Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal 6: "What's Okay with Kansas?"

In my latest reading of The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman interacts with Thomas Frank's 2004 book, What's the Matter with Kansas?  How Conservatives Won the Heart of America?  In that book, Frank argues that many people in Kansas vote Republican against their own economic interests because the Republican Party exploits social and cultural issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, creationism, etc.

I bought Frank's book, and I may still read it before this year is over and I go on to my "Year (or More) of Nixon" in 2013, in which I celebrate the Nixon centennial by reading and blogging through books by and about Richard Nixon.

Krugman disagrees with Frank.  First of all, Krugman believes that we're heading in a direction in which conservative stances on social and cultural issues are not particularly popular.  Krugman in making this point does not focus on Kansas specifically, but he cites polls that indicate that Americans are becoming increasingly tolerant of homosexuality.  Second, Krugman questions the notion that "religious and social issues...have actually led a large number of working-class whites to vote against their economic interests", for "'Values voters' seem to be decisive only in close races" (page 212).  And, third, Krugman looks specifically at Kansas, where, after 2004, prominent Republicans became Democrats in protest of the religious right.  Moreover, Krugman states that "At the time of writing, Kansas has a Democratic governor, and Democrats hold two of its four House seat" (page 212).  (I didn't know it's House was that small!)

Krugman's book is dated to 2008.  In my latest reading, Krugman talked a lot about how a Democratic majority is emerging, as the country becomes less white and more tolerant.  Consequently, Krugman talks about the Democratic victories in 2006, but his book was written before the Republican triumphs in 2010.  Moreover, the current governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, is not only a Republican, but a strongly conservative Republican when it comes to social issues.

Is Krugman's analysis dated, then?  He still may be on to something.  My impression is that many voted Republican in 2010, not out of a firm ideological conviction, but rather because they were disappointed about the economy.  I don't think that most of the electorate is hard-core conservative, and so there may be potential for a Democratic majority.  Or there could even be potential for a Republican majority, only Republicans will have to recognize that the white working-class may not be enough in the near future to carry them to victory on a consistent basis.  Republicans will have to show that their economic policies of less government can benefit minorities, such as Hispanics.  And perhaps even a conservative stance on social issues could help them with many Hispanic voters.  I don't know.  That thought would have to be balanced with the realization that many in America are becoming tolerant.

Unsatisfied Quest: Justice and Mercy

In Exodus 34:6-7, God declares God's character to Moses:

"And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." (KJV)

I one time heard a Presbyterian minister say in a sermon that this passage used to puzzle him.  The passage says that God is merciful and forgiving, but also that God punishes sin.  The minister wondered how God could be both forgiving and punish sin.  His conclusion was that God's mercy and justice were reconciled on the cross, where Jesus was punished for the sins of others, thereby bringing forgiveness to those who receive it.

I've heard this sort of spiel often in evangelical circles.  The thing is, it does not appear to be present in Exodus 34:6-7.  Exodus 34:6-7 does not say that God is forgiving and punishes sin, and so therefore God will forgive people by punishing a single individual in their place.  Rather, the passage says that God is forgiving and God punishes sin, and so therefore God will hold the guilty accountable and punish their children and children's children.

But the minister still raises a good question: How can God be forgiving and yet punish sin?  I can't say that I have an answer that fully satisfies me.  I can say that God forgives those who repent and perhaps make use of other means of atonement, while God punishes those who do not repent, but the text does not explicitly say that.  I can say that God forgives some people but not others----for example, there were people who worshiped the Golden Calf who died in God's wrath, and there were people who worshiped the Calf who survived.  But I'd have a theological problem with God being so arbitrary.  Plus, in sparing some, is not God clearing the guilty, something that God said that God would not do?  Another option is to say that God's forgiveness and justice are mixed somehow: that God forgave Israel by letting her survive as a nation rather than blotting her out for her sin, for example, and yet God disciplined Israel.  But that doesn't sound like full-fledged mercy and forgiveness!

And so I don't know.  But I will say one thing: While there are many people who believe that typical evangelical spiels provide the answer to their quests and their confusion, I do not think that in my own case, which is why I continue to be on a quest.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal 5: How the G.O.P. Became the Daddy Party

It's a common cliche that Republicans are the Daddy-party whereas Democrats are the Mommy-party.  That means that Republicans are believed to be tough towards America's foreign enemies and good at keeping the United States safe, whereas the Democrats are regarded as compassionate because of their support for social programs for the vulnerable.  A belief that the Republicans are the Daddy-party especially helped the G.O.P. soon after 9/11.

How did Republicans come to be known as the Daddy-party, even as Republicans characterized the Democrats as wimpy and soft in their foreign policy?  In my latest reading of The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman tackles that question, but I'll also bring into the discussion things that Krugman said earlier in the book.  According to Krugman, we can see in Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech a conservative view that the U.S. needs to be tough on Communism and that the Democratic foreign policy is weak.  Moreover, Richard Nixon in 1972 defeated George McGovern, and there are many who hold that the "national security advantage" for Republicans goes back to that (page 184).

But Krugman does not buy that, for he argues that Nixon's defeat of McGovern did not radically shape the electorate's view of Democrats as a whole.  Although McGovern lost in 1972, Democrats gained seats in the Senate and "suffered only modest losses in the House" (page 184).  Krugman cites a 1979 poll by the Republican National Committee in which 29 percent of respondents said that Republicans would do better at "maintaining military security" (the poll's words), 28 percent said that the Democrats would, and 21 percent said both.  Moreover, whereas the U.S. military today is regarded as an institution that consists largely of Republicans, that was not always the case, for, in 1976, "a plurality of military leaders identified themselves as independents, while a third identified themselves as Republicans" (page 186).

So what happened?  According to Krugman, there were a variety of factors.  First of all, in the 1980's, when the memories of the horrors of the Vietnam War were not as fresh they were in the 1970's, the sentiment that the U.S. lost the war because of weak civilian leadership gained popularity, as did the image of liberals "disrespecting the troops" (page 185)----an image that Krugman says lacks the support of evidence.  Krugman cites the first Rambo movie in 1982, and the subsequent Rambo movies, as indicators of this trend.  My impression from what Krugman says is that the U.S. in the 1980's was trying to get back its self-esteem after losing the Vietnam War (and yet enough time had passed that Americans had foggy memories about what actually occurred during the War), and so the tough-on-communism stance of conservatives resonated with a number of Americans at that time.

Second, regarding why the military became more Republican, there were different reasons, according to Krugman: military leaders were particularly susceptible to the notion that the U.S. lost Vietnam due to weak civilian leadership, Jimmy Carter was presiding over the "post-Vietnam shrinkage of the military" whereas Ronald Reagan increased government military spending (page 186), and a number of ROTC programs were closing in the northeast even as their number increased in the South, which had become a Republican stronghold.  And Krugman speculates that the military was alienated from the sexual revolution, since the military frowned on permissiveness.

There may be something to Krugman's analysis.  In any case, I do enjoy this book because of this sort of analysis.  Even though a lot of his book contains your typical liberal narratives, there are times when Krugman is quite three-dimensional in his evaluation of history and politics.

Grace and the Written Code

I finished Erwin Goodenough's By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism.  In this post, I'll use as my starting-point what Goodenough says about Philo's thought on page 398:

"True, obedience to the unwritten law in even this sense is a higher act than that to the written, for the former carries with it no statutory penalty, and hence is much more an act of free will on the part of one who obeys it.  Yet that perfect law, the Law of Nature or of God, by which the Patriarchs lived before the giving of the Torah, is also called the Unwritten Law.  So those who live according to the Law are free, while those under the power of the impulses are slaves.  But the Law which really will set us free, he says, is...not a law whose source and sanction is force, or something written on papyrus or slabs of stone...In contrast, we assume, the true law is unwritten, sanctioned by voluntary choice of the man who follows it, for it is an imperishable stamp put upon our immortal minds by immortal nature.  This is the Law which is really release from lower types of law, and the source of spiritual liberty.  By simply omitting the reference to Jesus Christ in Paul's Romans viii, we have all been familiar from childhood with a description of the higher spiritual Law which can set one free from the law of flesh and of sin, a description with which Philo would heartily have agreed."

My last post on Goodenough was about the view that certain passages in the Apostolic Constitutions were originally Hellenistic Jewish and have Christian interpolations.  Goodenough characterized one such passage to be saying that the Mosaic Law was a supplement to the natural law.  Perhaps the passage I quoted from page 398 clarifies what that means: that the natural law is what is morally right, but the Mosaic Law supplements the natural law by imposing penalties for violating it.  

There are many Christians who characterize Paul to be saying that Christians are justified by grace through faith, and nothing they do or don't do can nullify that.  But, in this view, Christians are not slaves to a written code, for a written code does not make people obedient but simply stipulates what is right and wrong and condemns those who do wrong (which is all of us).  But, through Jesus Christ, Christians have a new nature, which is conformed to God's will.  That overlaps with Philo's view, as Goodenough appears to characterize it, only Philo did not believe in Jesus.

