A New Theology of the Trinity

I don’t usually write about theological matters in which I cannot make a clear and not so obvious connection to issues of politics, economics, or social justice, mostly because I feel a bit out of my element, and I’m prone to mistakes easily identified by smarter people. Yet, for as much time as these smarter Christians put into talking about the Trinity, most make clear mistakes. These mistakes distort the church’s image of who God is and what God is doing as proclaimed by Christian scripture and tradition, and it leads to a misunderstanding of Christian life. So here’s my best shot, easily identifiable problems and all. The verdict: most Christians are heretics.

I’m not going to attempt to recap the formation of the Trinity because neither you nor I have that kind of time. Instead, I’m going to present what I think most Christians, particularly Protestants, think about the Trinity. Then, I’m going to try to show a better way. Warning: in my attempt to correct what I believe is heresy, I’m probably going to engage in it. At best, I’m walking the line between barely acceptable and blasphemy. That line is where all Christian theology should start. A god incarnated as a poor man from nowhere whose mission is a kingdom over and against the kingdoms of man who is tortured and murdered on a cross – a theology for that god can only exist on such a line. “Acceptable theology” is inherently heretical. Christianity without scandal is not the Gospel.

Trinitarian theology is what I think of as “negative theology”. By that, I mean it was developed in response to heresy. Early Christians were not particularly interested in defining the inner-workings of the “persons” of the Trinity, nor were they eager to define terms and develop a grand theology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But as Christianity developed, people began to speak about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in ways which began to undermine the message of Jesus Christ, particularly as the faith spread across different languages and cultures. Christians began to define what was “acceptable theology” and what was heresy, and the people who did so didn’t speak the same language, come from the same culture, or from the same social or economic class as Jesus or the original disciples. The Christian understanding of God began to look more Greek and less Jewish dominated by the rich instead of the poor. The model for the basic formula developed by the Church Fathers over a few hundred years of study, discussion, argument, and excommunication, is still with us. I call it the “Traditional Model”:

The Traditional Model above describes what most of us were taught about the Trinity and what most of us would say “the Trinity is”. Simply put, one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are of one substance, but the persons of the Trinity are distinct from the other persons. Most Christians simply understand it as “three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.

The details of all of this are lengthy, but it is important to remember that the Trinity is a “negative theology”. Most of Trinitarian theology is a reaction to theological errors, either faulty interpretations of Scripture, or reasoning whose conclusions undermine what Scripture proclaims about God. So to understand it fully is not only an act of a responsible and faithful reading of the Scriptures and the Tradition of the church, but also a study in language, culture, and philosophy of all the various theologians, both orthodox and heretic in the church’s history that has led to the doctrine’s development. Unfortunately, the result of the complexities of Trinitarian theology hasn’t been correct belief as was sought by the original “negative theology” project. Due to its complexity, and church leaderships’ obsession with avoiding error, the response has been non-engagement.

Christianity can survive theological error. Christianity cannot survive a church that doesn’t engage. So Christians memorize Trinitarian theology to its simplest level, and leave it alone creating a massive chasm between theologians who imagine what God is like, and the church who attempts to make the prophetic imagination meaningful in lived experience.

As a result, most Christians, I believe, make a terrible error in how they understand the Trinity.

The Traditional Model shown above is an image of the “Immanent Trinity”, or the inner-life of God. It aims to describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and how all the persons of the Trinity are one God while remaining distinct from the other persons.

The problem with Traditional Model and the “Immanent Trinity” is that Scripture doesn’t talk about the inner-life of God very often, and when it does, Scripture is, at best, indirect and vague, leaving us to make numerous assumptions independent of what God has revealed. Worse yet, it assumes that the fullness of God’s nature exists separate from creation. How can a god whose nature is to create, redeem, and sustain exist separate from what was created and have that existence somehow be “full”? By definition, a creator cannot be a creator without creation. A savior cannot be a savior without anything to save. How can created beings say anything of a god who exists “outside of creation”?

Any theology of the Trinity that only depicts the inner-life of God is impossible, but separate from what God has done, it also lacks meaning. It fails to answer the question of “so what?” rendering the issue of God’s being pointless to creation (which isn’t a problem if the church’s response is non-engagement). It fails against the basic reality that what we know of God only exists through God’s revelation, and that God reveals through acting in history. Depicting God as anything other than a god who acts in history is to depict a god foreign to the Gospel.

Rather than speculate about what God must be like “outside of creation”, and rather than to be so proud to assume that the limited depiction in Scripture of the Immanent Trinity could possibly give us a reliable way to speak about the inner-life of God, and rather than limit God to our own understanding of what is logically necessary as if the bounds of human logic somehow limit God’s nature, Trinitarian theology should rightly point towards what God has done. What God has done and what God is doing in the created world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is known as “The Economic Trinity”.

Karl Rahner’s axiom, “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity, and vice versa” addresses this problem succinctly. His axiom in plain-speak means “God really is what God actually does” or “God acting in creation is God in God’s inner-self”. God isn’t just telling us what God is like through God acting in history; these acts are God. The god who creates, redeems, and sustains does not exist outside of history. There is no god “out there”. God is here, or God is nowhere.

I believe the consequences of this to be immense. Christians should reject a stale, unchanging model of God who doesn’t feel, act, or change. This means that by acting through love, compassion, and mercy, that God is becoming rather than simply is. God is constant in love and the nature of God remains steadfast, but God isn’t constant in being. By being active in history for us, God is changing God’s being to become more like God’s own nature, by becoming more of a god who creates, redeems, and sustains in history.

The traditional understanding of God as unchanging, is inherently contradictory for Christianity and must be abandoned. An unchanging god cannot become human. An unchanging god cannot die on a cross. An unchanging god cannot rise from the dead. A god who doesn’t change, who doesn’t act, who doesn’t feel or think, who doesn’t rejoice, or laugh, or mourn, cannot be fully human. Yet, by doing these things in Jesus Christ, God is no less God. In Jesus Christ, God is not less than, God becomes more of a god for us.

