Friday, July 22, 2011

Shared Sacrifice

A group of religious notables went to the White House recently to urge President Obama to be sure that whatever solution to our deficit crisis is ultimately decided upon it not worsen the situation of the poor. One of the attendees, Jim Wallis, writes about the visit on his blog God's Politics.

Several times in his column Wallis says things like this:
We reminded ourselves that people of faith must evaluate big decisions on issues like a budget by how they impact the most vulnerable.

We urged the president to protect programs for low-income people in the ongoing budget and deficit debate, and in any deal concerning the debt ceiling and default crisis. In an engaging back and forth conversation, the president and faith leaders discussed how we can get our fiscal house in order without doing so on the backs of those who are most vulnerable. We shared the concern that the deficit must be cut in a way that protects the safety net, and struggling families and children, and maintains our national investments in the future of all of us.

[P]rograms serving poor and hungry people should be protected and exempted from any budget cuts.

We agreed that we need both fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. Those already hurting should not be made to hurt more, and those doing well should do their part in sacrificing.

Our goal is simply this: Whenever a new budget or deficit reduction proposal is put forth, somebody should ask how it will impact the poorest and most vulnerable. This is a biblical question, a fair question, and a question of justice.
Well, yes, but there are other questions of justice which are also "fair and biblical" which need to be answered as well. Until they are statements like Wallis' are pretty much meaningless. Here are some examples:
What exactly is a "fair share" from those who are doing well? What percentage of one's income is a just contribution to the welfare of the poor? Ten percent? Twenty percent? The highest income tax bracket in this country is 35% on those making more than $379,000. Is that a just figure? Should it be higher? If so, why?

How much of the burden should the wealthy be justly expected to bear? The top 1% of income earners (those who earn $410,000 or more) currently pay over 40% of the federal income taxes in this country. Is that a "fair share"? If not, would it be more fair for them to bear a greater percentage of the burden? Why? And what effect would it have on the working poor if small businesses making over $250,000 had their taxes raised?

What, specifically, is our government's obligation to the poor? How much of our income should we be compelled to allocate toward helping them? Should the poor be subsidized to the point where they have as much of the world's goods as everyone else?

Are there really any poor in America, anyway? Should people who have electricity, air conditioning, refrigeration, heated houses, indoor plumbing, cars, televisions, cell phones, computers, and access to food, shelter, schools, medical care etc. be considered poor just because they don't have as many of these things as others do? How much more do we owe them, especially given that poverty in America is largely a function of personal choices that people make (e.g. the choice to drop out of school, to use drugs and alcohol, to not get married before one has children, to not develop a disciplined work ethic, etc.).
These are questions that always seemed to be glossed over when people like Wallis wax eloquent about our moral duties to the poor. Everyone agrees that there should be "shared sacrifice" and that we need to "help the poor", but what exactly these words mean is left very, very fuzzy, and Wallis doesn't do anything, at least in this recent essay, to help clear things up.

Bible Phobia

The phobic reaction to the Bible of those who call themselves scholars is not infrequently a source of genuine amusement. It's understandable, perhaps, that cosmologists or biologists might disregard clues that the Bible gives to where truth may lie in those disciplines, but for historians or archeologists to do so seems quite irrational.

Uncommon Descent directs us to an article in the journal Biblical Archeology in which archeologist Hershel Shanks relates a story about two friends and colleagues that reflects the absurd lengths to which people who reject the religious pronouncements of the Bible will go to demonstrate their utter contempt for any information whatsoever that's found in the book.

An archeologist named Eilat Mazar deduced from the Biblical evidence that the ancient palace of King David might be found by digging at a particular location. This apparently scandalized another colleague named Ronny Reich who accused Mazar of breaching professional ethics for basing her hunch on the Biblical record.

Here's Shanks' account:
One of Eilat’s crimes, according to Ronny, is using the Bible as a guide to where to excavate. Let me unpack this: As Eilat read the Bible, it seemed to indicate just where King David’s palace might be buried in the City of David—at least, it did to her. On this basis, she decided to dig there.

This was highly improper and unscientific, according to Ronny. When he heard that Eilat was using reasoning like this to find King David’s palace, he knew immediately that, proceeding in this way, “she would certainly find that building” (emphasis in original).

According to Ronny, that is the wrong way to proceed. Ronny refers to “minimalists,” who do it properly, “correlat[ing] their teachings first and foremost to the archaeological findings” and only then looking at the Bible. Ronny counts himself as one of these “minimalists,” who permit the use of the Biblical text “only if it is supported by another historical source (for example, Assyrian documents) or clearly supported by appropriate, unambiguously dated archaeological data (for example, an inscription found on a site).”

I would have thought that Eilat would have been praised for proceeding quite scientifically—according to the vaunted scientific method that has produced so much for our civilization. As I understand it, you formulate a hypothesis and then you proceed to test it, either proving or disproving it. Eilat had a hypothesis and she wanted to test it by digging.

But you can’t do that in the case of the Bible, according to Ronny. The reason appears to be that you can’t trust the archaeologist to test his or her hypothesis in an unbiased way once he or she formulates a hypothesis based on the Bible. If the archaeologist proceeds in this way, he or she will “certainly” find what was hypothesized....Ronny, of course, is not the only archaeologist to espouse these views. Indeed, in many archaeological circles, it is the prevailing view. It is OK, they say, to bring in the Bible after you have your archaeological results, but you can’t use the Bible to formulate a hypothesis or decide where to dig.
Why not? If the Bible were to tell us where to look for Mose's stone tablets or Jesus' tomb why would it be professionally offensive to look there without waiting until some other corroborating historical document was found which provided the same information?

Shanks enjoys a little sport with this bizarre principle:
I wonder if this rule would apply to other ancient Near Eastern texts. If, for example, an archaeologist working in ancient Babylon thought a cuneiform text indicated that a city extended beyond the limits hitherto accepted and decided to test this hypothesis by digging outside what was then thought to be the city wall, would anyone question proceeding in this way?

And I wonder what poor Eilat should have done when it occurred to her on reading her Bible that the text seemed to indicate the very spot in this small 12-acre site where David’s palace was located. Drive it from her mind? Perish the thought! Or perhaps she should formulate the hypothesis and then enlist some other archaeologist, untainted by her bias, to excavate the site.
Reich is apparently a materialist who seems nervous about people making archeological predictions based on Biblical data that may turn out to be confirmed. It's better to hold one's colleagues to an asinine rule, even if it means that great discoveries will not be made, than to risk confirming that perhaps the Bible is historically correct. This sort of perverse reasoning is a symptom that the materialist worldview is entering the latter stages of philosophical dementia.

The episode reminds me of a wonderful quote from William James: “A rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth, if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.” Indeed, and irrational rules are one indication that people are struggling to cling to an intellectually unsustainable metaphysics.