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Friday, November 14, 2014

Making A Good Point In A Bad Way

Anthony Bradley makes a valid theological point in a blogpost on the ideological tribalism practiced by some Evangelicals (click here). His point is that too strong of a commitment to a particular political ideology, regardless of whether it is on the Left or on the Right, can compromise one's reading of the Scriptures. In fact, one can generalize this problem to commitments other than political ideologies. This trend sees certain Evangelicals, those who approach social issues without training in past Christian social thought tradition, compromise the Scriptures for the sake of their ideology or group. The following acts of compromise come directly from the Bradley's article linked to above. 

  • For a variety of well-intentioned reasons, choose a preferred political ideology you believe is the right one and will adequately to address the differentiated problems in society.
  • Read your preferred political ideology into Bible in a such way that it becomes a tool for interpreting and applying the Bible to social issues. That is, your political ideology becomes your hermeneutic for “Biblical” views on justice.
  • Cherry-pick Bible verses (often taken out of context) and repackage them to make the case that your preferred, tribal, political ideology is indeed “Biblical,” “follows the teaching of Jesus,” is “Christian,” and so on.
  • Now that you have baptized your political ideology by pouring on a random assortment of Bible verses, you are ready to declare your ideological tribe and those who agree with you, “right.” As a result, any other tribe that does not read the Bible through your ideological lens is not only wrong, they are the enemy and a threat to the church and the world.
  • Issue a call for all other Christians to embrace your tribal ideology. Now that your tribe is “right” you are free in the blogosphere, for example, to declare all of those who are not-like-us — that is, not in our tribe — to be “wrong.” Those in the other tribe (i.e., the enemy tribe) need to change their views so that they can more closely adhere to what your tribe believes the Bible teaches and, therefore, advance to the right side of Truth. Your tribe’s truth.
In fact, if we generalize enough from using political ideologies, we see how the above steps can provide an explanation for the origins of some Christian denominations. So we should note that those who could care less about politics could practice the above actions.

My seminary education explained the above in part. Suppose we take one principle or trait and claim that it exhaustively explains everything there is to know about God. And then we use that principle to interpret the Scriptures. Note that the most common trait with which to do this is love. Those who only use love to define God filter out all of the passages in the Bible which talk of how He is just and holy. All of this allows some people to state that certain acts, which are declared by the Scriptures as being immoral, are Biblical. Of course, their declaration is governed by their desires and is endorsed by the selective understanding of God because they have reduced Him to fit their finite understanding of love.

What triggered this article by Bradley? It was an article and followup dialog with a Duke Divinity student who claimed that Bradley both spoke 'comfort to power' and threw the 'vulnerable' under the bus (click here for the article and followup dialog). Bradley defends himself in the article being commented on here by calling this student's accusations an instance of ideological tribalism and insinuating that this person's accusations were due to his not reading the majority of Bradley's writings.

What this blog would like to do with Bradley's article is to 1) talk about the definition of tribalism; 2) evaluate the claims made against Bradley to see if they have at least some validity; and 3) see if Bradley is as tribalistic as the people he opposes in the article being reviewed here.

Before starting, however, I would like to state my personal view of Bradley. On the one hand, I am indebted to him. Though I have heard of "white privilege" before, listening to him explain it using his personal experiences allowed me to better understand what it means. In addition, his response to Michael Horton and Horton's blogpost on 2K theology and slavery is well worth reading to further understand some of the weaknesses of 2K theology (click here and read the first comment). What I struggle with Bradley on are his political-economic views.

Part of the article by the Duke Divinity student uses Bradley's assessment of James Cone's theology. I am not familiar with Bradley's view of Cone. But what I would suggest is for people to read Cone and then Bradley's reaction to Cone and let one's own powers of observation serve as the final judge. Personally, though I have some theological differences with Cone, I see much merit in what he says.

There are a variety of definitions for the word 'tribalism.' Most of the social science based definitions I've seen revolve around that which pertains to belonging to a tribe where a tribe is defined as a kind of group which lacks certain political structures. What we should note is that many of the dictionary definitions of tribalism goes beyond a literal tribe and focus on the kind of loyalty one has to one's own own group. Tribalism involves a high degree of loyalty. And as has been defined by this blog in previous articles, tribalism occurs when loyalty to a group trumps commitment to principle and morals. The end result of tribalism is that what one sees right and wrong being determined by who does what to whom (click here). 

The importance of this blog's definition is this: one can belong to groups without succumbing to tribalism. How can one both belong to one or more groups while escaping the trappings of tribalism? One can do that by showing a higher commitment to morals and principles than to our groups. Whistleblowers, for example, show a greater commitment to morals and principles than to the groups they expose. Our commitment to principles and morals can save us not just from pathological groups, but from committing the common sins and mistakes made by any group. Thus, Bradley's question, 'Aren't we all tribal?' made in response to comment by Andrew Dowling in the article by the Duke Divinity student should hopefully be answered with an emphatic 'NO!'. If we can belong to groups without practicing tribalism, we should all the more strive to not be tribal regardless of our degree of identity with or affection for any particular group.

