Monthly Archives: March 2009

More on the condom conversation

I posted some comments other day about the reaction to Benedict XVI’s remarks regarding the possibility that condom use in Africa might actually be having a negative consequence on the spread of HIV/Aids.  Today I read two interesting comments in the continued conversation over the reaction to the Pope’s remarks.

The first of these comments comes from Ross Douthat, currently of <i>The Atlantic</i> and recently announced conservative pundit at the New York Times.  Douthat is a conservative Roman Catholic and admits his bias, but makes some interesting observations:

I should note that I don’t pretend to be an expert on this topic, and my own conservative and Catholic biases have no doubt shaped the reading that I’ve done about AIDS-fighting strategies. But it’s my impression – created, in large part, by reading Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (and if there’s a devastating rebuttal to her arguments, please send it my way) – that an awful lot of the money poured into condom-promotion over the years would have much been better spent promoting “partner reduction” in cultures inclined to promiscuity and de facto polygamy instead. This isn’t the same as promoting abstinence exclusively, and indeed, Epstein is witheringly critical of some of the abstinence-only programs that American dollars have funded in the Bush era. But “partner reduction” is a lot more consonant with the Catholic Church’s longstanding position – that it’s better to promote monogamy and fidelity than to take promiscuity as a given and make it as safe as possible – than you’d think from the overheated talk about how the Vatican’s flat-earth position on condoms has cost millions of lives.

What’s more, I have a hard time believing that the public-health and foreign-aid community’s longstanding preference for condom promotion has nothing to do with ideological biases of their own. Yes, the Catholic Church’s conservative position on sexual morality determines which public-health interventions the Vatican willing to support, and limits the willingness of Catholic institutions to simply follow the data wherever it leads. But what’s true of Catholics is true of other groups as well. And when you read Epstein on how slow the AIDS establishment was to acknowledge the importance of partner-reduction – or when you read about Bill Gates getting booed at an international AIDS conference when he mentioned abstinence and fidelity – it’s awfully hard to escape the conclusion that the combination of a liberationist view of sexual ethics and a post-colonial unwillingness to critique existing African patterns of sexual behavior has seriously hampered the international community’s efforts to curb the spread of HIV.

{Read it all}

Later in the day, someone emailed me this opinion piece from the Washington Post, written by Edward C. Green, research scientist at the Harvard School of public health.  Green writes that the Pope was right about his assertion:

When Pope Benedict XVI commented this month that condom distribution isn’t helping, and may be worsening, the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, he set off a firestorm of protest. Most non-Catholic commentary has been highly critical of the pope. A cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted in The Post, showed the pope somewhat ghoulishly praising a throng of sick and dying Africans: “Blessed are the sick, for they have not used condoms.”

Yet, in truth, current empirical evidence supports him.

We liberals who work in the fields of global HIV/AIDS and family planning take terrible professional risks if we side with the pope on a divisive topic such as this. The condom has become a symbol of freedom and — along with contraception — female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes. My comments are only about the question of condoms working to stem the spread of AIDS in Africa’s generalized epidemics — nowhere else.

In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations’ AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa.

[...]

Let me quickly add that condom promotion has worked in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, where most HIV is transmitted through commercial sex and where it has been possible to enforce a 100 percent condom use policy in brothels (but not outside of them). In theory, condom promotions ought to work everywhere. And intuitively, some condom use ought to be better than no use. But that’s not what the research in Africa shows.

Why not?

One reason is “risk compensation.” That is, when people think they’re made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex.

{Read it all}

The general consensus seems to be that–in the situation of an epidemic–behavioral changes have to reach a certain point, and to have limited infection to a certain degree before condom use has any measurable impact.  This indicates that prophylactics without attendant behavioral changes–including a lessening of promiscuity and a trend toward fewer sexual partners–is not enough.

