Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Response to Dr Andy Woods of Sugar Land Bible Church

Dr Dr Woods,

I have recently read your interesting article on the Bible Prophecy Blog entitled , How an Evangelical Christian President can Support a Mormon for President. I was sufficiently  concerned about some of the premises that you say you hold that I thought I ought to make some sort of response.

I should stress at the outset that I have no issue with who you vote for in November. I am more concerned about the underlying assumptions that are shaping your decision. 

Please allow me to respond to some of the points in the order you raised them:

Economic Matters

Firstly, I find your definition of economic policies to be too narrow. Like you, I value Biblical teaching against stealing and in favour of economic self-sufficiency through labour (excuse the British spellings!) These values, however, are not the only things that the Bible has to say about economics, wealth and labour. The Pentateuch not only prohibited theft, it also created the conditions for Israel under which economic self-sufficiency could be achieved by all. This was through the equitable distribution of the primary means of production - land - to tribes and extended households (Num 26:52; 33:53, et passim)  This aspect of Biblical economics appears lacking from your analysis. 

It is a challenge to think through what such a Biblical value might mean in a pluralist society today. But, since we both agree that Biblical values should influence public life, I think we need to do the hard thinking about what a fair distribution of the means of production looks like in a post-industrial society.

Traditionally, those on the political left have sought to tax wealth as a means of re-distribution. However, it is questionable whether this approach goes far enough in ensuring genuine economic opportunity for all. Not only that, it has a tendency to create a vast and bureaucratic state apparatus, which itself can be problematic.

It is apparent that wealth is generated primarily through the judicious management of assets. In both the United States and Britain, the long-term trend has been for assets such as land, factories, property, businesses, and more recently, copyrights and patents to become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The result of this trend over centuries is that the vast majority of citizens find themselves not as owners of potentially-productive assets, but as wage labourers. Their only "asset" is their time and skills. This employer-employee model of work has become so embedded in developed capitalist economies that we often find it difficult to imagine how "work" could be widely conceived in any other way. This model contains in-built vulnerabilities. A widely distrubitist model, by contrast, is more secure, just and sustainable, as an asset holder will never put themselves out of work.

In seeking to think about who to vote for, I would want evangelical Christians to also give consideration to the candidate most likely to empower the asset-less through the re-distribution of the economic means of production. 


Your concern about wealth being distributed to the non-earner (the 47%, I believe they were recently controversially described as by Mr Romney) also requires modification, in my view. While I agree that people who refuse to work should not be supported by those who do, you must surely recognize the Biblical category of those who are brought into poverty through adversity,  injustice, (Prov 13:23)  illness, and a whole range of economic and environmental factors outside of their direct control (Lev 25:35). 


The conservative view that such individuals should be helped through their own savings, families and/or private charity (more on that later) does not, in my view, do justice to the Biblical teaching on the matter. Rather, the prophets who denounced Israel's sin in the pre-exilic period often focused their preaching on economic injustice (Isaiah 1:16-18, et passim) and, significantly, called on the rulers (Isaiah 10:1-3) and kings (Isaiah 32:1-3) to act. The issue of poverty in Israel was not to be solved solely through private philanthropy but also through government intervention. One of the tithes mentioned in the Pentateuch, moreover, was specifically designed for distribution to the poor (Deut 26:12-13).  This was not private charity, but a form of co-ordinated and compulsory proto-taxation, to be directly used for assisting the needy. 

On the issue of charity-versus-the-State (your second paragraph under the heading of economic matters), you seem to miss the very obvious point raised in Romans 13:1-7, that governments are mandated to protect their citizens through the "punishment of the wrongdoer". While this certainly implies protection from criminals and foreign powers, it also implies protection from internal predators who would harm those who seek to live peaceful and quiet lives.

It is difficult to see how those greedy financial institutions largely responsible for the current economic crisis should not have the sword of the state wielded against them, and that "God's servant for your good" should not seek to ameliorate the human damage caused by these evil-doers. The same could be said about the idea of limited-liability companies - such as BP - who will be emboldened to take economically and environmentally reckless decisions as long as they know that the state will not hold them responsible for the full economic effect of their carelessness.


On the matter of the family, I agree with you that a Biblical value in politics will be to strengthen families not only relationally but also in economic terms. My comments above about the re-distribution of assets, should be incorporated into this pro-family agenda. It is not enough to merely roll back regulations, as if they in themselves are the cause of unemployment, without looking at the larger economic context. The Joads, if I may throw in a cultural anecdote, were not helped by and did not need greater de-regulation. They needed assets.