The Old Testament provided a number of examples of children of Israel who were not tribal. They were called prophets. Their loyalty to God trumped their ethnic ties and this allowed them to speak prophetically to their own nation. And such an accomplishment should not be minimized considering that it was the nation of Israel that was counted as God's chosen people. Even in the New Testament, we have such examples such as when Paul had to correct Peter (see Galatians 2).

We should note here that there are two ways to combat the temptation to surrender to the tribalism defined by this blog. The first way is to be able to recognize the weaknesses and faults one's own group or ideology. Perhaps reminding oneself of the parable of the two men praying can be helpful here (click here). The more resistant we are to acknowledging the faults and weaknesses of our own group or perspective, the more likely we will become like the pharisee from the parable. And we should note that that pharisee's attitude toward the other man praying is not significantly different from how we view peer or rival groups when we engage in tribalism.

Another way by which we can resist the siren call of tribalism is to recognize the contributions and legitimate points that rival groups make. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the West's inability to do that during the Vietnam conflict when he said the following (click here for the reference):
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

King's quote is why Tim Keller's "blended insights" from his model of church and cultural influence is so important (click here). The value of his work in that model is not based on the accuracy of his identification of those blended insights; rather, it is based on recognizing that other groups have significant contributions to make.  

So the more we can recognize the faults and sins of our own group as well as the contributions others can make, the less likely will our identification with and affection for a group lead to tribalism as defined by this blog.

As for the claims made about Bradley which triggered his article, we should note Bradley's defense. He questioned the validity of that claim by stating that the person making the claim had not read most of his works. The implication here being that one must have read most of Bradley's writings before one can properly interpret what he has said. Is that implication true? Do all of us really need to first read the majority of Bradley's or anyone's writings before forming accurate assessments of what is being said?

Certainly, just like any with other writer, the more we read of Bradley, the better we will understand the various nooks and crannies of his thought. But when one reads articles like his article on McDonalds and the minimum wage (click here), it isn't difficult to see that Bradley puts full responsibility for the low wages that the McDonalds' workers have about whom he is writing squarely on shoulders of the workers themselves. And he does this without providing any demographic information on those workers as well as without acknowledging how McDonalds and other businesses sometimes use government assistance programs to subsidize their payrolls (click here)--such is built into the system so that business leaders' could fulfill their 'fiduciary responsibilities,' to the shareholders. After all, that is what Bradley said the low wages enabled business leaders to do.

Of course, those responsibilities are never questioned or critiqued by Bradley. And that is an important point because what Bradley seems to have neglected is to mention how the workers at businesses like McDonalds are not the only ones who financially suffer because of the claims made on them by shareholders. Franchise owners for some corporations do too as certain business procedures are forced on them so shareholders benefit these at their expense. If Bradley knew how franchise owners can also lose out to shareholders, would he then examine the responsibilities to shareholders that business leaders have? And if so, would that show favoritism for business owners over workers?

And if Bradley's attack on some McDonalds workers doesn't show enough of his view of workers and business leaders, perhaps his article attacking the requirement that interns be paid should help seal the deal (click here). In that article, Bradley considers the learning of new skills payment enough for some young people. He partially attributes the demand that all interns be paid to a generational narcissism. 

Suffice it to say that Bradley hasn't really studied narcissism so as to make that kind of assessment. For narcissism, whether it be individual or group, is about far more than feeling entitled or important. Note that there are 9 characteristics that narcissists can have and before one can be called a narcissist, a diagnosis that must be clinically made, one must have at least 5 of those characteristics (click here). And we should note that being exploitive and lacking empathy are included in those 9 traits. So should we surmise, because of Bradley's possible support for business exploitation of workers and his lack of empathy for those same people, that he is narcissistic? Such an analysis would be completely irresponsible. And yet, the narcissism label is one he feels comfortable flinging at Millenials who are progressives (click here and see his comment to Hannah Anderson then and click there).

So from what has been reviewed here, is there some truth to the divinity's student's claim that Bradley speaks comfort to power while throwing the vulnerable under the bus? Click the links that have been provided and see for yourself.