All of this is to say, no one should assume that it is only the religious who hold opinions religiously or by faith.  I long ago discovered that for most people (at least most Americans) their political and cultural views, whether liberal or conservative–even if supposedly secular–are ideological and operate on the same level as religious faith, even to the extent of being irrational.

The Pope get's Lambasted over Condom comment

The Lead has posted the following remarks from BBC News regarding Benedict’s remarks about condom use and the prevention of HIV infection:

One of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, the Lancet, has accused Pope Benedict XVI of distorting science in his remarks on condom use.

It said the Pope’s recent comments that condoms exacerbated the problem of HIV/Aids were wildly inaccurate and could have devastating consequences.

“When any influential person, be it a religious or political figure, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record,” it said.

“Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/Aids worldwide.”

Our correspondent says the article shows how far the Pope’s attempts to justify the Vatican’s position on condoms have misfired.

Having read the Pope’s comments (namely that condom use may not actually decrease the spread of HIV/AIDS, but have the opposite effect) I actually wonder whether he intended to make a scientific statement or a sociological/cultural observation. The intelligibility of the Pope’s comments seems to hinge upon what he is comparing to.  Certainly it is incorrect to say that condom use increases the risk of HIV/AIDs compared to sexual activity without a condom.  However, sexual intercourse with a condom certainly does increase the possibility of infection when compared to total abstinence.  Additionally, it has long been the claim of some who oppose the widespread distribution of contraception that it increases sexual activity generally–including unprotected sex–by lessening the barrier/strictures against it.   I have no evidence that these views are correct, but it does make sense to me that a general allowance for sexual activity brought on by the easy availability of contraception might result in higher levels of unprotected sexual activity as well.  Indeed, I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of that among people that I know.  Regardless, I do wonder if folks are perhaps up in arms over something not at all surprising: the Pope believes the availability of and emphasis on contraception increases the likelihood of sexual activity outside of marriage, which by extension increases the possibility of contracting HIV/AIDS when compared to restricting sexual activity to one partner within marriage. This is not the same thing as saying that the empirical evidence in the first case (comparing the possibility of infection between protected and unprotected sex) is wrong.

I may believe it is absurd for there to be any question about the appropriateness of the use of a condom by a married couple to prevent an HIV positive spouse from infecting their partner, but reason, science and observation all support the notion that abstinence is ultimately the only sure-fire way to prevent the contraction of HIV. The USAID report on HIV in Uganda indicates as much, when it discusses the behavioral changes that have resulted in a decline in HIV there, making it one of Africa’s success stories.  These include a lessening stigma toward those with the disease, delayed sexual debut among youth etc… When it comes to condom use, the report makes an interesting observation:

Condom social marketing has played a key but evidently not the major role: Condom promotion was not an especially dominant element in Uganda’s earlier response to AIDS, certainly compared to several other countries in eastern and southern Africa. In Demographic Health Surveys, ever-use of condoms as reported by women increased from 1 percent in 1989, to 6 percent in 1995 and 16 percent in 2000. Male ever-use of condoms was 16 percent in 1995 and 40 percent in 2000. Nearly all of the decline in HIV incidence (and much of the decline in prevalence) had already occurred by 1995 and, furthermore, modeling suggests that very high levels of consistent condom use would be necessary to achieve significant reductions of prevalence in a generalized-level epidemic. Therefore, it seems unlikely that such levels of condom ever-use in Uganda (let alone consistent use, which was presumably much lower) could have played a major role in HIV reduction at the national level, in the earlier years. However, in more recent years, increased condom use has arguably contributed to the continuing decline in prevalence.

This seems to indicate that condom use can play an important role, but only as part of over all behavioral changes.  People seem to be angry because they believe the Pope’s remarks about condoms will decrease their use, but as I recently read elsewhere: if people aren’t going to listen to the Pope’s teachings about sexual abstinence and marital fidelity, then what makes anyone think his views of condoms will impact the behavior of those same people?  It seems to me that, rather than critisizing a statement that is utterly unsurrprising given the source, those folks who are admirably waging the war against HIV in Africa ought to accept the support of the Roman Catholic and other Churches where they can, and take a lesson from the glimers of hope in Uganda, which seem to have been the result of widespread cooperation between faith communities, the government, and the medical field.