Speaking for myself personally, there is an appeal to a New Covenant perspective that focuses on grace, for I believe that I can get further morally and spiritually if I have the confidence that God loves and accepts me.  Moreover, I agree that an external source telling me to do or not to do something does not make me good.  But do I think that this is Paul's perspective?  Yes and no.  My impression is that Paul maintains that the written law, with its stipulations and penalties, is inadequate in making people righteous, and that's why people need grace and the Holy Spirit.  But I wouldn't say that Paul thinks that the penalties for wrongdoing have been removed under the New Covenant, for Paul threatens his audience that those who practice certain sins will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal 4: Why Income Disparity?

In my latest reading of The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman seeks the causes of the vast disparity of wealth in the United States and the stagnation of middle-class income.

Krugman does not think that these things are just a matter of supply and demand.  According to Krugman, some believe that it is.  There is one view that says that technology has rendered a number of manufacturing jobs obsolete, and, when that happens, you have a lot of people competing for the few manufacturing jobs that remain.  When there are only a few manufacturing jobs to go around, and a lot of people want them, then the wages for those jobs either stagnate or go down, since the companies don't have to make the jobs high-paying to attract people to them.    

And then there's another view that blames free trade.  As Krugman states on page 135 in summarizing this view, "We tend to export 'skill-intensive' products like aircraft, supercomputers, and Hollywood movies; we tend to import 'labor-intensive' goods like pants and toys."  The result is that the number of labor-intensive jobs in the U.S. goes down, since the U.S. is importing the labor-intensive products from overseas rather than relying on home production of them.  Meanwhile, because there is foreign demand for the U.S.'s skill-intensive products, the number of skill-intensive jobs goes up.  As Krugman notes, "U.S. trade with Third World countries reduces job opportunities for less-skilled American workers, while increasing demand for more-skilled workers", which "widens the wage gap between the less-skilled and the more-skilled, contributing to increased inequality" (page 135).  Because there is a greater demand for skill-intensive jobs and not labor-intensive jobs in the U.S., the skill-intensive jobs pay much more than the labor-intensive ones.

Krugman acknowledges that these factors contribute to disparity of wealth, but he doesn't think that they sufficiently explain why the disparity is so vast in the United States.  After all, European countries contend with technology and free trade, but income inequality is not as great there as it is in the U.S.  Krugman, therefore, looks for other explanations.

Krugman believes that the decline in unions is highly relevant to the vast income inequality in the U.S.  Krugman says that the Reagan Administration was hostile to unions, and Ronald Reagan's firing of the air-traffic controllers gave a signal for a "broad assault on unions throughout the economy" (page 131).  Unions brought high wages to workers, and they even encouraged non-union companies to offer good wages and benefits because these non-union companies had to compete with the unionized ones for good workers.  When unions declined, middle-class wages stagnated.

Meanwhile, the wages of the upper-income people ballooned.  One reason was that Ronald Reagan as President dramatically rolled back the personal income tax rate and the corporate tax rate.  As Krugman states on page 156, "Both of these measures delivered proportionately large benefits to upper-income households, which paid a much higher income tax rate to start with, and also owned most of the stocks that benefited from lower corporate taxes."  Another reason was that there was a death of outrage over "soaring incomes at the top" (page 145).  In the 1960's-1970's, Krugman narrates, companies did not pay huge salaries to their executives, for they did not want to be perceived as paying their executives a gross amount of money while giving the shaft to their workers; they also thought that such a policy would hurt the company's team-spirit.  But it got to the point where the media was glorifying high-paid executives as super-stars, with the result that companies felt that they had to pay their executives a large amount of money to look good.  And "politicians who might once have led populist denunciations of corporate fat cats sought to flatter the people who provide campaign contributions" (page 145).  Consequently, there was not as much of a disincentive in the 1980's to have a narrow gap between the pay for the executives and the pay for the workers.

Krugman's discussion put a lot of things in perspective, for me.  I'd say that there's truth in his scenario, but also the scenarios that he presents but doesn't entirely embrace.

Sabbath and Law in the Apostolic Constitutions

In my latest reading of By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism, Erwin Goodenough referred to W. Bousset's treatment of the Apostolic Constitutions, as well as interacted with the Apostolic Constitutions himself.  The Apostolic Constitutions was a fourth century Christian document, whose provenance was probably Syria (see here).  The argument of Bousset and Goodenough is that there are parts of the Apostolic Constitutions that were Hellenistic Jewish but that have Christian interpolations.  In this post, I will talk about the Sabbath and the Mosaic law in the Apostolic Constitutions.

1.  Regarding the Sabbath, Goodenough quotes Apostolic Constitutions VII.36.  I found a translation of the Apostolic Constitutions on the New Advent site (see here), and that's what I will be quoting in this post.  According to Bousset, the Hellenistic Jewish part of VII.36 exalts the Sabbath as a time for people to reflect upon creation, God's laws, and God's blessings, as well as to desist from words of anger.  It also refers to God bringing "our fathers" out of Egypt.  But a later Christian hand inserted stuff that says that God created the world by Christ and that affirms that the Lord's Day is superior to the Sabbath. 

Armstrongite scholar Bob Thiel, in his article here, refers to other parts of the Apostolic Constitutions that mention the Sabbath.  I will post those parts here and comment on them.

One passage is Apostolic Constitutions VII.23, which states:

"But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second and fifth days of the week. But do you either fast the entire five days, or on the fourth day of the week, and on the day of the Preparation, because on the fourth day the condemnation went out against the Lord, Judas then promising to betray Him for money; and you must fast on the day of the Preparation, because on that day the Lord suffered the death of the cross under Pontius Pilate. But keep the Sabbath, and the Lord's day festival; because the former is the memorial of the creation, and the latter of the resurrection. But there is one only Sabbath to be observed by you in the whole year, which is that of our Lord's burial, on which men ought to keep a fast, but not a festival. For inasmuch as the Creator was then under the earth, the sorrow for Him is more forcible than the joy for the creation; for the Creator is more honourable by nature and dignity than His own creatures."

This passage exhorts Christians to observe the Sabbath and the Lord's Day, and I do not think that it is a Hellenistic Jewish passage that has Christian interpolations.  The passage with which Bousset interacts, Apostolic Constitutions VII.36, looks like a Jewish document with blocks of Christian material inserted into it----you can actually separate out the Christian parts, and it would make sense as a Jewish document.  But Apostolic Constitutions VII.23 looks Christian from beginning to end.  At the same time, there does appear to be tension within Apostolic Constitutions VII.23, and I wonder if that could be due to different Christian hands behind the passage.  Apostolic Constitutions VII.23 tells Christians to observe the Sabbath as a memorial of creation, then it says that Christians should only observe one Sabbath in the entire year----the fast that commemorates Jesus' burial.

The other passage that Thiel cites is Apostolic Constitutions VIII.33:

"I Peter and Paul do make the following constitutions. Let the slaves work five days; but on the Sabbath day and the Lord's day let them have leisure to go to church for instruction in piety. We have said that the Sabbath is on account of the creation, and the Lord's day of the resurrection. Let slaves rest from their work all the great week, and that which follows it— for the one in memory of the passion, and the other of the resurrection; and there is need they should be instructed who it is that suffered and rose again, and who it is permitted Him to suffer, and raised Him again. Let them have rest from their work on the Ascension, because it was the conclusion of the dispensation by Christ. Let them rest at Pentecost, because of the coming of the Holy Spirit, which was given to those that believed in Christ. Let them rest on the festival of His birth, because on it the unexpected favour was granted to men, that Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, should be born of the Virgin Mary, for the salvation of the world. Let them rest on the festival of Epiphany, because on it a manifestation took place of the divinity of Christ, for the Father bore testimony to Him at the baptism; and the Paraclete, in the form of a dove, pointed out to the bystanders Him to whom testimony was borne. Let them rest on the days of the apostles: for they were appointed your teachers to bring you to Christ, and made you worthy of the Spirit. Let them rest on the day of the first martyr Stephen, and of the other holy martyrs who preferred Christ to their own life."

This passage also appears to be Christian from beginning to end.  It says that slaves should rest on the Sabbath as a day to commemorate creation and Christ's passion, as well as on other days (i.e., the Lord's Day, the Ascension, Pentecost, and Epiphany).

2.  Regarding the Mosaic law, Goodenough refers to Apostolic Constitutions VIII.12.6-27.  According to Goodenough (and perhaps Bousset), the Jewish Hellenistic part is saying that God gave the natural law to the patriarchs, and that was sufficient for them, but God later gave the Mosaic law to ordinary people , as a supplement to the natural law, and this, along with Israel's possession of the Promised Land, seems to have solved the problems of creation.  Goodenough states that a Christian hymn or prayer regards the law as inadequate, which was why Christ had to come, and yet he notes that there is no heavy-handed Christian interpolation in VIII.12.6-27, which has a couple of "through Christ"s, and affirms that the logos whom Abraham saw was Jesus.

I'm curious as to the audience of the Apostolic Constitutions.  Syria, the document's provenance, has been believed by many scholars to have been the provenance of the Gospel of Matthew, which is deemed a Jewish-Christian Gospel.  Even John Meier, who believes that a Gentile wrote Matthew, holds that the Gospel of Matthew comes from a church that was Jewish-Christian in its early days and retained Jewish-Christian traditions (see here).  Could that be why the Apostolic Constitutions is open to Jewish customs?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Scattered Ramblings on Riches (Spiritual and Material)

At church this morning, we sang the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing".  To read the lyrics and listen to the song, click here.  Above the title of the hymn in our hymn-book was a quotation of the first half of Proverbs 10:22, which states (in the King James Version): "The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich". 