The Traditional Model which has described Trinitarian Theology is at best incomplete and at worst detrimental to a Christian understanding of God and God’s history of salvation. It depicts God “outside of creation” to be what God actually is, but the manner in which the persons of the Trinity are “related” has no meaning for how God acts in the world. Furthermore, the model has no meaning for how Christians should treat each other or how we should treat the people with whom we share God’s creation. Against nearly 2000 years of Christian history, I reject the Traditional Model as heresy, and I propose something different.

Below is my model of the “Immanent Trinity” but I place the Immanent Trinity independently here only for the sake of convenience for a purpose which I will soon make clear. I do not believe the Immanent Trinity exists independently, if it “exists” at all. The model is inspired by Thomas Weinandy’s thesis in Spirit of Sonship, The Father begets the Son in or by the Holy Spirit. The Son is begotten by the Father in the Spirit and thus the Spirit simultaneously proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten. The Son, being begotten in the Spirit, simultaneously loves the Father in the Same Spirit by which he himself is begotten (is Loved).” That model looks like this:

Weinandy believed that his thesis solved a key problem for Trinitarian theology. He argued that this view recognized the proper place for the place of the Holy Spirit rather than relegating the Spirit to secondary status in Christian theology as has been the historical norm. The Spirit, for Weinandy, acts as a sort of “relational person”. The Spirit is what makes the Father, the father of the Son, and it makes the Son, the son of the Father. Without the Spirit, the Father and the Son are not only not Father and Son, but are not one. This process isn’t a linear event in history like the incarnation. This process happens eternally, because begetting and loving is God’s nature. The Son is eternally begotten. The Son eternally loves the Father.

But this still leaves us with the problem of describing God’s “inner-life” and all the problems that a stale view of the “Immanent Trinity” brings. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything meaningful about how God interacts with or loves creation, nor does it tell us about how we should treat each other. If, however, we accept Rahner’s view that “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and vice versa”, that God’s inner-life actually is what God is doing in creation, then the model that we have created for the Immanent Trinity could also describe what God is doing in and for you as the process of discipleship:

The Traditional Model of the Trinity shown originally does two things really well. It demonstrates that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God and that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other. However, it is a poor model for depicting anything with regard to Trinitarian theology other than those two statements. If Rahner is right, then the Traditional Model should also be able to show what God is doing in the world in the same manner in which it shows that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one with each other in the Immanent Trinity. The Traditional Model cannot do this. The manner in which it holds together the Trinity and shows how the persons of the Trinity are related to each other cannot be duplicated for God’s relationship with humanity or the created world. In this respect, the Traditional Model is a failure.

Weinandy’s view solves this problem when expanded, as I have done, beyond the Immanent Trinity. The manner in which the Father is the father of the Son, and that the Son is the son of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit binds you together as disciple of the Son and children to the Father, is the same manner in which the Immanent Trinity is held together as one. In other words, “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and vice versa”. What God is doing in God’s relationship to you is what God is doing in God’s inner-life.

As the Father begets and sends the Son in the Spirit, so too are we made in the image of Christ and sent by Christ in the Spirit into the world. As the Son is obedient to the Father in the Spirit, even unto the cross, so too are we, baptized Christians, obedient to the Son in the Spirit, even unto the cross. As the Father loves the Son in the Spirit, so too does the Son love us in the Spirit. As the Spirit is that which makes the Father, the father of the Son, and the Son, the son of the Father (as the “relational person” in the Trinity), so too does the Spirit make the Son the Lord of humanity and make you a disciple of the Son.

Furthermore, the Scriptures and the Tradition of the church do not just tell us that God is making us disciples of the Son in a relationship that is one-to-one, it also tells us that God’s plan for the salvation of the world is accomplished through making humanity one with each other and by making humanity witnesses to and the object of a church bound by the Spirit with Christ at its head. As Father and Son are made one by the Spirit and the individual is made disciple of the Son in the Spirit, the church is made one with each other in the Spirit.

As the Father begets and sends the Son in the Spirit, so too do we make and send disciples in the Spirit into the world. As the Son is obedient to the Father in the Spirit, even unto the cross, so too is are those in the church subject to one another in the Spirit, even unto the cross. As the Father loves the Son in the Spirit, so too does the church love each other in the name of the Son in the Spirit. As the Spirit is that which makes the Father the father of the of the Son, and the Son the son of the Father, so too does the Spirit make the church brothers and sisters in Christ. The “inner-life” of God is revealed and is truly present in the church with Christ at its head.

The models I have proposed, “The Immanent Trinity”, “Discipleship”, and “The Church” follow the same pattern and subsequently do not exist independent of each other. They are necessarily connected as flowing from the relationship of Father to Son in the Spirit and Son to Father in the Spirit as revealed through Scripture and Tradition. They tell a story of what God has done, and how the disciple of Jesus Christ, and the church to which the disciple belongs, are part of God’s larger story of salvation history. These models when combined together are “The Economic Trinity”. They describe what God has done and point towards what and how God has revealed.

Most pastors and theologians can define an endless number of terms for you about the Trinity. They can give you history, philosophy, and scriptural references about how all this is held together. But my experience has shown me that most pastors and theologians cannot explain why it matters. They can’t tell you what difference it makes. They cannot tell the church who lives its faith in the created world why its Traditional Model has any bearing on their life.

A Trinitarian theology that can’t tell you this isn’t Christian theology. It isn’t good news.

God is so desperate for us to know what God is like, that God becomes human so that we can see and touch and know God for ourselves. A Trinitarian theology that is indecipherable to nearly everyone and breeds non-engagement isn’t Christian theology. It isn’t good news.

Trinitarian theology is the story of what God is doing for us. It’s a story of creation and liberation. It’s a story of salvation and love. It’s a story of mourning and loss, death and resurrection. And this story plays out in your church, in your family, in your community, and inside you. It’s happened. It is happening. It will happen tomorrow. This is God.