"New" paper up: The Mission of the Church

I’ve just formatted another of my papers, this one on the mission of the Church, for wordpress. The paper references two books in addition to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  One is the Open Secret by Leslie Newbigin, the other is The Future is Mestizo by Virgilio Elizondo, a Roman Catholic.  As you will be able to tell from the paper, I favor Newbigin’s approach.

In The Open Secret Leslie Newbigin puts an idea into words that has been the heart of much Christian activity in history, namely that “a church that is not ‘the church in mission’ is no church at all.”1 This statement is not so much condemnation as observation; that it is possible for us to hear it as condemnatory speaks volumes about our particular shortcomings as contemporary Christians.

To say that Christianity is a missionary religion is nothing new-it has long been categorized as one of the three great missionary religions, along with Buddhism and Islam. There is a difference however, between saying that Christianity is a missionary religion and in stating that it is essentially missionary in character. A religion might become missionary through circumstance or accident-or it can be missionary in its very essence and character, as Christianity reveals itself to be.

The missionary character of the Church is rooted in the life and work of Christ and it is here that the Church finds its authority. Because the Church derives its authority from Christ it is natural that it derive the basic structure of its mission from Christ’s ministry. This is a situation both liberating and restrictive. It is restrictive in the sense that anything done without the intent of glorifying God or bringing all things into subjection to Christ can not be considered within the scope of the mission of the Church. It is liberating in another sense because of exactly how much and how great a diversity of things can be seen this way.

{read it all}

Making Whips and Cleansing Temples

The Cleansing of the Temple
The Cleansing of the Temple, detail

Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen

The Cleansing of the Temple

One of the most intriguing episodes in the Gospels is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.  Our Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Lent presents the event from the perspective of John.  Unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Which tend toward a one year public ministry vs. John’s 3 years), John places the cleansing much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, during the first of three passover celebrations he recounts.  For the synoptic gospels, the cleansing happens at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and is seen as one of the key factors leading to his crucifixion.  It is clear though, from the similar descriptions, that the gospel writers were remembering the same event.

And what an event it is! We have a tendency today to see Jesus as a sort of retiring figure.   Some might even say boring.  To some he’s the guy who never wants you to do anything fun.   to others he seen as a sort of ambiguous teacher figure, teaching things that no one can understand or live up to.  Alternatively he’s the one who set out to do away with all the oppressive religious expectations.  Jesus, you see, often becomes a mirror for our own expectations and desires. In a lot of ways, we’ve tried our hardest to tame him.  But just as CS Lewis wrote of Aslan, “he’s not a tame lion,” Jesus  is not a tame savior.  No matter how many overly sentimental portraits we see, no matter how many times his name is invoked for things he would have condemned, no matter how often we appeal  to him for justification of things we are at least afraid he doesn’t approve of, we have to know that the Jesus of the Gospels — the only Jesus there is — is not a tame figurehead sitting patiently around to endorse our latest cause.  The Lord that we profess is the same Lord who did and does the most unexpected things.  This Jesus, the one who declared the victory of God by hanging like a criminal upon the cross, is the Lord that we are here to follow.

And so, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to us Christians that the depiction of Christ and our gospel lesson this morning directly challenges the sort of sanitized and domesticated images of the Savior of the world that our culture likes to see.  Far from the sort of live and let live proto-hippie that we sometimes see depicted, this Jesus is a passion-filled figure, who is not afraid to challenge the most entrenched religious authorities of his day.  And not simply to challenge them in a general way, or to wait until he’s in a place where he has a lot of support, but to challenge them in a specific way in the heart of their authority, in the very confines of the temple in Jerusalem.