The hymn focuses on what could be called spiritual riches: God's mercy and love, joy within us that leads us to sing, going home (which presumably means going to heaven after we die), and our wandering hearts being bound to God.  And in the sermon, the pastor said that many seek money and power, but Jesus wants for us to have spiritual riches, such as joy.

One can identify other spiritual riches----such as love and giving to others.  One can be spiritually rich and materially poor.  I think of that episode of Little House on the Prairie, "The Richest Man in Walnut Grove".  Click here to watch it.  While the Ingalls family did not have much money, they pulled together in tough financial times, chipping in, saving, and giving whatever they could.  Mr. Olsen, the well-to-do local businessman, thought that Charles Ingalls was the richest man in Walnut Grove on account of that, whereas Mr. Olsen looked at his own family and noticed that it did not pull together that much because its financial situation was usually quite good.

There is a lot in the Bible about riches.  I just mentioned Proverbs 10:22!  The Bible presents people getting rich as a good thing.  But the question that many have is, "What kind of riches?"  There are some who look at those passages about getting rich and interpret that as spiritual riches.  But then there are advocates of the prosperity Gospel who maintain that the Bible promises the faithful material riches, as well, if they do the right thing.

I'd say that the Bible talks about spiritual and material prosperity.  A significant part of God's covenant with Israel was that God would prosper Israel with crops and international renown if she obeyed his commandments (see, for example, Deuteronomy 8:11-18).  In the Book of Proverbs, being rich often means material prosperity (see here).  God blessed Job with flocks and herds.  In the New Testament, however, there is a notion that one can have lots of material wealth yet be poor before God (Luke 12:21).

At Bible study earlier this week, we were discussing this issue.  In Mark 10:29-30, we read: "And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life."  Advocates of the prosperity Gospel can point to this passage and say that God will bless Christians with material possessions in the here-and-now, not just in the afterlife.  But critics of the prosperity Gospel don't take the passage that literally.  In a sense, when we join the church, we become part of a family.  And perhaps, because Christians share their possessions with one another (think Acts 2), believers do gain land and houses, not so much in terms of personal ownership, but rather because believers can benefit from the possessions of other believers.  But things don't necessarily work that way in today's church, which has less of a family-like atmosphere than what we see in Acts 2.

Does God bless people materially today?  II Corinthians 9:11 seems to say that God will bless believers with enough that they can be generous to others.  But there may come times when believers lack.  In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul says that he is content in whatever state he is in (even times of hunger and need), for Paul can do all things through Christ, who strengthens him.

Critics of the prosperity Gospel can say that there are plenty of people who are poor, so should we assume that God is cursing their lives or is withholding blessing?  But I think that one can make a similar argument about spiritual riches: there are Christians with chronic depression and feelings of hopelessness.  Should we assume that God is withholding God's blessing from them?  That doesn't make God out to be all that nice, does it?  One would think that faith could give everybody some base of hope, but there are Christians who still struggle with despair.

In terms of what I would like, I would like to have enough for myself and to help others, a la II Corinthians 9:11.  And times when I lack can make me sensitive to the need to help others.  But I wouldn't consider poverty to be a blessing.

Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal 3

In my latest reading of The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman continues his narrative about movement conservatism.  It's not like a lot of left-leaning narratives about conservatism that I've encountered----the types that romanticize William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater and view them as more reasonable than today's tea party.  No, Krugman is quite critical of Buckley and Goldwater!  According to Krugman, Buckley wrote in convoluted sentences, and his National Review championed Francisco Franco and white suppression of African-American voting in the U.S. south during the late 1950's.  And Goldwater defended Joe McCarthy and earnestly searched for corruption in Walter Ruether's union, even though Ruether was so squeaky-clean that he "paid his own dry-cleaning bills when traveling on union business" (page 114).

On a couple of occasions, Krugman tries to see where conservatives were coming from.  He notes, for example, that many conservatives during the 1960's were from the ranks of medium-sized business-owners, for these were the types of businesspeople who especially resented union demands----probably because the demands were costlier for them than they were for big businesses (that's just my hunch).  

I'd like to highlight something that Krugman says on pages 122-123, regarding foreign policy:
"In retrospect the hand-wringing over Communist advances looks ludicrous; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in particular, turned out to be the beginning of communism's collapse.  The Islamic revolution in Iran was a real setback, but it's hard to see how an aggressive foreign policy could have done anything except worsen the situation."  Earlier, on page 107, Krugman states: "...in the end, the strategy of containment----of refraining from any direct attempt to overthrow Communist regimes by force, fighting only defensive wars, and combating Soviet influence with aid and diplomacy----was completely successful: World War III never happened, and the United States won the Cold War decisively."

Is a hard-line foreign policy the best approach?  When I was a child and a teenager, the books that I read were largely right-wing, and they criticized U.S. leaders for not having a tough stance against the Soviet Union.  These leaders sought to contain Communism rather than defeat it, I read.  In some cases, the authors of these right-wing books advocated a non-military way to get rid of Communism: simply cut off aid to Communist countries, then they would shrivel up!  In other cases, the authors were clearly open to the U.S. being aggressive militarily.  They supported General Douglas MacArthur's attempt to expand the Korean War into China, for example.  And then there were times when I was unclear as to what exactly these authors thought the U.S. should have done.  Our failure in the 1950's to stop the brutal Soviet suppression of freedom movements in Eastern Europe was cited as an example of us being soft on Communism, but what exactly did these right-wing authors think we should have done?  Gone to war with the Soviet Union?

I'm not the sort of person who thinks that we should go to war over everything in the world that is problematic.  War is costly, in terms of lives and money, and so it should be the last rather than the first solution that we consider.  I'm also not the sort of person who is intent on provoking our enemies.  I'm not in favor of us being wimps, but there's little point to going around making people angrier at us than they already are.  Consequently, I can somewhat see Krugman's points.

At the same time, unlike Krugman, I'm hesitant to regard our Cold War policy prior to Reagan as any sort of success.  I agree with Ann Coulter's point in Treason that Communism was expanding throughout the world, until Reagan came along.  But I don't see Reagan as a belligerent President in his stance towards Communism.  He didn't send American troops to beat up on the Communists, for example, but he supported anti-Communist forces in Communist countries.  And, as Pat Buchanan once said, Reagan did not say "Mr. Gorbachev, I will tear down this wall", but rather "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."  There were downsides to Reagan's policies, however----some of the anti-Communist forces whom we supported could probably be classified as terrorist in their methods, in that they wrecked havoc and killed innocent people.

In terms of how our foreign policy should be today, I'm not a neo-con who supports the broad use of American force to eradicate radical Islam.  I'm more in favor of us cultivating relationships with moderate Muslims, and also seeking to eliminate some of the problems that get radical Muslims a following.  I think of poverty, and things that we have done that have been insensitive towards the Muslim religion.  I'm not saying that we should combat poverty only by being a welfare state to the world, or that we should suppress the rights of people in America to criticize Islam.  But we should do something to help countries to have a higher standard of living, and we should think before we (say) put U.S. military bases on Saudi soil.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal 2

In my latest reading of The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman tells a typical left-wing narrative, and yet he also diverges from it, in areas.  Where Krugman echoed the typical left-wing narrative was in his argument that a number of Republicans succeeded in the late 1960's-1970's through exploiting the race issue.  Ronald Reagan when he ran for Governor of California in 1966 was an opponent of a fair housing law.  And Reagan's attacks on welfare----when the Aid to Families to Dependent Children was only a small part of the government's budget----won racist voters, even if Reagan did not explicitly mention race.

At the same time, Krugman acknowledges nuance.  He notes that President Richard Nixon had progressive policies.  He acknowledges that crime was a real problem in the late 1960's-1970's, whereas a number of liberals maintain that Republican appeals to "law and order" at that time were racist.  He argues that the Democratic Party's coalition included the South for some time after the New Deal, since southern states benefited from government programs, and that the Republicans for some time were the progressive party when it came to race.  At one point, Krugman says that Harry Truman was progressive on race for a political reason----because he thought that he could benefit from urban African-American votes in 1948----whereas Bruce Bartlett in Wrong on Race contends that Truman was principled because he stood for African-Americans even when it hurt him politically (see here).

I thought that Krugman's discussion of crime was noteworthy.  According to Krugman, the reason that there was a high crime rate in the inner-cities was the lack of manufacturing jobs there, as these jobs moved to the suburbs.  But Krugman notes that crime came down during the 1990's, when more cops were put on the street.  During the 1960's-1970's, were there attempts to bring jobs to the inner-cities?  Krugman says that the increase in crime during that time shocked a number of liberals because they did not expect for crime to rise after their social justice policies were put into effect.  Maybe there were efforts to revive the inner-city at that time, but they were poorly administered.  As I discussed in this post, one reason that Richard Cheney became a conservative was that need-based assistance to poor areas lined the pockets of local politicians.  But could the enterprise-zones that Bill Clinton supported in the 1990's have contributed somehow to the decline in crime during that decade, by bringing jobs to the inner-cities?

Psalm 100

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 100, focusing primarily on v 3.

The King James Version for Psalm 100:3 states: "Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture."