Anything else is a theology of less than, and that, in my opinion, is heresy.

Joseph and the Technicolor Budget

After a series of unfortunate events, Joseph finds himself imprisoned in Egypt along with prisoners of Pharaoh. Once the favored and youngest son of his father Jacob, Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy after he tells them that they bow down to him in his dreams. Betrayed by his family, grieved by his father, alone and imprisoned in distant land, the book of Genesis is steadfast in its claim “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.”

Fellow prisoners, the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh, imprisoned for offending the king, turn to Joseph to interpret their dreams, desperately looking for hope and answers while languishing in prison. Joseph does so, and his interpretations prove true. Just as Joseph foretells, the cupbearer is shown mercy by Pharaoh and is restored to his life, while the baker is hanged. The cupbearer, now freed, does not speak for Joseph, but forgets him in prison. We ask, where is God’s steadfast love?

Years later, Pharaoh dreams and is afraid. None of the wise men or magicians in Egypt can interpret his dreams. The cupbearer, still serving Pharaoh, remembers Joseph, and tells Pharaoh of a young man in prison who successfully interpreted his own dreams years ago. Pharaoh summons Joseph up from the prison, and the boy who was once sold into slavery by his brothers for interpreting dreams, now hears the dreams of Pharaoh of Egypt who demands an adequate answer.

Genesis 41: 17:

“I was standing on the banks of the Nile; and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before. Then I awoke.

I fell asleep a second time and saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.”

Joseph tells Pharaoh that the two dreams are one in the same. The seven fat cows and the seven full heads of grain are seven years of plenty that will come to the land of Egypt. The seven thin cows and the seven withered ears are seven years of famine that will follow. The famine will swallow up Egypt and the time of plenty will be forgotten. Joseph instructs Pharaoh to appoint a wise man over Egypt to take one fifth of the produce from each of the years of plenty and store it up as reserve for the coming famine, “so that the land may not perish.”

Pharaoh is pleased, and chooses Joseph, the man imprisoned, to be the wise man set over all of Egypt. He is second only to Pharaoh in authority and in power. Joseph set to his task of collecting and storing up during the time of plenty in preparation for the famine. Each year, he takes up one fifth of all the produce in Egypt, and when the famine arrives with all its power seven years later, all the world comes to Joseph bowing before him to buy grain – including ten brothers from the land of Canaan, sons of a man named Jacob.

When biblical interpreters read the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the famine in Egypt, they are mostly caught up in the relationship between Joseph and his family. This is, in part, due to the amount of attention that the text gives to Joseph and his brothers encompassing most of chapters 42 through 45. But, it’s also due to interpreters’ lack of imagination and curiosity about the story as a political and economic text. The events that drive this story forward are the great famine that befalls Egypt and Joseph’s plan, approved by Pharaoh, to manage the famine through taxation and political authority, the relationship of Joseph and his brothers is what happens on the side. How Joseph deals with the famine, and its effects on Egypt and the nations that surround it, has been largely ignored, especially by Christianity’s most influential interpreters and theologians, the pastors who preach and teach the scriptures. We have done so to our own detriment.

When we hear Joseph’s interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams, we recognize, like Pharaoh does, that his plan is wise and right, for we know just how much the land will produce and when it will stop. Joseph’s plan to save in times of plenty by taxing the people and storing excess grain for the famine is wise and good. He combines the ability to discern the future through dreams and the foresight to minimize the cost of the famine through present action with the power from Pharaoh to carry out his plan. As a result, the people live.

Notice what has happened here: the writer of Genesis has declared that it is wise for the rulers of the people to enforce saving and restrict consumption during good economic times, and that it is wise for the rulers of the people to mandate spending and boost consumption during bad times. What Pharaoh recognizes as wise and what Jacob interprets from Pharaoh’s dreams as a gift from God is exactly what modern economists describe as an ideal fiscal policy in the modern economy.

Market economies have historically gone through cycles of growth and recession. Long periods of growth tend to be followed by periods of slow, stagnant, or even negative growth. The causes of these cycles are hotly debated as is the best course of action for how to respond or prevent high volatility and downturns, but over the 20th century, a general consensus developed among economists for how governments should ideally spend during these cycles as part of the normal spending process and in response to stagnant or negative growth. Their general outline is fairly simple and promises less volatility, less painful downturns, and higher long term growth. Politicians have never followed it.

Save during booms. Spend during recessions. Higher taxes during booms. Lower taxes during recessions. Higher interest rates during booms. Lower interest rates during recessions. Do that, and the economy and everyone in it, will be better off.

Of course, that’s not so easy. It isn’t easy to figure out if you’re in the beginning, middle, or end of growth or recession or when state action will start to affect the economy. It isn’t clear what combination of spending, tax rates, or interest rates a country should have or how to implement them in a timely and effective fashion. Furthermore, such action may not address underlying problems that triggered a downturn and spending, and, taxes and interest rates are prioritized by things other than just macroeconomic fiscal policy. Still, the general consensus holds true even among economists who would otherwise disagree. If you’re going to spend at levels above current revenue, it’s better to do so during times of recession than times of high growth. But, that doesn’t happen. We spend all the time.

When we stray from the general consensus and have deficit spending during periods of growth, two things naturally occur: 1) the boom is accelerated increasing volatility and ultimately causing a bigger fall when the market turns and 2) deficit spending limits the ability of the state to counteract a recession through deficit spending in the future by decreasing the effectiveness of future spending and reducing the availability of funds at a given price – future spending will be more expensive to finance. A third outcome is also inevitable, deficit spending on both ends of the business cycle results in a higher national debt, that may or may not be manageable given its size, the particular nation’s overall prospects, and interest rates. This result may ultimately lead to fiscal crisis.