This is not to say that talk about Jesus as revealing God’s love isn’t true–the Scriptures attest that God is Love.  But it is important to remember that the understandings of love that are often the most dominant in our day are not as full or three-dimensional.  The love exemplified by Christ is a sacrificial love, to be sure, but it also the sort of love that calls the one who is loved to something greater.  It is a love that stands in judgment over those things or people that falsely claim the allegiance of God’s people.

While some might want to ascribe Jesus’ actions to a sort of surprising and out of character flash of anger, the presentation of the events in the gospels does not allow for that sort of interpretation. Consider the details that were given; Jesus went up to Jerusalem because of the celebration of Passover, and went to the temple. While there he surveys the scene and John tells us “he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting there.” Jesus arrives at the temple, takes the time to look around, and sees exactly what is going on.  He sees the different stalls with merchants selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons — all the creatures that one would need to offer sacrifice for sins.  He also sees the money changers, the folks who would change the Roman currency with its images of the Emperor, for Tyrian coins that could be taken and offered in the temple.  And something about the scene makes Jesus angry. But this is not hotheaded anger; we would be making a mistake if we let our surprise at Jesus’ actions lead us to believe that he acted without thought.  His reaction is not random, but calculated.  Consider one of the details that John leaves us with, that after Jesus surveyed the scene and saw all the merchants and moneychangers sitting there he went and made a whip of courts.  Jesus took his time, he formed the tool that he was going to use, he gathered the material and wove it together, making a whip with which he drove away the merchants, the moneychangers, and even the cattle.

I think it’s clear that there was something about the setup and the Temple that Jesus didn’t like.  John tells us that he then went to the people who sold pigeons and told them “take these things away; do not make my father’s house into house of trade.”  And then were told that the disciples remembered that it was written, “zeal for your house will consume me” (Cited from Ps. 69:9).

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Ethical discussion: a slip of the tongue?

Get Religion and Touchstone have each directed attention toward a recent interview former president Bill Clinton gave on the subject of embryonic stem cell research in the wake of President Obama’s changes to embryonic stem cell research funding.  During the interview Clinton repeatedly refers to a fertilized embryo as though there were such a thing as an unfertilized embryo.  As I posted on Touchstone’s site, I’m willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt that he actually knew what he was saying and that he really meant “implanted.”  But whether he merely mis-spoke or he actually doesn’t understand the basics of biology, I believe his interview is indicative of a problem we have as Americans: a basic inability to discuss important ethical issues because so many of us have absolutely no clue what the heck we are talking about.  I might give Clinton the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably knows the difference between fertilized and implanted–but there are a ton of other folks out there that I wouldn’t assume that about.  Of course some folks are assigning nefarious intent to Ole Bill, saying that he’s intentionally muddying the waters.  I don’t know about that, but I do want to know why no follow up questions were asked to help him clarify what he was trying to say.

Update: First Things has some commentary as well.

Lenten Resources: John Cassian on the Demon of Unchastity

Last time we reflected upon the issue of controlling the appetite for food, and the way in which St. John Cassian saw it as a door either to be closed or opened to other sins.   Before we continue You might find it interesting to know that St. John’s eight devices served as the basis for the later formulation of the seven deadly sins. From his discussion of the control of the stomach, Cassian  made good on his observation that “no one who’s stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity,” and moved on to what he considered very much a related struggle.

On the Demon of Unchastity and the Desire of the Flesh

Our second struggle is against the demon of unchastity and the desire of the flesh, a desire which begins to trouble Man from the time of his youth. This harsh struggle has to be fought in both soul and body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults. We therefore have to fight it on two fronts.
Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labor. These are able to check the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from a shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than anything else, however, and without if no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin. In the first place then, we must take the utmost care to guard the heart from base thoughts, four, according to the Lord, ‘how the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity’ and so on (Matt. 15:19).