The New Revised Standard Version, however, understands the verse differently: "Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture."

The KJV says that the LORD made us and not we ourselves (which means that we did not make ourselves but were created by God).  The NRSV, by contrast, says that the LORD made us and we are his.

Why the difference?  In the Masoretic Text, the meaning that the KJV prefers is the ketiv, which means what is written in the text.  The meaning that the NRSV goes with, however, is the qere, which is what is read aloud (presumably in a synagogue).

Here's my literal, overly wooden rendition of these verses, in the ketiv and the qere.  I'll embolden where the words are different in the two versions.

KETIV: Know that the LORD, he [is] God.  He made us and not we.  His people and the sheep of his pasture.

QERE:  Know that the LORD, he [is] God.  He made us and to him we.  His people and the sheep of his pasture.

The words in both versions are ve-lo, only they are spelled differently.  The ketiv spells lo as lamed-aleph, which means "not" with the long-o vowelization.  The qere has lamed-vav, which means "to him" with the long-o vowelization.

Marvin Tate argues that lamed-vav or lamed-aleph could be understood as emphatic, as Tate interacts with an article by C.F. Whitley: "Some Remarks on lu and lo", which appeared in ZAW 87 (1975) 202-204.  Tate translates the verse (and I embolden the relevant words): "Acknowledge that Yahweh, he is God.  He made us, and we are indeed his people, and the flock he shepherds."  Here are some ways that the word can be emphatic, according to Tate:

1.  If the word is lamed-vav, then it could be vowelized as "lu", which, according to Tate, can mean "indeed/verily".  Tate cites some verses, and I will post them in the KJV, while emboldening the relevant words.

Genesis 23:13 (KJV): "And he spake unto Ephron in the audience of the people of the land, saying, But if thou wilt give it, I pray thee, hear me: I will give thee money for the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there."

Genesis 30:34 (KJV):  "And Laban said, Behold, I would it might be according to thy word."

2.  If the word is lamed-aleph, then it could be vocalized as "lu".  Here are some passages that Tate cites, with the relevant words emboldened:

II Samuel 18:12 (KJV): "And the man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king's son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom."

II Samuel 19:7 (KJV): "In that thou lovest thine enemies, and hatest thy friends. For thou hast declared this day, that thou regardest neither princes nor servants: for this day I perceive, that if Absalom had lived, and all we had died this day, then it had pleased thee well."

For two other verses that Tate cites, I'll post C.L. Brenton's translation of the Septuagint, for, in its translation of these verses, the Septuagint understands as "lu" what the MT has as "lo" ("not").

Job 9:33 (Brenton's LXX): "Would that he our mediator were present, and a reprover, and one who should hear the cause between both."  (The KJV has: "Neither is there any daysman betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both.")

I Samuel 20:14 (Brenton's LXX): "And if indeed I continue to live, then shalt thou deal mercifully with me; and if I indeed die..."  (The KJV has: "And thou shalt not only while yet I live shew me the kindness of the LORD, that I die not...")

3.  Even if the word is lamed-aleph and is pronounced as "lo", Whitley believes that it can be emphatic.  Here are some verses.  I will cite the KJV and other versions, when appropriate.

II Kings 5:26 (KJV): "And he said unto him, Went not mine heart with thee, when the man turned again from his chariot to meet thee? Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants?"

Hosea 2:4 (KJV):  "And I will not have mercy upon her children; for they be the children of whoredoms."

Job 13:15 is another example of the ketiv being different from the qere.  The ketiv is lo as in "not", and the qere is lo as in "to him".  The KJV appears to go with the qere: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him."  The NRSV goes with the ketiv: "See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face."  The LXX, however, appears to go see the word as conditional.  Here's Brenton: "Though the Mighty One should lay hand upon me, forasmuch as he has begun, verily I will speak, and plead before him."

Isaiah 9:3 is yet another example of the ketiv differing from the qere.  The KJV goes with the ketiv: "Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil."  The NRSV goes with the qere: "You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy [(lit. joy to it); they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder."  The KJV doesn't make much sense, for the point of the verse appears to be that the people are joyful, not that they're not joyful.  Perhaps the qere is the right reading, or Tate is correct that lo is emphatic rather than negative in that verse.

4.  Whitley cites examples of what Tate calls the "interrogative-affirmative meanings" of lo (lamed-aleph).
Obadiah 5 (KJV): " If thieves came to thee, if robbers by night, (how art thou cut off!) would they not have stolen till they had enough? if the grapegatherers came to thee, would they not leave some grapes?"

Jeremiah 49:9 (KJV): "If grapegatherers come to thee, would they not leave some gleaning grapes? if thieves by night, they will destroy till they have enough."

Job 2:10 (KJV): " But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips."

Ezekiel 16:43.  The KJV has: "Because thou hast not remembered the days of thy youth, but hast fretted me in all these things; behold, therefore I also will recompense thy way upon thine head, saith the Lord GOD: and thou shalt not commit this lewdness above all thine abominations."  But Brenton's Septuagint has: "Because thou didst not remember thine infancy, and thou didst grieve me in all these things; therefore, behold, I have recompensed thy ways upon thine head, saith the Lord: for thus hast thou wrought ungodliness above all thine other iniquities."  The LXX obviously doesn't regard the lo as "not" in that verse, but rather as consequential, or perhaps even as emphatic.

So what is my assessment when it comes to Psalm 100:3?  Do I think that the word in question is emphatic?  In many of the examples above, the word we're discussing appears in requests, conditions, wishes, or questions.  I do not think that Psalm 100:3 is any of those things.  At the same time, regarding Ezekiel 16:43, the LXX may be treating lo as consequential or as emphatic.  A consequential meaning of lo might work in Psalm 100:3: "He made us and thus we [are] his people and the sheep of his pasture."

Tate brings up other considerations as well.  First of all, he notes that the phrase in Psalm 100:3 is similar to what appears in Psalm 79:13 and 95:7, only the latter two verses lack the lo (or, if you wish, the lu).  Here they are, and I'll embolden the part that is similar:

Psalm 79:13 (KJV): "So we thy people and sheep of thy pasture will give thee thanks for ever: we will shew forth thy praise to all generations."

Psalm 95:7 (KJV):  "For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice..."

It's interesting that, in these two passages, the word for "we" (Hebrew anachnu) goes with the clause about being God's people and the sheep of his pasture.  Perhaps that is the case in Psalm 100:3 itself.  After all, when anachnu is associated with the previous clause----as either "and not we ourselves" or "we to him"----the last clause is basically left hanging: "his people and the sheep of his pasture."  It would make more sense if the anachnu went with "his people and the sheep of his pasture" (making it, in this case, "we [are] his people and the sheep of his pasture"), as occurs in Psalm 79:13 and 95:7.  Then what would we do with the lo?  If we detach the anachnu from the lo, is the lo left hanging?  Yes, if the lo means "to him" or "not", for we're then left wondering who or what is "to him" or who or what is "not".  But this is not a problem if the lo is emphatic (as in "indeed"), or even consequential (as in "thus").

Second, Tate has problems with the ketiv and the qere for Psalm 100:3.  While Tate acknowledges that there is an example in the Hebrew Bible in which someone arrogantly claims to have created himself----Ezekiel 29:3, where the Pharaoh makes this assertion----Tate does not believe that self-creation really fits into Psalm 100:3, for it is not a theme elsewhere in Psalm 100.  Regarding the qere, Tate states: "The reading of the qere 'and we are his' is acceptable, of course, but it is somewhat tautological in view of the following clause ('his people, his flock, his shepherding')..."  By "tautological", Tate may mean its rhetorical meaning----"using different words to say the same thing" (see here).  His point may be that Psalm 100:3 would not be so redundant as to say over and over that we belong to God.  My question is: Why not?  Perhaps it would say that we are his, before clarifying how we are his----we are his people and his flock.

I should note something else before I close.  The Septuagint and Jerome (at least when I put his rendition of the verse into a Latin to English translator) understand Psalm 100:3 to mean that God made us and not we ourselves.  Augustine goes with this as well, saying that it's arrogant for people to act as if they made themselves and were not created by another, namely, God.  The Targum of the Psalms, however, understands the verse to be saying that God made us and we are his.  I do not know when the latter understanding came to be: it's interesting that Jerome went with what the ketiv has, and he had a rather Hebrew-centric approach to the Hebrew Bible.  Did Judaism initially understand the verse to mean that God made us and not we ourselves, and only later went with the view that it's about God making us and we belong to him?  Whatever happened there, it may even be the case that, originally, the lo was emphatic in Psalm 100:3, but it was later understood as "not" or "to him".

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Controversial Issue, and the Rich Young Ruler

My church had its Bible study last night.  I have two items.

1.  The church that I attend is a Presbyterian Church (USA).  The issue of homosexuality has been contentious within this denomination, which has allowed openly gay clergy, while not permitting PC(USA) churches to perform homosexual marriages.  For some time, I've wondered where my church stands on this, since I rarely if ever hear the topic come up.  But it did come up in conversation last night, right before we began the Bible study.