One ironclad rule of economics and psychology is “People respond to incentives”. This is always true. Those in office are almost always incentivized to spend now rather than saving for later. This holds whether or not the country is growing or in a recession. A president or legislature ruling during a business cycle of growth and recession will likely face an election before the particular cycle is finished. And given that voters vote according to how they are currently doing rather than a more complex understanding of overall economic health or strategy, they will reward faster present growth rather than predictions of future growth or stability. They will reward leaders who spend to boost the economy now, even if current deficit spending is unwise, and the leaders will likely be out of office once the boom turns to bust. At that time, the leaders will be rewarded for spending to stimulate the economy out of recession once again.

The only way out of this is a disciplined, informed electorate who punishes politicians who are self-servingly fiscally irresponsible. We can only do this by valuing future growth more than we value present growth, and by valuing expert opinion more than we trust those who directly benefit from a change in spending like politicians or the direct beneficiaries of such spending like connected businesses.

The advice of Joseph, taken up by Pharaoh and shown by modern economists time and again still holds true: spend during recessions from what you save during booms, “so that the land may not perish.”

However, there is a danger present in following Joseph’s advice. It’s a danger that Pharaoh misses and that present experts often ignore. It’s a danger that the writer in Genesis sees clearly but sadly is not often told by pastors and preachers.

Many of us intentionally or not, preach on the scriptures in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a selection of scriptures that follows the liturgical year over three year cycle. It attempts to go through as many books and biblical themes while equipping the pastor and the church to faithfully teach and learn from the Bible. Unfortunately, by organizing it this way, the church overemphasizes the texts that are listed and sometimes completely misses texts that are not. The lectionary follows the chapters and verses in Genesis that focus on the relationship of Joseph to his brothers. It does not include what happened to Egypt as a result.

An odd section of Genesis appears abruptly in the middle of chapter 47 that interrupts the story of the Joseph and his family. It describes the famine in Egypt from which Joseph’s plan was meant to limit harm. Famine had reached the whole of the land, and the people cried out for bread just as Joseph foretold. Joseph had taxed the people during the times of plenty and had stored up their excess grain to relieve them during the famine. When the people cry out for land, what does Joseph do?

Joseph does not give the grain away. He sells it back to them. Genesis 47:14 “Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.”

The people ate the food. Joseph kept the money. When the food was consumed, the famine continued, and the people were still hungry, they cried out to Joseph for bread again. Joseph responded in verse 16, “Give me your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” And they did. Joseph took all the livestock of Egypt and Canaan and added it to Pharaoh’s house. The people ate, and they lived.

The year ended. The famine did not. The people cried out for bread once more. “Our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands… Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die.”

Joseph bought all the land of Egypt, and took all the people as slaves for Pharaoh. Joseph enslaved the entire nation for the price of the food, which he took from them as taxes years before. They gave their food because of his power. They gave their money because they trusted him. They gave their livestock because they were starving. They gave their land and their bodies because they had nothing left. Joseph, the boy sold into slavery by his brothers, enslaved all the world through the power of God’s gift of interpreting dreams and through the foresight of a favorable fiscal policy. He took something great, the ability to limit mass suffering, and with it, forced the whole world to his knees in submission.

The danger in all of this is that the power we grant to our leaders to spend in times of want and save in times of plenty – this power we grant them will be closely guarded by those who hold it and closely sought after by those to come. They will use it to buy our support and to manipulate our feelings. But like the people of Egypt, it was their food in the storehouses, not Joseph’s and not Pharaoh’s. The power to spend is our power. It is our money. It is our land. It is our bodies. We must hold it more tightly than the leaders to whom we entrust with this power. If Joseph, son of Jacob, the one favored by God, can use such power to enslave all the world, what will our leaders do?

The deficit under President Trump grew to $666 billion in his first year, up nearly $80 billion from the year before. The deficit proposed under the President’s budget could reach $1 trillion by the next year and is set to grow further. Taxes have decreased. Interest rates have been raised, currently the only “lever” of the economy following the general consensus under the leadership of Janet Yellen in the Federal Reserve. She was dismissed by the President against precedent after serving a single term and replaced by a member of the President’s party.

The economy is booming.

In Defense of Overhead

Today is Giving Tuesday, a day in which many non-profits and charitable organizations will make appeals for donations to worthwhile causes. I hope you give, and continue to give generously.

Unfortunately, the manner in which many such organizations solicit funding from donors is deeply problematic. One of the most popular ways to compete for donation dollars is to claim that the organization spends little money on overhead and that a high percentage or your money goes directly to programming. From my own tradition, UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, says that 100% of what you give goes to programming.  That sounds wonderful. Who could object to more money going to people in need rather than administrative costs?

Well, me.

The accounting practices used to claim that money is going to “programming” rather than “overhead” borders somewhere between unethical and outright fraud. You would be shocked to find out what counts as “programming” in the non-profit world. They feel justified in doing so because it has become standard practice in the industry to invent and follow a new budgetary language foreign to any business school. There are almost no non-profits that advertise based on “programming vs overhead” that are being honest with you.

They do this, not just to trick you, but primarily because you, the donor, demand it. We want to be tricked. We want our money to go to the cause, not fill bank accounts of non-profit CEO’s. This notion is foolish. Organizations are successful because the people running the programs are successful, not because X% of dollars goes to programming. The people running the programs can be successful when their headquarters are competent, and well managed. They remain so if they are properly supported, properly equipped for the job, and properly paid. The jobs they do are complicated and require extensive education and training. The places where they work are often difficult, dangerous, and far from home. They have to monitor where money goes in areas where they may not speak the language or may not be able to perfectly navigate cultural differences. They also have to do this in places where the rule of law and beliefs about corruption don’t work the same as in the West, and even at home the job is difficult and expensive.

