Science in Christian Perspective
A Response to George J. Jennings on The American Babylon
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From: JASA 36 (March 1984): 62-63.
George Jennings's exposition of the American Babylon (JASA, September, 1983) is typical of recent theologically based interpretations of wealth and poverty. This has been true for three generations in traditions that have been called liberal, and in recent years those associated with conservative theology have followed suit. Extremes of poverty and wealth coexisting on the same planet have become primafacie evidence of injustice, with guilt inhering in those who are not poor. As one leader on the theological right puts it: poor people are poor "because we are rich." That is the thesis that dominates the approach Mr. Jennings has taken in his article.
In spite of the impressive array of biblical references that invariably accompanies declarations of this type, there is no relationship between this thesis and a truly biblical approach to issues of poverty and wealth. That is clear enough from the reference from James that Mr. Jennings chose for his masthead. We are told there that the rich who are to weep and wail are those who have defrauded field workers by failing to pay them the wages they were due, and who murdered innocent men. In other words, these are people who gained their wealth by despising the divine commandments against stealing and killing.
I have argued at length elsewhere that this monomanic and unbiblical set of views borrows from and assists the most destructive of the idolatries of the western world and can have no other end than to destroy the people it ostensibly wishes to help. (Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, Thomas Nelson, 1983). 1 have no wish to repeat the arguments and evidence here, but would like to make a few comments on specific points that Mr. Jennings has made. This is not a criticism of his article as much as it is of the tradition with which he has chosen to ally himself.
1) He is filled with feelings of guilt over the fact that he is not poor, in spite of his modest (by American standards) financial standing as a member of the professoriat. God's blessings for this position must always be interior, never external. This is a semiManichaeanism wholly outside of the biblical tradition, rooted in a misapprehension over how creation applies to our understanding of our position. The traditions he cites so uncritically (Darwinism, Marxism and animism) have no doctrine of creation and thus can have no conception of material blessings that is rooted in reality. And they have no conception of grace either, which is why those who follow them suffer from the guilt that is consuming Mr. Jennings.
2) Mr. Jennings apparently believes that the dominating feature of the American economic system is competition. Therefore he links it with social Darwinism and contrasts it with the biblical notion of service as the motivating force of economic life. Reinhold Niebuhr, whose depression-era work contained similar misconceptions, later called the idea that a Christian socialism would replace motives of profit with motives of service a "complete confusion between systems and motives" which invested collectivist systems with completely undeserved moral sanction, unfortunately popular in theological circles. Mr. Jennings does not apparently advocate any particular economic system in his paper, but the nature of his dismay over our system and his preference for an alternate in which there is no prosperity to provide guilt-inducing contrasts implies a preference for those third-world solutions which in fact feature both oppression and want.
3) Using the term Babylon to describe the United States poses an interesting problem of interpretation. If that is taken to mean that we have fallen into idolatry and the practice of injustice, it is unexceptionable, and I have taken a similar position. But if that is what is meant, then it is essential to explain exactly what is meant by idolatry and injustice and just how the nation practices them. Otherwise it is impossible to avoid the shabby and uncritical anti-Americanism that today passes for prophetic Christianity. And it will not do simply to assume that other societies-principally poor ones, it turns out-are the righteous ones surrounding our Babylon.
4) If Mr. Jennings is serious about understanding culture to be "a system of meanings shared by a society," then he is incorrect in supposing that African and Near Eastern cultures are closer to the ancient Hebrew culture than ours is. This misconception is related to his improper use of social science insights to provide theological understanding. Even in its presently-debased form, our own culture is far closer to that of ancient Israel than is any other. Only if one thinks of culture in a superficial sense as being primarily geographical in derivation is his statement true. If Mr. Jennings took more seriously his definition of culture, he would be able to place more firmly in a biblical context "insights" he derives from both social science theory and primitive cultures that are as thoroughly pagan as they ever were.
It's a disquieting thought that a missions consultant should have these ideas about the relationship of cultures. How can evangelism based on them result in anything but a gospel that is completely impotent and irrelevant to the lives of those it is supposed to change?