Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Faith Works 3-7-09
Jeff Gill

Worldview, Lifestyle, Habits of the Heart, and Ritual Observances

Last Tuesday the pages of this paper offered an intriguing contrast between two families.

In one story, a fellow built up, over time, personal skills, community contacts, and a business that now looks situated to survive the hard times we’re in, while his family often helps others in need, even from distant lands.

The other story was about a fellow who had stumbled and fallen enough in his own choices that even those closest to him saw it was necessary to call the authorities, and report the latest bad choice, which involved more chemistry homework than said citizen had likely done in high school.

On one level, this kind of story tempts me into Andy Rooney mode, wondering what the life situation of fellow number two would be if he had put as much careful note taking and instruction following into legitimate pursuits. Maybe not a Nobel Prize in chemistry, but a good job in a laboratory doesn’t seem an outlandish hope.

(Seriously, people who cook meth are putting an amazing amount of work, mental and physical, into their quick but modest return on their investment. Not to mention creating major league toxic waste along the way, along with fire risk and asphyxiation, which is why you can’t get renters insurance to cover meth labs.)

Succeeding in everyday, business terms takes hard work over long periods without guarantee of excellent or even good outcomes. That’s a fact. Crooks and thieves work hard in short bursts, and generally lay about as much as possible in between what they semi-ironically call “jobs.”

And some aren’t even interested in the occasional effort of thievery.

When ol’ Karl Marx (not to be confused with Groucho) famously called religion “the opiate of the masses,” he meant that a faith-based worldview gave the working folk a sense that effort that was not rewarded in this world still had an enduring meaning in God’s sight, so keep on slogging.

Karl, who lived off of an inheritance (quickly squandered), then wealthy patrons after his wife’s family tired of sending him money (he did briefly write a newspaper column for a New York paper as a “foreign correspondent,” and I’ll bet he was fun to edit), was so smart he knew there was no God. Or god, as some prefer.

God would not reward the laborer for his toil, if the just reward of effort was stolen or withheld by those with capital (i.e., capitalists), so the idea of anything other than an earthly guarantee gets in the way of workers seeing the necessity of revolution.

Or Revolution, as some would prefer.

Karl would argue that some entity should be in a position to guarantee that everyone gets their just due. At its purest, that would be communism.

Except who decides what is the just due to each person? The market, I think many would argue today is, ah, somewhat imperfect at doing that. Readjustments and such are harsh. But the track record of elites and government agencies calculating that over time and applying said justice fairly is pretty weak, too (ask the kulaks).

Which is why most Christians are not quite communist, college dorm conversation to the contrary, but we all tend to lean at least a bit socialist, in believing that a nation chock full o’ believers should guarantee some set of minimums to each, especially for those who really can’t “labor” in the wage and salary sense.

Faithful people of most denominations are wrestling right now with immediate concerns of aiding the less fortunate right down the block, and often within the sanctuary sitting next to them.

But we have to ask ourselves what kind of preaching we need to offer to our society, or which policy recommendations we support, and where our beliefs should lead us to work for the greater good, as major national and even global debates are going on about these questions of labor and value.

Do we believe of our fellow citizens that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? And to what degree does our faith lead us to propose that we should add things like food, and shelter, and health care to that list?

A believer can make a case that the state (or The State) actually does more harm than good when it goes too far, even in good deeds – maybe especially in good deeds. What no faithful person can do is say that there is no obligation on their part to work “caring for orphans and widows in their distress.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; make a policy recommendation to him at

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