How do non-profits reconcile the problem of the need for high-end staff and the need to send X% of money to programming as required by donors? First, they short their staff, and rely on staff’s feelings of commitment to the cause so that they can pay them salaries and benefits below the market rate and far below what they deserve. The result is high turnover, high stress, high levels of dissatisfaction, high level of cynicism, and overworking them until they burn out. Second, they lie to you, or rather they knowingly define “programming” different than everyone else in the world, hide such definitions in the unwritten assumptions of the budget, and know that you will never look at it.

The result is predictable.  When staff aren’t properly paid or properly equipped to do their jobs, the work suffers.  Beneficiaries who need the assistance given to them by non-profit organizations receive worse services.  Non-profit workers can often move into other industries, but people who rely on their assistance usually have few other options.

The core problem here is unrealistic expectations of donors. You want your cause of choice solved for cheap. You want to outsource solving near impossible problems to “do-gooders” but don’t want to give “too much” money. You want staff to be experts but want to pay them like amateurs. Most of all, you don’t want to do the hard work of going through a budget, understanding complex issues, questioning your assumptions, or evaluating projects and staff, so you take a shortcut of “programming vs overhead”.  Non-profit workers are professionals, not volunteers.  If you want professional work, you have to compensate them like professionals and pay for a professional work environment.

If an organization promotes their giving based on “programming vs overhead”, run away. Or, ask to see their budget and ask questions about what counts as programming. Better yet, have a meal with one of their workers doing the actual work of interacting with beneficiaries and figure out for yourself if they and their projects are worth supporting. Then write a check earmarked to “overhead”, “employee salaries”, “office equipment”, or “parental leave” and walk away knowing that you might actually have done some good.

The Church and Charlottesville

“So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sounds of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” – Joshua 6: 20-21

When the Israelites conquer Canaan as described in the book of Joshua, this scene repeats itself over and over again. Israel engages its enemies. God intervenes. The enemy is given into the hands of Israel, and, by the edge of the sword, the entire population of the city is killed. Men, women, children. There are no survivors. There are dozens of verses describing dozens of different military encounters that result in the total destruction of armies and civilian populations in an effort to eradicate the people living in Canaan. It’s impossible to read this as anything other than genocide.

I didn’t learn about this in Sunday School when I sang about the “Walls of Jericho” as a child. Like my peers, I was unfamiliar with and unprepared for arguments against Christianity regarding biblical violence when I first encountered them as a young adult. The church has failed its youth in preparing them for an adult faith by attempting to protect them from the harsh realities of scripture. These texts need to be seriously engaged in every youth program and from every pulpit, or else youth will enter an unforgiving, cynical world unprepared and disillusioned resulting in either fundamentalism or non-engagement. Either the church will teach these texts, or someone else will do it for us. Protection by avoidance has been a disaster.

Instead of addressing difficult questions, the church would rather preemptively defend itself. The battle of Jericho is made into a cute story for children. The text describing the murder of infants has been forgotten. There is no need to defend against charges of divinely ordained genocide when children sing cute songs. There is no need to defend against biblical violence when we have learned, since childhood, to ignore the unpleasant realities of our faith.

The response by the church to violence in Charlottesville has been disheartening. The church should never equivocate over the “rightness” or “wrongness” of opposing sides, especially when one side includes Nazis and the KKK and when that side initiates violence that results in the death of the innocent. Christian moral teaching does not claim that “all sides are to blame” for moral error as if guilt can somehow be reduced if the other side is not perfect. Christian witness does not back away from assigning fault or choosing sides, but it reminds us that we are not blameless before God, so we should be honest in our accusations and gracious in our judgment. We do not seek vengeance or retribution. We seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice.

Unfortunately, the self-serving confirmation bias displayed by the church has been shocking. We have been eager to support people whose views match our own and eager to demonize people whose views do not. The information bubbles in the ideological divides of the church has left each group largely unaware of what and how others think, leaving us eager to decide for ourselves what our opponents views are.  This should terrify a global church whose members will never and have never agreed with each other with regard to faith and politics. If someone opposes us, we gleefully label them the “racist alt-right” or the “extremist, socialist left” as if the myriad of people who reacted to the events in Charlottesville can be easily classified into a limited number of groups that the rest of us immediately understand in full. The church should reject and fear such fallacious, reactionary thinking. Our forebearers have made this mistake before and the result was “destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city” and have called such violence “faithfulness”.

Many churches and Christian leaders have rallied to claim that those who marched in Charlottesville to advocate for racial violence do not represent the nature of the church. By immediately claiming the moral high ground and affirming what Christianity “really is”, of course in opposition to the racist nationalists calling for violence, the Christians advocating “true Christianity” have obscured, rather than revealed, the nature and mission of the church. The church, even the “true church”, is not a body without error or sin. There is not some quasi-Platonic “true church” out in the heavens free from the stain of violence and sin. The only “true church” is the one that we have. It is not innocent. Both our sacred texts and history show the church as both victim and culprit of racist, nationalist, and tribal violence.

The Book of Joshua is a prime example. In it, Israel destroys multiple cities and murders all of its inhabitants to take possession of land that God has promised them. This is done at the command of God, and it’s God, not the people of Israel, who is responsible for military victory. Most Christians do not want to think about or seriously engage a text that describes God as ordering the deaths of thousands of children at the edge of the sword. God is the actor in the genocide of Canaan. Israel is just faithful in carrying out God’s slaughter.

Is this the God of the modern egalitarian church who preaches tolerance and love? Or is the Nazi’s God of violence and racial purity? Without attempting to answer, the church has little meaningful response to those who preach racism and violence while claiming to defend a western Judeo-Christian culture.

The church has an opportunity to seriously engage with violence, racism, and tribalism using our own history and theology. We should be well-equipped for this task, but so far, the best we can muster is a faint, generalized criticism of our tribal opponents and praise for the myth of the “true church”.

We could proclaim loudly that those who call for or commit racist, tribal violence are not beyond redemption. The church of Jesus Christ holds the book of Joshua as holy scripture and is comprised entirely of sinners. We could hold up on our violent past. We could confess our sin. We could ask for forgiveness for not living up to our ideals and work together to change.