Someone said that church membership in PC(USA) is declining by 1.5 percent every year, and he attributed that to the gay issue, since people are leaving out of dissatisfaction with the church allowing the ordination of gay clergy.  One guy said that the church should not focus on this issue but rather on preaching the Gospel and serving people.  Someone else said that people who believe in the biblical standard on this issue should stay within the denomination, and he noted that there were problems when churches left the denomination, such as property disputes.  One lady did not care for the denomination forcing a policy on its churches, when that policy may be against the churches' consciences.  At the same time, there was talk about open communion (but I'm not sure if we were still on the topic of homosexuality or had moved on to another subject).  So I guess that my impression (at least right now) is that my church (or, rather, prominent people in it) tries to be inclusive in terms of who can attend and participate in worship, and yet it regards homosexual conduct as a sin.

I'm not overly surprised, since my church does tend to use evangelical materials in its Bible studies.  I wouldn't leave the church over this, for it is a warm community, and I feel spiritually and intellectually edified whenever I attend it.  If I'm ever asked at church about my stance, I'd probably respond that I struggle with where I stand on this issue, since I think that it's unfair to require people who have an orientation that they did not ask for to be celibate for the rest of their natural lives, and yet the Bible does appear to me to be critical of homosexual conduct.  But I wouldn't be boldly proclaiming my stance.  To be honest, I really don't think that the issue will come up that often, or (for that matter) that I'll be asked for my opinion on it.

My Mom asked me how I would approach the issue if I were a pastor, and, to be honest, I don't know.  Most likely, I'd not mention the subject and focus on the positive themes of Christianity, such as God's unconditional love, forgiveness, helping others, etc.  But suppose I were to counsel a person who is struggling with homosexuality?  I'd be really, really hesitant to promote reparative therapy to him, or to tell him to pray the gay away, or to say to him that he must be celibate for the rest of his life, for I've heard stories about how this approach is damaging.  But, if I as a pastor of a fairly conservative church were to tell him that it's acceptable for him to have a same-sex partner, and word got out, I'd get into trouble.

2.  We talked about the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler, in which Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus.  It was an excellent discussion.  We got into whether Jesus' instruction was for the rich young man alone or for all Christians.  One person said that the rich young ruler was idolatrous with regards to his riches and Jesus wanted to break him away from that, and this would imply that Jesus' command was for the rich young ruler alone.  But people in the group were hesitant to say that, for there were indications that others left everything to follow Jesus, as well, such as the disciples.  Moreover, one guy said that you can't take your wealth with you, so why be so attached to it?  (I'd agree if I were rich, but, as a struggling student, I try to save every penny I can!)  That seems to imply that it's a more general principle.  But I don't think that Jesus required everyone to sell everything they owned.  Zacchaeus, after all, said to Jesus that he would give away a significant amount of his money, but he didn't say that he'd give everything he owned away, and Jesus said that salvation came to Zacchaeus' house.  I think that there's a general principle that we should be generous, but there may be some flexibility in terms of how we can apply that. 

Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal 1

I started Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal.

According to Krugman, prior to the New Deal, particularly during the period after the Civil War through the 1920's, the United States had a significant amount of income inequality.  Granted, Krugman states on pages 19-20 that "Urban workers, in particular, saw a vast improvement in the quality of life over the course of the Long Gilded Age, as diets and health improved, indoor plumbing and electricity became standard even in tenements, and the emergence of urban mass transit systems enlarged personal horizons."  But Krugman also says on page 43 that most Americans in the 1920's lacked indoor plumbing, washing machines, private automobiles, and private telephones.

For Krugman, the government at that time was not part of the solution.  Taxes on the rich during the 1920's were not that high.  The government tended to side with management over unions.  And there was hardly any social safety net.  Moreover, Krugman narrates, it was hard to change that sort of set-up through the political process.  The Republicans from the post-Civil War days on largely sided with Big Business, which funded their campaigns.  About the only Democrats who could get anywhere politically were the Bourbon Democrats, who supported less government.  Elections were bought.  Any attempt to redistribute wealth or to set limits on businesses was labelled socialistic, in a time when Americans were especially afraid of Communism (but Krugman acknowledges that some states took steps to limit the excesses of businesses, as when they established worker's compensation and age-old pension systems, and yet some of these laws were struck down by courts).  Meanwhile, populists failed to create a broad coalition.  William Jennings Bryan, for example, focused his attention on farmers in his support for free-silver, which would lessen their debts.  And it was difficult to unite various immigrants, white farmers and workers, and African-Americans into a reform movement.

But things changed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Krugman contends.  For the first time since Woodrow Wilson, the government now was on the side of unions.  Taxes went up on the rich.  The government for a time controlled wages and prices, and it used that power to elevate the wages of people who weren't paid that much.  There was Social Security, unemployment insurance, and farm programs.  According to Krugman, the reason that American society did not revert back to gross inequality after World War II was that Dwight Eisenhower chose to retain prominent elements of the New Deal.  And the result was not economic stagnation, which many conservatives warn would be the result of unions and high taxes on the rich.  Rather, the U.S. thrived economically.

Krugman seems to think that we can go back to that.  Can we really turn back time, though?  Krugman admits that there wasn't much foreign competition during the 1950's.  Well, there's a whole lot of it today!  And unions and taxes would arguably make us less competitive.  Would Krugman support protectionism to lessen that problem?

They Got Their Ideas from Us

In my latest reading of Erwin Goodenough's By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism, Goodenough talks about a view among Jews and Christians that pagans got some of their ideas from figures in the Hebrew Bible.

On page 292, Goodenough states, "Moses the great miracle worker is thus in the Second Century B.C. specifically identified with Hermes, Musaeus, Orpheus, and given all the most recognizable and familiar functions of Isis and Osiris as well."

On the previous page, Goodenough discusses the work of Artapanus of Alexandria, a Jew in the second century B.C.E.  Artpapanus said that the Greeks called Moses "Musaeus", whom Plato said was a prophet and who was believed to have been the father of priestly hymns.  According to Artapanus, Musaeus taught Orpheus, who was thought to be the father of Greek culture.  (As you can see in wikipedia's article on Musaeus of Athens, however, there was a difference of opinion in the ancient world about what Musaeus' relationship with Orpheus was----if Musaeus was Orpheus' son, teacher, or student.)

Artapanus also associated Moses with Hermes, whom the Egyptians equated with Thoth, the wisdom god and the inventor of writing.  This was because Moses taught the Egyptian priests hieroglyphics, Artapanus contends.  Artapanus also maintained that Moses was the inspiration for the Egyptian deities Isis---the inventor of sailing and a lawgiver----and Osiris----who "gave the Egyptians their laws and taught them the worship of the gods" (Goodenough on page 291).  According to Artapanus, Moses also inspired the Egyptians to adopt circumcision.

I would have to read Artapanus (who appears to be present in one of Eusebius' works) to see when he believed that Moses did all of this.  Was it when Moses was a prince in Egypt, or did it also include the time when Moses was trying to deliver the Israelites, and thereafter (i.e., Sinai)?

On page 294, Goodenough refers to a widespread early Christian view that the Greco-Egyptian god Sarapis was the biblical Joseph because Joseph gave the Egyptians grain during the famine.

I'm intrigued by the notion that the gods of the pagans were real human beings who came to be exaggerated into deities.  Why did certain Jews and Christians attribute elements of pagan religion to biblical figures?  A lot of it was a matter of national pride----to assure the Jews or those who adopted the Jews' heritage (the Christians), who were attacked by pagans, that aspects of pagan thought actually came from the Israelites, or ancestors of the Israelites (such as Abraham).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Debate That Included a Green

I recently watched the congressional debate for New York's twenty-fourth district, which included Republican Ann Marie Buerkle, Democrat Dan Maffei, and Green Party candidate Ursula Rozum.

To be honest, I'm a little confused about the districts.  My online searches indicate that the debate that I just watched was for the twenty-fourth district, but, according to this, Ann Marie Buerkle represents the twenty-fifth district, whereas moderate Republican Richard Hanna represents the twenty-fourth.  Richard Hanna is running against Democrat Dan Lamb, and that's the race in which I will be voting (albeit, for whom, I'm currently undecided).  There must have been some redistricting!

So why did I watch this debate?  Because I thought that it was awesome that the Green Party was represented in it.  And, not only that, but Ursula Rozum has appeared with the other two candidates (and, sometimes, only Buerkle) in other forums.  I'll post this link to a debate that she had with Buerkle, both for your edification and also so that I can watch it later.
  
Why has Rozum been included in these forums and debates?  To be honest, I don't know.  Is it because she has a significant amount of support?  Has she made more of an effort than most third party candidates make to get her name out?  Or are people just interested in having a more diverse panel?  When I went to DePauw University in Indiana, I saw a televised debate for the local congressional race there, and it included the Democrat, the Republican, and also the Libertarian.  I doubt that the Libertarian had a lot of support, but perhaps she was included simply because she was a candidate.

Whatever the reason that Rozum has been included, I'm glad that she is being included.  She's certainly intelligent when it comes to policy, I can tell you that!  Or at least she's able to defend her positions.  In the debate that I watched, she came back with statistics supporting clean energy when Buerkle was presenting statistics against relying on it.  And Rozum in the debate not only criticized right-wing policies, but also Obama's stimulus, contending that it's not creating permanent jobs and that it's tax-breaks for corporations are not stimulating the economy.

Moreover, when Bill Clinton visited the district to show support for Maffei, Rozum said that Clinton was "a conservative corporate-financed New Democrat" (see here).

