Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

McKibbon, Roepke, and John Paul II

Caleb Stegall reviews Bill McKibbon’s Deep Economy (which I still haven’t read) in a recent issue of The American Conservative. In the course of the review he mentions this great exchange between economists Wilhelm Roepke and Ludwig von Mises:

In 1947, two titans of 20th-century economic theory, Ludwig von Mises and Wilhelm Röpke, met in Röpke’s home of Geneva, Switzerland. During the war, the Genevan fathers coped with shortages by providing citizens with small garden allotments outside the city for growing vegtables. These citizen gardens became so popular with the people of Geneva that the practice was continued even after the war and the return to abundance. Röpke was particularly proud of these citizen farmers, and so he took Mises on a tour of the gardens. “A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs!” Mises noted disapprovingly. “Perhaps so, but a very efficient way of producing human happiness” was Röpke’s rejoinder.

Roepke was a free market economist, widely credited with Germany’s post-war economic recovery. He was also a deeply conservative thinker in the best sense who recognized that life is more than the market. His A Humane Economy argues that the market requires strong social, cultural and legal frameworks in order to function as it should without reducing social values to market values.

Here’s a snippet:

The questionable things of this world come to grief on their nature, the good ones on their own excesses. Conservative respect for the past and its preservation are indispensable conditions of a sound society, but to cling exclusively to tradition, history, and established customs is an exaggeration leading to intolerable rigidity. The liberal predilection for movement and progress is an equally indispensable counterweight, but if it sets no limits and recognizes nothing as lasting and worth preserving, it ends in disintegration and destruction. The rights of the community are no less imperative than those of the individual, but exaggeration of the rights of the community in the form of collectivism is just as dangerous as exaggerated individualism and its extreme form, anarchism. Ownership ends up in plutocracy, authority in bondage and despotism, democracy in arbitrariness and demagogy. Whatever political tendencies or currents we choose as examples, it will be found that they always sow the seed of their own destruction when they lose their sense of proportion and overstep their limits. In this field, suicide is the normal cause of death.

The market economy is no exception to the rule. Indeed, its advocates, in so far as they are at all intellectually fastidious, have always recognized that the sphere of the market, of competition, of the system where supply and demand move prices and thereby govern production, may be regarded and defended only as part of a wider general order encompassing ethics, law, the natural conditions of life and happiness, the state, politics, and power. Society as a whole cannot be ruled by the laws of supply and demand, and the state is more than a sort of business company, as has been the conviction of the best conservative opinion since the time of Burke. Individuals who compete on the market and there pursue their own advantage stand all the more in need of the social and moral bonds of community, without which competition degenerates most grievously. As we have said before, the market economy is not everything. It must find its place in a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition. It must be firmly contained within an all-embracing order of society in which the imperfections and harshness of economic freedom are corrected by law and in which man is not denied conditions of life appropriate to his nature. Man can wholly fulfill his nature only by freely becoming part of a community and having a sense of solidarity with it. Otherwise he leads a miserable existence and he knows it. (A Humane Economy, pp. 90-91)

Here Roepke sounds a bit like John Paul II, who recognized the value and importance of markets for production and exchange, but the equal or greater importance of maintaining the value of things, especially human life, that cannot be reduced to exchange value. As he wrote in the encyclical Centesimus annus:

It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs. But this is true only for those needs which are “solvent”, insofar as they are endowed with purchasing power, and for those resources which are “marketable”, insofar as they are capable of obtaining a satisfactory price. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. It is also necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources. Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required “something” is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity. (Para. 34)

It’s probably no coincidence that Roepke, the son of a Lutheran pastor, enunciated a similar kind of Christian Democratic vision. American conservatism has, unfortunately, tended toward a kind of “vulgar libertarianism” in theory, which valorizes “the market” as the solution to all social problems. And in practice it has ironically tended toward corporatism – favors for big business that actually end up shielding them from the vicissitudes of the market.

The interesting question to me is whether there is a space for Roepke-style “humane conservatism” to join with McKibbon-style grass-roots progressivism in offering an alternative to the kind of neoliberal version of globalization that many would argue threatens the social, moral, political, and ecological health of our society.

Visitation of the BVM

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(click for larger image)

From John Paul II’s Redemptoris Mater:

When Elizabeth greeted her young kinswoman coming from Nazareth, Mary replied with the Magnificat. In her greeting, Elizabeth first called Mary “blessed” because of “the fruit of her womb,” and then she called her “blessed” because of her faith (cf. Lk. 1:42, 45). These two blessings referred directly to the Annunciation. Now, at the Visitation, when Elizabeth’s greeting bears witness to that culminating moment, Mary’s faith acquires a new consciousness and a new expression. That which remained hidden in the depths of the “obedience of faith” at the Annunciation can now be said to spring forth like a clear and life-giving flame of the spirit. The words used by Mary on the threshold of Elizabeth’s house are an inspired profession of her faith, in which her response to the revealed word is expressed with the religious and poetical exultation of her whole being towards God. In these sublime words, which are simultaneously very simple and wholly inspired by the sacred texts of the people of Israel, Mary’s personal experience, the ecstasy of her heart, shines forth. In them shines a ray of the mystery of God, the glory of his ineffable holiness, the eternal love which, as an irrevocable gift, enters into human history.