We could confess that the racist, tribal legacy of the church through the stories of Israel conquering Canaan in the book of Joshua has no archaeological or historical support, but was instead developed centuries later to support a centralized monarchy in the attempt to justify violence. We could claim that the various texts who describe this event in the books of the Bible contradict each other, and that the best historical evidence available to us does not show the rise of Israel as outsiders conquering the land of Canaan through violence as described in Joshua, but shows a social revolution in Canaan in response to local needs and from the threat of outside violence from powerful empires. We could confess that our ancestors “changed history” and codified this myth into scripture. They created this myth of a more violent past to justify desired further violence against its enemies. Enemies who are defined by their ethnic, cultural, and political identities.

We could admit that Christian history, like the rest of human history, is one in which racism, tribalism, nationalism, and violence are the norms, not outliers. Our tradition, our saints, nor our scripture are free from this. Neither can we hold up Jesus as a modern egalitarian who unequivocally loved and accepted everyone. The god who became human, actually was an ancient human whose ministry cannot honestly be ripped from its context of religious renewal and opposition to outsiders into our own context of western liberalism, equality, and universal values. To the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7: 24-30) who was asking Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter, Jesus said in reply, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” – meaning, she was a dog and she wasn’t worthy of Jesus’s blessing due entirely to her heritage. No amount of excuses or historical revisionism can remove Jesus from his own context of being a 1st century Galilean in a culture that was historically abused and oppressed by outsiders. Instead, we could admit that the story of God’s history of salvation is one in which God is continually revealed through human action which necessarily involves human mistakes, misunderstandings, and sin, including the evils or racism and bigotry.

We could teach our children that we don’t have it all figured out. That we don’t know the answers. That our heroes, our ancestors, and our saints believed and did things that we find morally outrageous because the church, like our democracy, is always striving for a more perfect union and that the God who acts in history to reconcile and forgive us isn’t finished yet. We could admit that we will not see its conclusion and that our own children will remember us for our many mistakes and errors. We could admit that we don’t have to be embarrassed of our humanity because our God isn’t, but we do have to correct and learn from our mistakes.

By not doing these things, the church robs the Gospel of its transformative power. As we are, God dies for us. God’s plan for the redemption of the world is the church – not the “true church” – but the real one that has let you down. The one we love to hate. The one from which I still run. The church cannot be relevant, transformative, or faithful without also being honest. And the response by the church to Charlottesville has not been. In this response, the church has been co-opted by outside interests who have always been happy to use, and then later disavow, the church according to its own needs. While calling out racism, tribalism, and violence as a moral evil is necessary for the mission of the church, doing so without extending grace and forgiveness and without examining one’s own self is antithetical to our calling. There’s no middle ground when it comes to grace.

To love the church and to love the world that God has created, is to love it in its brokenness and to extend to it grace and forgiveness without condition. To choose to love its myths over its reality or to choose to love it for what it could be instead of what it is, is to engage in an act foreign to the Gospel and foreign to the mission of Jesus Christ.

Advice to pastors, church members, and Christian parents: stop spreading the myth of the true church. Instead of telling everyone how the true church really isn’t racist or tribal but conveniently conforms to everything we already think, tell them the stories in our scriptures that show what we really are. Tell them about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Tell them about the Joshua and its depicted tribalism and genocide. Tell them about how Jonah was upset that God was gracious instead of killing all the Assyrians.  Explore our history of racism and violence and struggle with it together. And tell them about how the church, as we are, is redeemed but not yet made perfect.

A Fantasy Football Theory of Immigration

As a first-year student at Wesley Theological Seminary, I decided to start a fantasy football league with the goals of encouraging friendships and encouraging blasphemy. It was a huge success. Friendships were created, football was watched, beer was consumed, and unforgivable sins were sinned. It’s been going strong for 9 years.

Fantasy football revolves around two things only: 1) Creating offensive/funny team names, and 2) Feeling superior to your friends for little to no reason.

Best team names in John Wesley’s Fantasy to compete for the Kisker Cup:

  • Biden’s Death Panel
  • Mark Driscoll’s Feminist Workshop
  • Like My Weems? No. I Lovett.
  • Ocho-Cinco Theses
  • 2 Christologies 1 Cup
  • And my personal favorite: Secret Muslim November Surprise

For those of you who don’t know, your standard fantasy football league consists of 10-12 teams and each team can select from all active NFL players. A standard team has a starting lineup of 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, 1 tight end, 1 kicker, and 1 defense. All you do is select your players, and after each week’s game, you add up each player’s stats. The higher the stats, the higher the score. This isn’t football. It’s a math game that counts pro football stats alongside really bad puns.

Oddly enough, players who score the most fantasy points aren’t always the highest valued or best players in fantasy football. Because a fantasy team has to use 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, and so on, maximizing total points for your team isn’t about getting players who score the most points, it’s about acquiring players who score more points relative to other players at their position. As a result, while quarterbacks score more points than anyone else, running backs who score half as many points or less are often much more valuable.

To explain, imagine if quarterback (QB) Tom Brady scored 50 points a game by throwing a lot of touchdowns. Running back (RB) David Johnson scored 20 points a game by running for a lot of touchdowns. Tom Brady scores more points, but if the average quarterback in the NFL scored 45 points a game, Tom Brady would only be worth 5 points more than the average QB. If the average running back only scored 5 points a game, David Johnson would score 15 more points than the average RB. A team of average QB + David Johnson would score more than Tom Brady + average running back. As a result, David Johnson is worth more even though he scores fewer points than Tom Brady. The lesson: A fantasy player’s relative value is the fantasy player’s actual value.