You can probably tell that this race is significant, if Bill Clinton is visiting the district.  Not only that, but Sandra Fluke came to the district to stump for Maffei (see here), on account of Buerkle's stances on reproductive issues.

As far as I can see, the race is particularly nasty between Maffei and Buerkle, for I've seen negative ads on both sides, and, during the debate that I watched, the two were critical of each other.  Some may fear that Rozum will take votes away from Maffei, leading Buerkle to victory.  That's a legitimate concern.  But I'm still glad that Rozum is in the race and is criticizing Republicans and Democrats, while also supporting a single-payer health care system.  If I were voting in this race, it would probably be for Rozum.

Bruce Bartlett's The New American Economy 7: Europe, and Concluding Thoughts

I finished Bruce Bartlett's The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward.

In my latest reading, Bartlett continued to promote the Value Added Tax (VAT) as a way for the federal government to raise revenue and thereby offset the problem of ballooning entitlements.  I especially appreciated what Bartlett said on pages 183-184 about Europe.

First of all, Bartlett says that European countries have higher tax/GDP rations than what the U.S. has, and yet they have not suffered significantly.  Rather, the standard of living in European countries is not that much lower than what exists in the U.S.  Bartlett also notes that countries in Europe have a VAT and higher taxes on gasoline and alcohol, and these taxes bring in a significant amount of revenue.  At the same time, Bartlett says that "European countries also generally tax capital more lightly than the United States does" (page 184)----and Bartlett's observation here may correspond to a point that he makes earlier in the book: that mainstream economics has incorporated the insights of supply-side economics.  Bartlett cited countries' reduction in individual and corporate taxes as evidence for this phenomenon.  From what Bartlett says, I gather that Europe is a place that has a solid safety net, and yet it has welcomed the parts of supply-side economics that can be conducive to economic growth.  I like that sort of ideological openness and flexibility. 

Second, Bartlett denies that government spending on benefits leads to a "creeping totalitarianism" (page 183).  A number of conservatives and libertarians aver that it does, but we don't see that sort of totalitarianism in Europe, with its generous welfare states.  By contrast, Bartlett states, "Many of the world's most oppressive states, especially in Africa, have very small governments based on taxes and spending as a share of GDP" (page 183).

Third, Bartlett explains why big government in Europe has not been deleterious to society.  People get back their tax money in the form of benefits, so, unlike many in America, many Europeans don't feel as if their tax dollars are going down a "rat hole", for they get their money's worth (page 184).  Moreover, Bartlett states that "government spending in Europe tends to be more growth-enhancing than spending in the United States" (pages 183-184).

I thought that those were valuable points to note.  Now, onto my general assessment of the book.  I got a lot out of the book, even though there were plenty of times when I was not following what Bartlett was saying.  I think that those who are better versed in economics, however, may get more out of those parts----for Bartlett details the economic mistakes that were made in the past, yet he also explains what the rationales behind those mistakes were.  I just wish that he broke things down into easier chunks, at times.

Another problem that I had: I was going into this book expecting a critique of Reaganomics.  The title, after all, says that Reaganomics was a failure.  But, after reading this book, I'm unclear as to how Bartlett regards it as a failure.  He still appears to agree with many of its insights----that there are tax cuts that result in growth.  When he criticizes Republicans, he contends that they are not entirely faithful to what the supply-siders themselves said----that Republicans support tax cuts that even supply-siders did not think would generate growth, and that George W. Bush diverged from supply-side, in key areas.  So I don't see how supply-side failed, in Bartlett's opinion, at least in reading this book.  Bartlett did note that even certain supply-siders are saying that a tax increase may be inevitable due to entitlements, and that may call into question the notion that tax cuts are the end-all-be-all when it comes to fixing the economy.  And yet, even here, Bartlett appears to assume supply-side principles: he prefers a VAT to higher taxes that could discourage investment, which implies that (like supply-siders) he does believe that certain taxes have ill economic effects.

I once read Bartlett say elsewhere that tax cuts would not be as stimulative now as they were in the 1980s because, early in the 1980s, the initial top income tax rate was really high, and so Reagan's dramatic tax cuts had quite an impact.  But, now, the income tax rate is not that high, and so a tax cut would not be overly stimulative.  I wish I saw more of this sort of insight in Bartlett's book.

Overall, though, I'm glad that I read this book.  It detailed the rise and fall of Keynesianism----and why it rose and fell.  I found that to be helpful.  I also enjoyed the book's narrative of how prominent figures in American history, such as Woodrow Wilson, heralded supply-side principles (i.e., that there can come a point where taxes are so high that they actually decrease revenue) before supply-siders articulated them.  This book also taught me some economic insights that I did not know before----that inflation can lead to high interest rates, for example.

Grace and Philo

I have two items for my write-up today on Erwin Goodenough's By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism.

1.  On pages 131-132, Goodenough says the following about Philo's view of Noah:

"Noah...would appear to be the man who achieved the lower height of self-discipline and control, the domination of his lower members by his reason, but not the higher life in which those lower members are themselves forgotten or left behind as reason turns to immaterial realm for its sphere of activity.  Noah's achievement might be compared to that of the 'merely moral man' so often preached against by Protestant clergymen.  The 'moral man' has indeed done much to live the life he does.  His superiority to the mass of sinners is freely recognized, valued more highly by Philo than by the Protestants, it may be added, but both agree that morality which is an end in itself is definitely inferior to a life in which morality is regarded as a by-product of the experience of God."

What I read this to be saying is that, according to Philo, Noah represents one who restrains his passions fairly well, and yet fails to turn his mind to the immaterial realm, which contains the forms, God, and God's powers.  His morality notwithstanding, this man does not arrive at that ecstatic experience of God that Philo promotes.  Goodenough says that morality should be a "by-product of the experience of God", according to Philo and Protestant clergy.  Does that mean that morality comes after the experience of God, rather than being the prerequisite for the experience?  That brings me to my next item.

2.  On page 170, Goodenough says the following about Philo's conception of grace, using Jacob as an example:

"The dream has thus far taught us a good deal about Philo's conception of Jacob.  In spite of the representations of Jacob as a man of virtue in contrast to his brother Esau, Jacob is a man who has actually a long way to go before he can get the vision of God, and be worthy of the Higher Mystery...Philo's conception of the saving activity of God is unmistakable.  For God reaches down by his [logoi] to the 'great unwashed,' meets them on their level, and gives them the sort of help they need at that stage.  The familiar assertion that Philo, in contrast to Christianity, thought that spiritual rewards awaited only those who had in some way already purified themselves is a complete misconception.  With the exception of Calvin's doctrine of 'irresistible grace,' Christianity, as well as Philo, has always regarded God as powerless to help a man who does not first want to be helped."

From what I have read in Goodenough's book, Philo did appear to believe that purification was a prerequisite, of sorts, for having an ecstatic experience of God.  That's one reason that people were supposed to seek to restrain their passions, according to Philo.  And yet, Goodenough refers to another dimension----grace: that God reaches out to people where they are when they are willing to receive God's help, even though they may be far from being pure.  But, while God may help people where they are, that by itself does not count as a vision of God.  That's where God is leading people through God's logoi, and purification does appear to be a prerequisite for that.  God assists people on that path.  (At the same time, Goodenough does appear to say that Moses' vision of God was unique, if I recall correctly.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bruce Bartlett's The New American Economy 6: Entitlements, Deficits, and the VAT

My latest reading of Bruce Bartlett's The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward scared me, to tell you the truth.

I usually get scared when I think about the ballooning of federal entitlements.  Bartlett, like others, contends that, in the future, in order to take care of the increasing number of people who will be receiving Medicare and Social Security, payroll taxes will have to go up----and that will affect all sorts of people, including the middle class.  Or we can borrow or print the money to help pay for the entitlements, in which case we'd probably have to put up with inflation and higher interest rates.  (And, whereas I have read economists set high interest rates against inflation, as if high interest rates cure inflation or an abundant money supply keeps interest rates low, Bartlett actually makes the point that inflation can lead to high interest rates.  If I lend you money, and I realize that the money that I will get back from you when you pay me back will be worth less than what I loaned you, I may just increase interest rates so that I can get a decent amount.)  

We have a deficit, and we have debt.  Bartlett argues that we're in a worse situation now because other countries own a sizable amount of our Treasury securities, and Bartlett contends that this situation makes Americans less wealthy and could increase the trade deficit.  Moreover, other countries will be reluctant to buy our securities, which are a significant source of our government's revenue, if they think that we won't pay them back. 

How can we solve this problem?  Bartlett says that even going so far as to eliminate every domestic discretionary program would not have been sufficient in 2008 to get rid of the deficit.  Regarding entitlements, Bartlett talks about raising the retirement age so that people could qualify for Social Security and Medicare later in life, but he doesn't appear to think that even that would be enough.

I haven't finished this chapter, but, in what I have read so far, Bartlett supports the Value Added Tax as a way to bring in a lot of government revenue.  On page 179, he explains what that tax is by telling a story about the making of bread.  Suppose that you have a farmer who sells his wheat to a miller.  The farmer pays a tax on the wheat's sale price, and that tax is a part of the wheat's price, presumably because the farmer is passing the cost of the tax on to the miller who's buying the wheat.  The miller then makes flour out of that wheat and sells it to the baker.  There is a tax on that sale, too, but the miller "subtracts the tax he paid when he bought the wheat."  And yet, the baker in buying the flour from the miller is paying the tax that was "included by the miller, which also includes the tax paid by the farmer."  The baker then makes bread and sells it, and in selling the bread he "gets credit for all the previous taxes paid."  But, ultimately, the tax's "full burden...falls on the final purchaser, the consumer."