We are told to fast and not only to mortify her body, and also to keep our intellect want fall, so that it will not be obscured because of the amount of food we have eaten and thus be unable to guard its thoughts. We must not therefore expand all our effort in bodily fasting; he must also give attention to our thoughts and to spiritual meditation,  sense otherwise we will not be able to advance to the heights of true purity and chastity. As our Lord has said, we should ‘cleanse first the inside of the cup and play, so that they’re outside may also be clean’ (Matt. 23:26).

If we are really eager, as the apostle puts it, to ‘struggle lawfully’ and to ‘be crowned’ (2 Tim: 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of unchastity, we should not trust our own strength and ascetic practice, but in the help of our master, God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers. Indeed, he who has trampled down the pleasures and provocations of the flesh is in a certain sense outside of the body. Thus, no one can soar to this high and heavenly prize of holiness on his own wings and learn to imitate the Angels, unless the grace of God leads him upwards from the earthly mire.

No virtue makes flesh down man so like a spiritual angel has self-restraint, for it enables those of still living on Earth to become, as the apostle says, ‘citizens of Heaven’ (cf. Phil. 3:20). A sign that we have acquired this virtue perfectly is that our soul ignores those images which the filed fantasy produces during sleep; for even if the production of such images is not sent, nevertheless it is a sign that the soul is ill and has not been freed from passion. We should therefore regard the defiled fantasies that arise in us during sleep as the proof of previous indolence and weakness still existing in us, since the omission which takes place while we are relaxed and sleep reveals the sickness that lies hidden in our souls. Because of this the doctor of our souls is also placed to the remedy in the hidden regions of the soul, recognizing that the cause of our sickness lies in their when he says: ‘whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:28). He seeks to correct not so much our inquisitive and unchaste eyes as the soul which has its seat within and makes bad use of the eyes which God gave it for good purposes. This is why the book of Proverbs and his wisdom does not say: ‘guard your eyes with all diligence’ but ‘guard your heart with all diligence’ (Prov. 4:23), imposing the remedy of diligence and the first instance upon that which makes use of the eyes for whatever purpose it desires.

The way to keep guard over our heart is immediately to expel from the mind every demon inspired recollection of women — even a mother or sister or any other devout woman — less than dwelling on it for too long the mind is thrown headlong by the deceiver into debased and pernicious thoughts.   the commandment given by God to the first man, Adam, told him to keep watch over the head of the serpent (cf. Gen. 3:15. LXX), that is, over the first inklings of the pernicious thoughts by means of which the serpent tries to creep into our souls. If we do not admit the serpent’s head, which is the provocation of the thought, we will not admit the rest of its body — that is, the ascent to the sensual pleasure which the thoughts suggests — and so debase the minded towards the illicit act itself.

As it is written, we should ‘early in the morning destroyed all the wicked of the earth’ (PS. 101:8), distinguishing in the light of divine knowledge are sinful thoughts and then eradicating them completely from the earth — our hearts — in accordance with the teaching of the Lord. While the children of Babylon — by which I mean our wicked thoughts — are still young, we should dash them to the ground and crush them against the rock,  which is Christ (cf. PS. 137:9; I Cor. 10:4).  If these thoughts grow stronger because we assent of them, we would not be able to overcome them without much pain and labor.

It is good to remember the sayings of the fathers as well as the passages from holy Scripture cited above. For example, St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea and Cappadocia, said: ‘I have not known a woman and yet I’m not a virgin.’ He recognize that the gift of virginity is achieved not so much by abstaining from intercourse with women as by holiness and purity of soul, which in its turn is achieved through fear of God. The fathers also say that we cannot fully acquire the virtue of purity unless we have first acquired real humility of heart.  And we will not be granted true spiritual knowledge so long as the passion of unchastity lies hidden in the depths of our souls.