On the subject of inheritance taxes, I would be interested to discover your views on the Year of Jubilee principle (Lev 25), which set a structural limit not only on debt, but also on the handing down of wealth and assets, through the requirement for all land to be handed back to the descendants of its original owners. 

Such a system would have (if faithfully implemented) prohibited the creation of a permanent class system, and restrained the unlimited accumulation of capital and assets and the corresponding driving down of incomes on the part of the dispossessed. Unpopular though such a system may be to some on the right, here we find in scripture a structural economic policy intentionally designed to limit the accumulation of wealth over the long term. Would you agree that, compared with this Biblical law, Adam's Smith's invisible hand is a far less effective mechanism in restricting the vast accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands? 


I found your comments on the environment particularly disappointing. Firstly, your quoting of Genesis 8:22 as some kind of proof text disproving anthropogenic global warming is, frankly, unworthy of an evangelical scholar. The verse merely states, in context, that God will not destroy the earth again through a flood and that the seasons, including "heat and cold" will be features of life on the planet until its end. This can be interpreted in both a micro-scale (day to day) and a macro-scale (the ice-age, for instance). The text does not tell us whether and to what extent human activity can increase strain on the planet, locally or globally, nor whether mankind will or will not in fact do so in the future. The doctrine of sin certainly suggests that such action is at least a strong possibility! 

The Bible does, elsewhere, have things to say on the inter-relationship between human activity and the physical environment, at both a micro and macro scale.

What do you make, for instance, of the shout of the 24 heavenly elders declaring that the time has come, 

"for destroying those who destroy the earth" (Rev 11:18)?

Or God's declaration through Jeremiah that:

“I am against you, you destroying mountain,
    you who destroy the whole earth,” (Jer 51:25)?


As an evangelical Christan concerned about man-made climate change, I obviously recognise the reality of seasonal and long-term variations in the earth's climate. I also take seriously our call to think truthfully about life's issues (Psalm 15:2 et passim). This commitment to truth requires us to use our God-given minds to consider and weigh claim and counter-claim. 

The overwhelming scientific consensus (summarised below by the US National Research Council) is that the 

"climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities."

I infer from your article that you are somewhat mistrustful of international and inter-governmental bodies. Nonetheless, the scientific consensus on the role of human activity on climate change is also summarised in the findings of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change here

For the Christian, this reality is both an issue of stewardship, and also one of justice. I have written elsewhere of the relationship between global warming and global poverty. The real victims of this current environmental crisis are the world's poorest and, frankly, it is very unedifying to hear a gospel minister apparently overlooking their suffering in order to enable American Christians to continue to drive their SUVs with a clear conscience.
Evil Days

The apostle Paul calls us to "be careful how we live - not as unwise but as wise...because the days are evil." One of the evils being carried out by the global oil conglomerates is the deliberate feeding into the public discourse misleading suggestions and pseudo-scientific research over the issue of global warming (source). Research shows that these wealthy billionaires - including Koch Industries who also support Mitt Romney's campaign as it happens - have been remarkably successful in their PR efforts. 

This is an area where discernment is needed to see what is really taking place - a reckless and ungodly destruction of God's world in order to ensure financial profits for a small cadre of billionaires. As Christians, we need to oppose this ungodliness and defend the rights of the poor in the face of the Koch brothers and their ilk.

Debt and War

I agree with your concerns about public debt. The only sane and Biblical way forward is to reduce it. I hope, therefore, that you will continue to be vocal in your opposition to expensive and ill-founded military campaigns in Asia. The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have cost many lives and, according to research from Brown University, have also cost the American economy approximately 4 trillion dollars. That's trillion, please note, not billion.

I was intending to go on to compare social matters and foreign policy, but I think this may result in an overly-lengthy article, so perhaps I will leave it there for now. Suffice to say, I agree with many of your conclusions on social matters - though, briefly, I must ask you to seriously search your conscience and consider whether Jesus really meant what you have represented him as meaning in Luke 22:36

On foreign policy, I confess to being, like Stephen M Walt  "a realist in an ideological age." But perhaps that is for another day. 

As I said at the outset, I am not writing to challenge your conclusions about who you or others should vote for. I am more concerned about some of your premises. 
Thank you for taking the time to read (if you have) and I wish you God's blessing.

Yours respectfully in disagreement,

Al Shaw

Bristol, England


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