I'm a little confused here.  Why would the full burden fall on the consumer, if the baker was able to get a credit for the previous taxes that he paid (in the form of higher prices)?  The baker wouldn't have to pass on to the consumer the tax paid by the farmer, and the tax paid by the miller, for the baker is getting credit for those taxes, right?

Another point that Bartlett makes is that a tax on consumption----such as the Value Added Tax----has less of an impact on the economy than the income tax because the VAT does nothing to savings, which Bartlett calls "the wellspring of growth" (page 177).  Bartlett also says that consumption taxes are "less burdensome because people can usually choose to reduce their consumption to avoid the tax" (page 177).  But, earlier in the book, Bartlett criticizes the tax rebates during George W. Bush's Administration because people saved them rather than spending them (page 138).  Doesn't that imply that spending----consumption----is important when it comes to stimulating the economy?  And would a VAT discourage consumption? 

On the issue of entitlements and the deficit, I hope that there's a way for us to keep our commitments to people and not throw them out into the cold, while also avoiding a lot of the financial burdens that would negatively impact so many of us.  Is this possible?  I don't know.  One thing that comes to my mind is the argument that a single-payer system is less costly than what the U.S. has.

Beginning Goodenough's By Light, Light

I started Erwin Goodenough's 1935 book, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism.  In my latest reading, Goodenough covered a variety of topics.

1.  One topic that Goodenough discussed was Philo's belief that God had different powers or aspects (i.e., being, logos, creative power, royal power, law-making power, and the power of mercy).  Goodenough denies that Philo thought that these powers were independent beings in themselves, and Goodenough refers to Christian modalism (perhaps as a parallel), which held that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three roles that one person----God----performed, rather than three separate persons.  And yet, Goodenough also compares the logos to Hera, who ruled for Zeus and had attendants (i.e., justice, law, peace, etc.), and my impression is that Hera was a separate being from Zeus.  Goodenough also says on page 71 that God as being "towers in brooding mystery even beyond the Logos."  Goodenough may think that, according to Philo, God has different dimensions.  God has a transcendent existence, but a part of God (the logos) acts in the world, and God also shows justice and mercy, gives laws, etc.  But it's the same God.  And yet, did not Philo refer to the logos as the "second God"?  He did, but was he in doing so intending to describe an independent being from God, or rather an aspect of God?

(UPDATE: On page 169, Goodenough distinguishes God in Philo's thought from God's "attendant Powers", which seem to be like angels.  On pages 243, Goodenough says that, according to Philo, the logos radiates from God and differentiates itself into the powers.  God acts through the powers, and yet the logos is technically distinct from God.)

2.  Another topic that Goodenough engages is the relationship of natural law to the Torah, according to Philo.  Greek philosophy and Stoicism held that there was a natural law about the way things were and how people should act.  But it was believed that statutory law was a derivative of natural law rather than natural law itself, and that "As a universal existence the Law of nature seems to be everywhere present and active, but not everywhere in the same sense" (page 55).  Goodenough's point may be that, in the mind of certain ancients, statutory law was an imperfect reflection of natural law.  How did this relate to the Torah?  Goodenough says regarding Philo on page 72: "By magnifying Law, and by orienting Jewish Law with Natural Law as the Law of God, the Jew could present his religion as the solution of the Greek problem, or of the mystic search of the Hellenistic Age."

And yet, there was more to Philo's thoughts regarding the Mosaic Torah, according to Goodenough.  Philo appeared to differentiate the Torah from a higher law, and, while Philo held that the Torah was closer to natural law than anything the Gentiles had, he still thought that "the Torah...is inadequate for a spiritually minded man, who would aspire, like Proclus, to become a [nomos empsuchos], not by obeying copies, but by getting [hoi alethes nomoi] to abide within the soul" (Goodenough on page 88).  Philo looked (at least in part) to the patriarchs, as he regarded the Torah as an "imitation of the true laws incarnate" in them (page 90).  Moreover, Philo believed that there was deeper spiritual meaning in the Torah---meaning that was consistent with Greek philosophical ideas about encountering the divine and subduing passions----and thus Philo held that the stories in the Torah, not just the laws, could function as law.

I have questions.  Is Philo essentially saying what many Christians say----that obeying an outward code is not enough, for people need the law to be written on their hearts?  I took a class on Philo, and what I learned seemed to suggest that Philo was sensitive to the issue of trying to become better through learning and practice, as opposed to becoming better by an act of supernatural grace.  Is Philo also overlapping with another belief held by many Christians----that the Torah is a reflection of something else? 

(UPDATE: Goodenough clarifies Philo's perspective on the Mosaic law and the patriarchs on page 121: "It has already appeared that Philo is by no means satisfied that the Jewish Law, as a literal revelation of the will of God, can be an adequate approach to Deity...[T]he literal Law was a thing designed for men in a material and essentially inferior state of being...[T]o Philo the way of approach to God in His immaterial aloofness has been revealed in the lives of the Patriarchs.  They had become the [vomoi empsuchoi], the incarnations of the will of God and of the life and nature of God...and as they had lived without the code in immediate experience of God, so they became at once the patterns for the code and the revelation of the higher and direct way to God by which they themselves had achieved union with Him.  The exposition of the mystic higher teaching of the Torah was to Philo largely an exposition of their lives.")

3.  I'd like to turn now to a passage that I liked on page 16:

"Now it must be noted that in the Classic Age the Greeks had developed a tremendous sense that unaided humanity is helpless without some sort of human intervention.  Man is sinful by his very nature, and only as he can get out of that nature into the divine nature can he hope to really live, since life in the body is death.  A divine savior is at hand to give him this life, the Son of the supreme God and 'the Female Principle,' and into the very being of the savior the mystic can rise.  The means thereto are at hand, the sacraments..."
On page 17, Goodenough says that the Eastern church is more like the Orphist mystery religion than is the Western church, for, while the Eastern church looks at sin more as a contamination, the Western church sees it more in terms of guilt.

I have questions about what Goodenough says.  First, is there evidence for what the mystery religions did?  Goodenough refers to the Orphic Hymns, and so perhaps we have something.  And yet, there are scholars today (such as Bart Ehrman) who contend that we cannot look at Mystery Religions in seeking to understand the origins of certain concepts within Christianity, for there is much about the Mystery Religions that we do not know.  Second, did the Western church lack a notion of sin as a contamination from which people needed to be healed?  Irenaeus was in the West, and he seemed to hold to such a concept, for he focused on Jesus' incarnation creating a new humanity.  Moreover, the belief that people could somehow unite with the divine nature was present in Western Christianity, if I'm not mistaken, for the argument that God became as we are that we might become as God is was not solely an Eastern idea.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Change, or Just Playing for Another Team?

Carson Clark of the blog "Musings of a Hardline Moderate" recently had an insightful post, Miniblog #137: How Did I Break from the Fundamentalist, Pentecostal Republican Mold?

While Carson's post is about how he left his fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Republican mold, I think that his thoughts can apply to a number of "us vs. them" mentalities, not only those on the Right.  I'll quote from this part of Carson's post:

"Spanning the spectrum from politics to religion, so many conservatives and progressives seem fueled by sheer anger toward one another. It’s as though there’s something about them–something deep down in the recesses of their hearts, minds, and souls–that resonates with a spirit of opposition and is driven by a desire to defeat one another.  It’s this thirst for an intoxicating brew of power, control, and victory. When I was a fundamentalist I felt that elemental, competitive fire. Yet it was never a good fit. There was always something that felt innately amiss. It’s as though the perpetual conflict produced physical energy while simultaneously sapping my emotional, intellectual, and spiritual vitality."

I can identify with what Carson is saying.  When I was right-wing, I was angry at liberals.  I felt that they were smug, condescending know-it-alls who looked down on everyone who disagreed with them, while assuming that they somehow spoke for most people.  And I wanted for them to be defeated, not just because I thought that their agenda for the country was dangerous, but also because I wanted them to feel the pain of knowing that most of America did not like them.  And so I rejoiced when George W. Bush won in 2004, or when anti-gay marriage measures passed in a bunch of states.  I was in-your-face about my conservatism, for I wanted the liberals I knew to realize that not everybody shared their views----that there were other ways to see the issues.

To be honest, a lot of my ideological change occurred when I was away from actual liberals, when I did not have to be physically at my academic institution and could do a lot of my work at home.  During that time, I got to reflect more on issues, without bringing into consideration personalities, whom I liked, whom I disliked, etc.  I began to believe that winning elections is not so much a matter of telling off the "other side", as it is of crafting policies that help the country, which includes people of different perspectives.  I especially felt this as I attempted to navigate my way through America's health care system, with the health insurance premiums, the copays, and the fact that my health insurance company often left me with a lot of the bill.  I also was hearing and reading the horror stories of those who suffered at the hands of health insurance companies, or who struggled to pay off their student loans.  Moreover, in 2008, I was reading Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope, and, while I disagreed with Obama on a number of issues, I admired his thoughtfulness and his ability to acknowledge valuable points in conservatism.
 