To bring this section of our treatise to a close, let us recall one of the Apostle’s of sayings which further illustrates his teaching on how to acquire self-restraint.   He says: ‘pursue peace with all men and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (Heb.  12:16). The more heavenly and angelic in the degree of holiness, the heavier are the enemies’ attacks to which it is subjected. We should therefore try to achieve not only bodily control, but also contrition of heart with frequent prayers of repentance, so that with the dew of the Holy Spirit we may extinguish the furnace of our flesh, Kendal daily by the king of Babylon with the bellows of desire (cf. Dan. 3:19). In addition, a great weapon has been given us in the form of sacred vigils; for just as the watch we keep over our thoughts by Dave brings us holiness and night, so vigilant night brings purity to the soul by day.

From: THE PHILOKALIA: The Complete Text, Vols. I-IV.

Jon Stewart lets CNBC have it

This is an amazing lambasting of CNBC by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. It is all the better because it demonstrates the power of satire to highlight the obvious–and obvious injustices.  I find it bizarre that our government can give billions (that’s Billions with a (big) B) to poorly managed companies that made stupid decisions (think AIG, most large banks by this point as well as the American Auto industry), but when the “bail-out” actually begins to be directed toward individuals and families that might loose their homes it raises enough ire to cause modern day “tea parties.”  What a crock.  I was against the earlier bail-outs under Bush, and I question how much discernment can possibily going on in Washington these days, and how much wisdom can be in these bills, but regardless of that, I recognize that something must be done and if we’re going to do anything for the corporations that have run themselves into the ground then we darn well better be willing to help individuals and families keep their homes.  Just to put things in perspective, a recent Time story said projected as many as 6 million foreclosures in 2009 (compared with 1-2 million annually most years).  Usually when we start talking about 6 million people being put out of their homes we’re talking about a humanitarian crisis and the need of peace-keeping troops as refugees are resettled.

So, on that note, enjoy Jon Stewart taking CNBC down a notch. (click the more tag to see the video)

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FIRST THINGS» Evangelicals and Economics: Reflections of a Conservative Protestant

Hunter Baker writes some helpful thoughts for Christians, especially protestants, during this economic crisis.  It is important to remember that capitalism and free markets are still inhabited by sinful human beings.

As a budding libertarian, I felt distaste when I saw our InterVarsity chapter leader carrying a Bible study guide on social justice. She was benighted, I thought. To me, it appeared that the race-baiters, welfarists, and union apologists played on her soft heart.When my chemical engineer father complained about management decisions at his corporation that he felt maximized managerial bonuses for short-term results while damaging the ability of the company to compete over the long run, I defensively lectured him about the spectacular built-in intelligence of markets. The right thing would be done, I argued, because doing the right thing is ultimately profitable and efficient.

Several months ago, I heard a story that forced me to give more careful thought to my views on the built-in morality of the market. A large airline on the brink of bankruptcy in 2002 asked employees to make substantial wage concessions. They agreed. The airline returned to profitability, and management acknowledged that it had the workers to thank, but in the subsequent years, instead of restoring the wage concessions, it awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives.

When pressed by reporters, the airline’s spokesman said the bonuses were necessary to retain top managerial talent. Pilots and other airline personnel could not leave because the airlines’ seniority systems would require them to start over at a new company. In effect, the workers could not easily punish the airline for failing to pay them back, so it was in no hurry to do so.

The story jarred me. Somehow, I had never applied my Christian conception of a sinful world to corporate behavior. In hindsight I realize my faith should have cautioned me against too easily deferring to the idea of the sufficiency of the invisible hand to produce justice.

Reading Christians from the past reinforces the idea that the fusion of quasi-libertarian economics with Christian ethics is not always an obvious fit. G.K. Chesterton, for example, was tremendously concerned with the dehumanizing effects of a rapidly advancing free market economy. Catholic social thought has long resisted socialism while still sharply pointing out abuses in market economies. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is an excellent example addressing the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.”

Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, are largely absent when it comes to criticizing unfair labor practices, questionable methods of executive compensation, and other varieties of irresponsible corporate citizenship. My guess is that we tend to stay out of these areas is because we generally accept the idea that the market, left unhindered, will produce good outcomes. (I think the left feels the same way about sex.)