Mary is the first to share in this new revelation of God and, within the same, in this new “self-giving” of God. Therefore she proclaims: “For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Her words reflect a joy of spirit which is difficult to express: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Indeed, “the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man is made clear to us in Christ, who is at the same time the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.” In her exultation Mary confesses that she finds herself in the very heart of this fullness of Christ. She is conscious that the promise made to the fathers, first of all “to Abraham and to his posterity for ever,” is being fulfilled in herself. She is thus aware that concentrated within herself as the mother of Christ is the whole salvific economy, in which “from age to age” is manifested he who as the God of the Covenant, “remembers his mercy.”

See also here.

JPII and Gerhard Forde on the Scandal of the Cross

I have this feeling that I’ve posted on this before at the old blog, but I was flipping through Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope this weekend, and found him to have some illuminating things to say about the mystery of the Cross.

The book is written in a kind of Q&A format with the questions offered by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. In response to a question about the problem of suffering, the Pope gives an interpretation of the meaning of the Cross that is in some ways the reverse of the view that Jesus’s death is a way of satisfying God:

In the preceding questions you addressed the problem precisely: Was putting His Son to death on the Cross necessary for the salvation of humanity?

Given our present discussion, we must ask ourselves: Could it have been different? Could God have justified Himself before human history, so full of suffering, without placing Christ’s Cross at the center of that history? Obviously, one response could be that God does not need to justify Himself to man. It is enough that He is omnipotent. From this perspective everything He does or allows must be accepted. This is the position of the biblical Job. But God, who besides being Omnipotence is Wisdom and-to repeat once again-Love, desires to justify Himself to mankind. He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, a God who shares man’s lot and participates in his destiny. This brings to light another inadequacy, the completely false image of God which the Enlightenment accepted uncritically. With regard to the Gospel, this image certainly represented a step backward, not in the direction of a better knowledge of God and the world, but in the direction of misunderstanding them.

No, absolutely not! God is not someone who remains only outside of the world, content to be in Himself all-knowing and omnipotent. His wisdom and omnipotence are placed, by free choice, at the service of creation. If suffering is present in the history of humanity, one understands why His omnipotence was manifested in the omnipotence of humiliation on the Cross. The scandal of the Cross remains the key to the interpretation of the great mystery of suffering, which is so much a part of the history of mankind.

Even contemporary critics of Christianity are in agreement on this point. Even they see that the crucified Christ is proof of God’s solidarity with man in his suffering. God places Himself on the side of man. He does so in a radical way: “He emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave, / coming in human likeness; / and found human in appearance, / he humbled himself, / becoming obedient to death, / even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). Everything is contained in this statement. All individual and collective suffering caused by the forces of nature and unleashed by man’s free will-the wars, the gulags, and the holocausts: the Holocaust of the Jews but also, for example, the holocaust of the black slaves from Africa.

I say this reverses the common understanding of the Cross because, instead of seeing the Crucifixion as the means by which humanity is able to satisfy God’s justice or wrath, it portrays God as, in a sense, seeking to justify himself before humanity, by demonstrating that he is a God of love.

The Pope goes on to say:

God is always on the side of the suffering. His omnipotence is manifested precisely in the fact that He freely accepted suffering. He could have chosen not to do so. He could have chosen to demonstrate His omnipotence even at the moment of the Crucifixion. In fact, it was proposed to Him: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not accept that challenge. The fact that He stayed on the Cross until the end, the fact that on the Cross He could say, as do all who suffer: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34), has remained in human history the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.
Yes! God is Love and precisely for this He gave His Son, to reveal Himself completely as Love. Christ is the One who “loved to the end” (Jn 13:1). “To the end” means to the last breath. “To the end” means accepting all the consequences of man’s sin, taking it upon Himself. This happened exactly as prophet Isaiah affirmed: “It was our infirmities that he bore, /We had all gone astray like sheep, / each following his own way; / But the Lord laid upon him / the guilt of us all” (Is 53:4-6).

The Man of Suffering is the revelation of that Love which “endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7), of that Love which is the “greatest” (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). It is the revelation not only that God is Love but also the One who “pours out love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (cf. Rom 5:5). In the end, before Christ Crucified, the man who shares in redemption will have the advantage over the man who sets himself up as an unbending judge of God’s actions in his own life as well as in that of all humanity.

Thus we find ourselves at the center of the history of salvation. The judgment of God becomes a judgment of man. The divine realm and the human realm of this event meet, cross, and overlap. Here we must stop. From the Mount of the Beatitudes, the road of the Good News leads to Calvary, and passes through Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration. The difficulty and the challenge of understanding the meaning of Calvary is so great that God Himself wanted to warn the apostles of all that would have to happen between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

This is the definitive meaning of Good Friday: Man, you who judge God, who order Him to justify Himself before your tribunal, think about yourself, if you are not responsible for the death of this condemned man, if the judgment of God is not actually a judgment upon yourself. Consider if this judgment and its result-the Cross and then the Resurrection-are not your only way to salvation. (all emphasis mine)

I see a certain similarity between what John Paul says here and what the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde has written about the work of Christ. God’s “problem,” says Forde, is how to be a God of love for us when we won’t have it. We are the problem, the ones who need to be reconciled to God.

Forde writes:

Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is “the end” of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, “gets out of the way” for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, “that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word. (Forde, Caught in the Act)

Both John Paul and Forde see the rvelation of God as love simultaneously as a judgment upon humanity. Perfect love enters our world and is caught in the net of human perfidy, beaten, mocked, tortured, and ultimately killed. And yet, in the Resurrection Love has the last word. The Cross is the inevitable outcome of God’s determination to be a God of Love, a determination that our sin is unable to defeat.