In fantasy sports, a player’s value is measured by their draft pick, or in some leagues, actual dollar amounts you spend to get them on your roster. Take a look from fantasypros.com’s standard ranking for 2017:

The top rated quarterback and arguably the best player in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers, doesn’t show up until number 31 (as of posting). The reason is because there are 32 teams in the NFL, which means that 32 quarterbacks will play each week. If your fantasy team only starts 1 quarterback and there are 12 fantasy teams in your league, there are a lot of other options. But if your fantasy team starts 2 running backs and each NFL team only starts 1, there are few fantasy substitutes. Due to the scarcity of good players within the running back position, running backs are more valuable relative to other positions. Wide receivers (WR) are in a similar position.

I love fantasy football for more than just the funny team names and watching my favorite players. I love it because I get to see how economic theories and models play out in non-traditional settings. The mistakes people make, the values placed on players, and how that differs from regular NFL football, can all be accurately predicted. And yet, these basic economic lessons learned in fantasy football are rarely applied to other parts of life, even by people who play obsessively. In truth, immigration policy isn’t all that different from your standard fantasy football draft evaluation, if only those who play fantasy football would apply the same lessons.

There are two standard arguments for limiting or decreasing immigration into the United States. 1) Immigrant workers compete with native workers thus increasing native unemployment, and 2) Immigrant workers compete with native workers thus driving down the wages or benefits received by natives.

The standard arguments have a lot going for them. They’re simple, easy to understand, and are rooted in basic common sense. If a buyer has two sellers who offer the same product (in this case a job), the buyer can offer less money and play the sellers off each other driving the price down. An employer is in a strong bargaining position if there are many different applicants and can ask to pay a lower wage. This is a rare case of something being both naturally intuitive and also taught by basic economic theory.

But the standard arguments quickly fall apart in reality. Not only is increasing immigration positively correlated with low unemployment, but increased wages are also positively correlated with high levels of immigration as well – immigration, employment, and increased wages all increase at the same time. This shouldn’t be surprising. When there are more available jobs, and employers are paying more money to employees, more foreign workers will try to get them alongside native workers. Also, the standard argument depends on the assumption that amount of jobs is static as if the number of available jobs is fixed within the economy. However, there is no fixed number of jobs. Jobs are a dynamic market response to demand, and when people immigrate, they also need housing, groceries, and computer repair which stimulates even more demand. Economic dynamism through other factors like worker productivity, technological growth, and consumer confidence are difficult to measure, but are far more important factors for employment than simply counting the total number of immigrants.

Still, even after claims like “immigration decreases wages” or “immigration increases unemployment” are debunked both in theory and according to available evidence, people are still hesitant to support more immigration. Another more refined argument is often presented and is often championed by politicians who oppose each other ideologically. This refined argument has been long supported by people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The refined argument is a lot like the standard one, but instead of stating that immigration increases unemployment or that it decreases wages, it claims that immigration increases unemployment and that immigration decreases wages for the working class. Opposition to immigration is often sold in this manner as being humanitarian and rooted in a concern for the poor rather than just being anti-immigration. A corollary argument is that we don’t want to stop immigration, we just need the right kind of immigration. The right kind of immigration is of course, immigration that doesn’t compete with the working class (or whatever class or industry from which you want to win votes). As a result, many people support immigration for high-skilled workers but not low-skilled ones. This conveniently fits into nationalist or even outright bigoted views which only want immigration from countries like Canada, the UK, France, or those that share our values – read: rich, white, Christian countries. No one cares if software engineers move to the US from Canada, but those construction workers from Mexico? They’re ruining the economy!

The refined argument, along with nationalist ones, supported by populists like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, are certainly appealing, but as appealing as they are, they run into the same problems that the standard argument does. The numbers just don’t support their claims, and their argument runs counter to basic economic theory.

Remember why running backs are more valuable than quarterbacks in fantasy football? They’re not more valuable because they’re better players, or even because they score more points. In most cases the running backs that you choose over Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady score fewer points and are in fact, much worse football players in real life. They’re more valuable in fantasy football because they score more points relative to other players at their position. Remember, their relative value is their actual value. You win by acquiring players who score more points relative to other players at their position, not by getting players who score the most total points.

When a “low-skilled immigrant worker from Mexico” enters the workforce in the United States and begins to compete against native workers for jobs, the low skilled worker affects the job market by “taking a job”, but more importantly, by changing the relative value of all workers who are currently competing.

“The low-skilled immigrant worker from Mexico” may be intelligent and hard-working, but compared to the average US worker, the Mexican worker is almost always at a serious disadvantage. English is unlikely to be the worker’s native language. Education quality or level completed is likely to be less than the average US worker. Knowledge of work culture, expectations, and customs is likely to be far lower. Legal status and protection may place the worker at a disadvantageous position creating risk for both worker and employer. Long-term commitment to the job is likely far lower than the native worker as the Mexican worker may choose to leave, or through the laws of the United States, could be forced thus increasing the expectation of staff turnover and costs. Such examples could continue indefinitely. Simply put, on average, low-skilled foreign workers are generally less desirable to employ than native low-skilled workers by employers. If you don’t believe me, go to any union hall in America and ask.

As a result, the native low-skilled workers relative value does not decrease with higher levels of immigration. It increases. By a lot. If you were an employer and you were trying to hire workers for your company and John was an average worker, you would pay him an average salary compared to everyone else with similar skills and experience. But if the job still needed to be done and the quality of worker suddenly declined and your available adequate workers were terribly in short supply, John is a much more attractive option to hire or to retain as an employee. Suddenly, even without gaining skills or working harder, he’s more valuable and his market value has increased. This is the fantasy football equivalent of other available running backs getting injured – suddenly your average running back looks pretty good!

John can get paid more because the quality of the competition has declined. This is exactly the same thing that happens when lower-skilled foreign workers enter the United States. Increased immigration from poor countries increases the relative value of American workers thus increasing their actual value.

