What's more, corporations weren't people, people were members of corporations and the greater-good was the bottom line, not the bottom line- companies invested in their communites and promoted the national interests. That used to be the American way.

In my opinion, 2 Cor 8:8-9 call on us to share and to help others to achieve a better quality of life. That's not scary socialism or evil communism, that's being in relationship and sacrificing our sacred "rugged individualism" for interdependence which is mutually beneficial. That's one of the reasons I think that it is not only okay, but perhaps even better for Christians to adopt a progressive political stance than a rigidly Republican one.

Obviously, there is legislation and there are decisions and policies which from time to time may offend Christian voters, but they can be considered and acted upon on as they come, rather than generalizing one party or another as moral or immoral. Parties are neither moral or immoral, they are amoral because parties are merely structures, an apparatus through which you voice your individual opinions, not monolithic entities which have their own opinions.

Reagan's GOP was a narrow coalition of corporatists, religious fundamentalists, and militarist. FDR's Democratic party was a broad coalition of workers, immagrants, farmers, teachers, minorites, socially conscious religious voters, small business people, tradesmen, artists, etc. etc. etc. I don't know if we need a multiparty system or whether Obama will succeed or fail or what the future holds for our country or the world. But I do know what I believe and that is that God calls us to be our brother's keeper but that that means to help and support and share with our brother, not to dominate or direct or control our brother.

That is why I am no more ashamed to say that I am a registered Democrat than I am ashamed of the Gospel. Not that I am equating the two, one is the means of coming into a relationship with the Living God, the other is just one more way that we can be better stewards of the many gifts and blessings God has given us in the here and now.

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