Finally, we need to ask if Bradley is into tribalism as much as the progressives he seeks to oppose. After all, he writes as if it was bad for them. Does he think that tribalism would be bad for him too? We should first note that one of the practices Bradley associates with progressive Evangelicals who are into social ethics is that they attach themselves to a particular ideology and has attached it to their understanding of the Bible. We should also note that Bradley associates himself the Acton Institute and it too has chosen to attach itself to an ideology and has, perhaps uncritically, attached that ideology to Christianity. When we read the page on the principles adhered to by the Acton Institute, before the first principle is listed, we read the following (click here for the link):
Integrating Judeo-Christian Truths with Free Market Principles

Notice the juxtaposition that Judeo-Christian Truths has with Free Market Principles. Doesn't such a side by side placement at least indicate that an equal status exists between the two? Thus, doesn't such an association imply that Judeo-Christian Truths and Free Market Principles are peers? And from there, we must not only ask Anthony Bradley, but the Acton Institute itself, whether they have used Judeo-Christian truths to critically assess the Free Market? Or, as Bradley has charged progressive Christians with doing, do Bradley and those at the Acton Institute use the Free Market to interpret the Scriptures? And if the answer to that last question is yes, then how are Bradley and the Acton Institute any different from the progressive Evangelicals Bradley is so critical of? Perhaps in claiming that we are all tribal, as Bradley did in the comments of the article being reviewed, he is admitting that there is no difference except that he considers the Acton tribe to be superior to that of the progressive Evangelicals. And perhaps this allegiance to the Free Market contributes to Bradley not critically looking at the relationship between business leaders and shareholders in his article on McDonalds.

But let's notice something else. Note how Bradley shows no concern over critique of him provided by progressive evangelicals. The reason for this lack of concern is that, according to Bradley, they don't value past Christian social thought tradition and that they have different presuppositions than he does. Thus, it appears that he considers their criticisms to be insignificant. And again, this hints at assuming some superiority over his critics. 

In analyzing Bradley's lack of concern, we should note a couple of things about the Christian social thought tradition. First, it comes from the same Western context as Free Market principles come from. This context is being challenged by post modernism as well as other models of thought. This context might be a reason why the Acton Institute can so easily put Judeo-Christian values next to Free Market principles and not bat an eye. The assimilation of the two has been occurring for a long time.

We should also note something else about Bradley's Christian social thought tradition. It does not have a monopoly on the kinds of values it holds to. Does it emphasis solidarity? So does Socialism. Does it emphasize subsidiarity? Doesn't anarchism? What about natural law? Here we must ask: Whose version of natural law are we relying on? For while Christians will talk about natural law from the design revealed in the Bible, others will talk about natural law from what is observed in nature. And who isn't concerned with personalism and who doesn't make distinctions as sphere sovereignty makes? The difference for Bradley here is that conservative evangelicals take the "Biblical" approach to these subjects. But can't such a belief cause one to have an inflated view of themselves and their beliefs?

But hold it for a second, aren't there those who hold to conservative Christian theology while embracing what some would call progressive political views? I am one who does both and don't think that I am the only religiously conservative Christian who does so. So doesn't that challenge Bradley's assessment of progressive Evangelicals?

But something more must be said here. Is Bradley claiming that, because of his presuppositions, that he has nothing to learn from the political views of progressive Evangelicals? Do their differences with him concern him? If not, then perhaps we need to remind him of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote provided earlier. The feeling that one has everything to teach and nothing to learn is not only unjust, but according to Bradley, it is a practice exercised by progressive evangelicals whose political ideologies cause them to not only compromise the Scriptures, but to look down on those who differ. For in believing that one has everything to teach and nothing to learn, one has implied that one's  own group is right while declaring others to be wrong. That, according to Bradley, is ideological tribalism. And as this blog has already shown, that kind of tribalism does not have to follow one's belonging to an ideological group.

Certainly, Bradley does us a great service by drawing our attention to the problem of what he calls ideological tribalism. The practices he notes accurately depicts how people are willing to compromise the clear statements of the Scriptures because of their higher commitment to other ideas. But afterwards, Bradley provides a mixed message. The mixed message says that, on one hand, other groups than his are guilty of the kind of tribalism described above while, on the other hand, he admits in the comments that we are all tribal and the difference is found in what we admit up front and the superiority of our assumptions. 

Perhaps the difference between Bradley and myself is in how we define tribalism. After reading the article and comments, he seems to say that being tribal is a fixed cost to belonging to groups. But at the same time, he states that when discussing things, we should refrain from attacking each other. But the view of tribalism put forth by this blog says that tribalism does not necessarily follow belonging to groups. Rather, tribalism is something to avoid because of competing loyalties between both principles and morals and group loyalty.  Thus what this blog is saying is that tribalism gives us permission, if not encourages us, to attack other groups. 

If Christianity is to influence the world without compromising its standards, we must avoid tribalism as defined by this blog lest we imitate the world by how we try to both preach the Gospel and show its implications. Imitating the tribalism in the world is sin. And though Bradley provides some useful points, perhaps his biggest weakness is found in his definition of tribalism. For his definition allows us Christians to embrace tribalism only from an assumed superior position.





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