Read the whole thing via FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » Evangelicals and Economics: Reflections of a Conservative Protestant.

Lenten Resources: John Cassian on control of the stomach

While we would ideally be focused on deepening our relationship with God on a continual basis, it is clear that we all have seasons of devotion–sometimes greater, sometimes less. The observance of the Christian year or Church calendar is intended to help us free our devotional lives from bondage to our wills and instead begin to form us in such a way that we are continually moving deeper. Lent is one of the most important times in this process of formation.

It is easy to think of Lent as a time of renunciation (and hopefully, penitence). I say that it is easy, but what I really mean is that it is easy to look at Lent as a time of a certain kind of renunciation. In our culture it has often been seen as a good time to start a new diet; it may well be, but the question is whether that new diet (or the limited renunciation of chocolate) takes hold in any way and helps move us further along the path of discipleship the rest of the year.

The point is that Lent is a particularly good time to make a change, whether it be to renounce some harmful activity or item of enjoyment or to take on a particular discipline of prayer or scripture reading in the hopes of establishing a long-lasting habit. That, in the end, is the practical purpose of Lent–and indeed the whole church calendar in some ways–it helps us become disciples and make concrete changes in our lives.

One such concrete change I hope to work in my own life regards my eating habits. The more I’ve studied the early Christian tradition, the more interested I’ve become in the way the monastic tradition has approached issues of sin and self-restraint. The other day, as part of my Lenten studies I was reading the Philokalia–a collection of writings compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, and most familiar to Eastern Orthodox Christians–and I came across an interesting section from John Cassian, who was himself influential in forming the character of Christianity in the British isles through his sharing of what he’d learned from the monks & hermits of the Egyptian desert. In this particular section, entitled On the Eight Vices, Cassian begins his discussion with food:

On control of the stomach

I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid overeating and the filling of our bellies.  they also found a day’s fast to be more beneficial and a greater help toward purity than one extending over a period of three, four or even seven days.  Someone who fasts for too long, they say, often ends up by eating too much food. The result is that at times the body becomes enervated through undue lack of food and sluggish over its spiritual exercises,  while at other times, weighed down by the mass of food it has eaten, it makes the soul listless and slack.

They also found that the eating of greens or pulse did not agree with everyone, and that not everyone could live on dry bread. One man, they said, could eat two pounds of dried bread and still be hungry, while another might eat a pound, or only six ounces, and be satisfied. As I said, the fathers have handed down a single basic rule of self-control: “do not be deceived by the filling of the belly” (Proverbs 24:15. LXX), or be led astray by the pleasure of the palate. It is not only the variety of foodstuffs that kindles the fiery darts of unchastity, but also their quantity. What ever the kind of food with which it is filled, the belly and genders the seed of profligacy.  It is not only to much wine that besots our mind: too much water or too much of anything makes it drowsy and stupefied. The sodomites were destroyed and not because of too much wine or too much of other foods, but because of a surfeit of bread, as the prophet tells us (cf. Ezekiel 16:49).

Bodily illness is not an obstacle to purity of heart, provided we give the body what its illness requires, not what gratifies our desire for pleasure. Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, and not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire. To eat moderately in reasonably is to keep the body and health, not to deprive it of holiness.

A clear role for self-control handed down by the fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the apostle said, “make no provision to fulfill the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life; he was warning us against self indulgence. Moreover, by it’s self abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul and unless the other virtues are active as well. Humility for example, practiced through obedience to our work and through bodily hardship, is a great help. If we avoid avarice not only by having no money, but also by not wanting to have any, this leads us towards purity of soul. Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation. No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting but also through vigils, labors and spiritual reading, and through concentrating our heart on fear of Gehenna and on longing for the kingdom of heaven.

(The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Compiled By St Nikodimos of The Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Volume One ,p73-74)

Maybe this explains why sexuality is such an issue in the western world–we have full bellies!