What I often wonder, though, is this: Am I all that different now from how I was as a conservative, only I'm on another team?  There is currently a part of me that cannot stand conservatives and conservative Christianity.  I hate conservatives' judgmental attitude towards those who receive government aid, as many conservatives claim that such people do not want to work, when there are actually a number of people who do work yet remain poor.  I have also resented the spiritual bullying that I and others have received from conservative Christians, and so, while I remain a person of faith, I tend to gravitate towards atheist blogs and the religious blogs of people who are critical of conservative Christianity (i.e., Rachel Held Evans) because I am elated when conservative Christianity is criticized.  When conservative Christians get on their high horse and say that everyone should believe and behave in a certain way, and set themselves up as people's judge, I get a lot of satisfaction when an atheist says, "Yeah, says who?"  I'm hoping (perhaps in vain) that this will take the wind out of conservative Christians' sails, the same way that I hoped as a conservative (equally in vain) that political defeats would knock arrogant liberals off of their high horse.

So I'm not entirely different now from when I was a conservative.  And yet, there are some differences.  Nowadays, I don't dismiss every criticism of my side with "the other side does the same thing" (or at least I try not to do so----it's tempting to resort to that when the other side gets self-righteous).  I don't assume that my side is perfect whereas the other side is utterly flawed.  I identify heroes in both sides, conservative and liberal, and I read stuff from both sides----well, not everything, for both sides produce stuff that is malevolent, bitter, and sometimes just plain nutty, but I appreciate a thoughtful (preferably three-dimensional) analysis of policy and politics, regardless of whether the person doing the analysis is a liberal, a conservative, or something else. 

Moreover, while there is still a part of me that relishes competition and the other side being taken down a few notches, there are times when I need something more nourishing.  I learned that back when I was a conservative.  I was in a bitter mood one day, I turned on Rush Limbaugh, and he was ranting about the inconsistency of the Left in criticizing Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged indiscretions with women while giving Bill Clinton a free pass.  As much as I enjoyed listening to Rush, I found that I needed to turn him off at that time because he was not helping my mood. 

Bruce Bartlett's The New American Economy 5: Did the Bush Tax Cuts Work?

For my write-up today on Bruce Bartlett's The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward, I'll use as my starting-point Bartlett's assessment of the Bush tax cuts on page 140:

"To be sure, some of Bush's tax cuts, such as the cut in the capital gains tax, did have supply-side effects and undoubtedly recouped much of the static revenue loss.  But the vast bulk of Bush's tax cuts in dollar terms involved rebates and tax credits that had no supply-side effects whatsoever.  Therefore, to claim, as Bush often did, that his tax policies as a whole had such strong supply-side effects that they paid for themselves is the grossest of exaggerations.  The truth is that they increased growth a little, but at a very large cost in terms of federal revenue, and far less than would have been the case had the supply-side elements of Bush's tax cuts been made permanent and not phased in."

Earlier in the book, Bartlett says that the rebates were not strengthening the economy because many of the people getting them were not spending them, but rather were saving them, since the rebates primarily went to people "with relatively high incomes" (page 138).

I appreciate Bartlett's argument that some tax cuts stimulate economic growth and bring in revenue more than other tax cuts.  Although I have moved somewhat to the Left over the past couple of years, I myself prefer a degree of flexibility when it comes to tax cuts.  If the capital gains tax cut stimulates economic growth and recoups a lot of lost revenue----and maybe even increases revenue (see here)----then why not have it?  At the same time, I do think that it's problematic to give tax cuts to people who make so much that they probably won't spend it, for that doesn't stimulate the economy.  I tend to gravitate towards Bill Clinton's approach, as I understand it: cut the tax on capital gains, yet also increase income tax rates on people making over a certain amount.

Completing the Anchor Bible Commentary on Ben Sira

I finished the Anchor Bible commentary on The Wisdom of Ben Sira.  In this post, I will discuss an item from my latest reading of this book, and then I will talk about another item that is from my previous readings.

1.  In Ben Sira 48:1-15, the topic is the prophet Elijah.  Not only is the prophet Elijah's past deeds praised, but Ben Sira also has the eschatological expectation that Elijah will return to (in the words of Patrick Skehan's translation) "put an end to wrath before the day of the LORD, [t]o turn back the hearts of parents toward their children, and to reestablish the tribes of Israel."  And, because Ben Sira says "it is written" when discussing his belief that Elijah shall return, he probably has in mind Malachi 3:23-24.

And yet, Ben Sira does not believe in the resurrection from the dead, nor does he have a rigorous conception of the afterlife.  Ben Sira 48:11b affirms that "we too shall certainly live", but Skehan's argument appears to be that the verse originally meant something quite different: that some people would see Elijah before they die and then come to rest, which means that they are comforted at their deaths by the realization that Elijah has come and is doing his part to renew the world.

I find it interesting that eschatology can co-exist with a traditional view that denies the resurrection from the dead.  At times, one can get the impression that those things are incompatible.  At one time, it was believed that the Pharisees believed in eschatology, the resurrection, and the prophetic writings, whereas the Sadducees denied those things.  But, while the Sadducees most likely denied the resurrection, that does not mean that they rejected the prophetic writings (see here).  Perhaps they, like Ben Sira, held to some sort of eschatology, in accordance with prophetic writings, even as they denied the resurrection.

2.  In my posts thus far on Ben Sira, I have not gotten into the political situation of Ben Sira's day, at least not in much detail.  Alexander Di Lella does not know if Ben Sira wrote when the Ptolemies had power over Palestine, or when the Seleucids had power over it.  Di Lella says that both regimes promulgated Hellenism, and Ben Sira was reacting to that by saying that Jewish tradition is as good as (and better than) Greek philosophy.  At times, Ben Sira quotes Greek sources, which may show that he's not entirely against the wisdom of the Greeks.  And yet, when Ben Sira condemns speculation about things that are hidden, Di Lella interprets that to be a criticism of Greek philosophy.

I think that Di Lella is probably right to argue that Ben Sira is seeking to present Jewish tradition, which includes the Torah and the biblical writings, as better than Greek philosophy.  Ben Sira equates wisdom with the Torah, elevates the scribes, and lauds the historical heroes of Israel.  Ben Sira asserts that Israel is in special possession of God's wisdom, the Torah.  Wisdom, for Ben Sira, was around at creation, but Adam did not fully know wisdom because the Torah had not yet been revealed (or so Di Lella interprets Ben Sira 24:28, which is about how wisdom is so deep that we cannot completely fathom it).  Wisdom sought a home in the world among every people and nation, but then God commanded wisdom to dwell in Israel (Ben Sira 24).  According to the prologue by Ben Sira's grandson, scribes are to teach the laity about wisdom.  And yet, while Ben Sira is all for manual labor and wants for the wise to work with their hands, he desires for them to spend most of their time contemplating the depths of wisdom (Ben Sira 38-39).  Wisdom is for every Israelite, but blessed is he who has the opportunity to study it more deeply!

But is Ben Sira's book only a defense of Jewish tradition?  Why does it also have a bunch of pithy, proverb-like sayings, which appear to be unrelated to Jewish tradition?  Perhaps Ben Sira believes that he derived those principles from a study of the Torah, or that he got them from divine inspiration, or observation of life.  His point may be that Jewish leaders have the resources to come up with wisdom about life, and so one should not think that the Greeks have a monopoly on wisdom.

But onto the political situation of Ben Sira's day!  Ben Sira condemns the arrogance of rulers (Ben Sira 10:14).  According to Di Lella, Ben Sira may have the Seleucid Antiochus III in mind when he asks God to smash rulers who say "There is no one besides me."  And yet, Ben Sira offers wisdom on how the Jews should interact with their Gentile captors.  Ben Sira 9:13 exhorts Jews to keep away from those with the power to kill, but, if they find themselves near such people, to avoid offending them so as to preserve their own lives.  Di Lella states on page 220 that "In Egypt, the Ptolemaic king, who was considered to be a god, had the absolute right of life or death over his subjects; military commanders had this right over their troops, and governors of subject provinces over the people."

I have a few questions about Di Lella's scenario.  First, I wonder why Ben Sira would criticize Antiochus III, when, as Di Lella points out earlier in the commentary, Antiochus III provided the Jews with wood to repair their temple after a war, exempted temple officials from certain taxes, and allowed the Jews in Palestine to live according to their own laws.  Di Lella says that Antiochus III was presumptuous and fell to the Romans due to his presumption, but I have a hard time believing that Ben Sira would lambaste a ruler who had been so good to Israel.  Perhaps Ben Sira didn't care for being at the mercy of foreign rulers, even if they were relatively benevolent!

Second, how would Ben Sira have gotten by with criticizing his Gentile rulers?  In ancient and medieval Jewish literature, there were many times when the Gentile captors are not referred to explicitly, but in code, and the basis for that was supposedly that the Jews did not want to be viewed as subversives.  But the Gentile rulers are criticized, and I'd be surprised if agents of the Gentile tyrants couldn't figure out that the Jews were talking about the Gentile tyrants!  Perhaps the Gentiles did not monitor everything that occurred in Israel, and thus Ben Sira had some leeway to write a document that criticized the Gentile rulers.

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