The standard argument could only plausibly make sense if foreign workers were perfect substitutes for American workers, but available evidence (and racist nationalists) tell us exactly the opposite. The majority of foreign workers in the United States are not perfect substitutes. They are imperfect substitutes, just as a no-name running back in fantasy football is an imperfect substitute to your average starter who broke his leg. The presence of imperfect substitutes doesn’t just increase the value of the “original”, the imperfect substitute is one of the main reasons why the “original” was highly paid in the first place – the other options aren’t as good. If substitutes weren’t imperfect, but were instead perfect, the price would always be low because workers could be switched around at will. Increasing the amount of imperfect substitutes into a labor market raises the relative value of the “original”. The only group for whom immigrant workers may be perfect substitutes are high school dropouts and the last generation of immigrant workers.

Those who argue only for high-skill labor are actually working against the well-being of the working class. By making working class Americans compete in the job market against only high skilled laborers, their relative value declines and they will get paid less or will be pushed to unemployment.

Many people will take offense at the suggestion that some workers are “lower-skilled” or that others are “imperfect substitutes”. Such complaints aren’t based in reality and only function to protect their own entrenched beliefs. Ironically enough, such people almost always support candidates who want to restrict immigration “for the sake of the working class” resulting in permanent low wages for immigrants in their native countries and stagnant wages domestically. They’re neither humanitarians nor doing anyone any service. Don’t be like them. People actually do have skills that we can quantify and the introduction of such skills into an economy is almost always good – even better if those skills are markedly different than what is currently available. Different skills benefit an economy even if those skills are “lower”.

American working class wages have declined or stayed stagnant over the last few decades mostly because technology has become perfect substitutes for a number of different tasks once done exclusively by laborers and workers have had difficulty increasing their skills relative to the incredible pace of the competing technology. In fact, machines have become so productive that they’re often superior options instead of substitutes. As the number of Americans working in manufacturing has declined and the amount of money spent on capital improvements has increased, productivity has greatly increased. We produce more in the US than we ever have in history.

There are only a few options in front of us if we want to increase the working class relative value again. 1) Increase their skills through education, 2) Smash the machines, or 3) Introduce imperfect substitutes to the American worker through increased immigration. I choose options 1 and 3. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have chosen options 2, in effect trying to turn back time, and they try the opposite of option 3 by limiting immigration. In fact, our politicians have chosen that exact same set of policies for decades. Preventing technological innovation and restricting immigration has long been the policy choice of both Republicans and Democrats.

Has it worked?

To learn more about immigrant labor as imperfect subistutes to native labor resulting in increased wages and employment, please read the following study by Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri entitled, “Rethinking The Effects Of Immigration On Wages”. Or you can just play fantasy football. Start thinking of funny team names now.


You can read an excerpt from Ottaviano and Peri below:

In taking the general equilibrium approach instead, one realizes that the substitutability between U.S.- and foreign-born workers with similar schooling and experience, as well as the investment response to changes in the supply of skills are important parameters in evaluating the short and long run effects of immigration on wages. We therefore carefully tackle the tasks of estimating the elasticity of substitution between U.S.- and foreign-born workers within education-experience and gender cells and we account for physical capital adjustment in the short and long run. We find robust evidence that U.S.- and foreign-born workers are not perfect substitutes within an education-experience-gender group. This fact, and the yearly adjustment of capital to immigration, imply that average wages of natives benefit from immigration, even in the short run. These average gains are, in the short and long run, distributed as a small wage loss to the group of high school dropouts and wage gains for all the other groups of U.S. natives. The group suffering the biggest loss in wages is the contingent of previous immigrants, who compete with new immigrants for similar jobs and occupations.

Your Neighbor Is Your Enemy

I’ll never forget the sound my head made when it bounced off the brick wall. I was more surprised at my reaction – a mix of defiance and fear staring back at the very large human who had just knocked my head backwards with his fist. There were too many to count, especially as one of them was in my face yelling, demanding to know why I had ripped his shirt. I had never spoken to him before. I didn’t even know his name.

He demanded to know why. A number of others were surrounding me yelling. The very large human stood with his fist cocked back, ready to hit me again. I said I didn’t know. I had just come from the locker room. I turned my head back towards the gym. The kid with the ripped shirt slapped me bringing my face back square with his. A very large fist struck me again. My head met the brick wall once more. This time I wasn’t surprised. It just hurt.

I looked over to my friends who had been walking with me. The two of them just watched. What could they do against such a large group? I felt bad for them. A few more fists. A few more threats. A few more names. And they were gone.

The rest of the day at school, I looked around the corner before I walked down the hall. I hurried to class. I carried most of my books so I didn’t have to go to my locker. I kept my head down at lunch. I ran to the bus. I tried to figure out what happened and why these guys who I had never met would corner me outside of the gym. The story went that I ripped this guy’s shirt during a football game in gym, but it didn’t make sense. A small kid like me would never guard the best athlete in the school. I never found out why.

The next few years in middle school were a constant reminder of that day. Threats in the halls. Shoves in the locker room. The same guys always bumping into me for no reason. Football practice was just an excuse to run me over repeatedly. Some of my things would mysteriously disappear. My athletic locker was even luckily assigned right next to a certain very large human. He had a tattoo of a skull on his chest. I was 12.

I never talked about it. I never told anyone. It’s just the way my life was at the time. It became part of my daily routine. I tried not to let it bother me, and I tried to just ignore it. If they hit me again, so what? It wouldn’t be the first time. I told myself that it was okay.

It wasn’t okay.

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When The UMC Splits

For years, I silently struggled with what to do. My doubt and growing shame crippled me. Do I stick it out despite being miserable? Do I keep going despite my growing disbelief in the United Methodist Church? I sat in my candidacy mentor’s office and asked him a question to which I already knew the answer, “If I leave now, will they ever let me come back?”

“No. Probably not.”

Still, I always held out hope. Maybe one day, I could get myself together. I could grow up, make sense of my calling, and somehow serve the church without a feeling of despair and without feeling like I was cheating either God or the church. But, I know the church’s answer is and will remain, “Probably not.” Yet, I still hope.

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