Saturday, February 16, 2008

'Biblical' investing?

I just saw an article in The Guardian which explored the world of 'moral' mutual funds, in America, particularly 'Biblical' mutual funds. They are certainly making money, but one might raise questions about how 'Biblical' or 'moral' they are.

One steers clear of investing in Wal-Mart - not because of its labor policies but because it doesn't cloak the cover of Cosmo on its shelves.

The article doesn't name one, but indicates in its headline that such funds are 'pro-armaments' - yet they are also against investments in tobacco and alcohol. 'I don't drink and I don't dance, but I'll blow you up if I've the chance.' doesn't appear in the Bible, that I recall.

Never mind that such instruments are essentially profit-driven, and seem likely to be involved in interest-charging enterprises*, both of which are dubious in light of Scripture.

Of course, part of what this points up is the ambiguity of appeals to something or other being straightforwardly 'Biblical'. Texts and understanding being what they are, this is an appeal to an interpretation, not to an uninterpreted text. And so 'Biblical' can often function as a code word modifier which means 'my interpretation' or 'people like us'.** One of the dangers of this is that it domesticates - potentially quite radically - the Bible, so that the constellation of values we already hold (perhaps on other grounds) come to replace the alien, challenging word of Scripture. It also means we can avoid engaging with those who read it differently, because they aren't 'Biblical'.

But perhaps in this case the real problem is when 'evangelical' becomes a lifestyle, and 'Biblical' becomes a modifier for a profit-making investment. When that becomes the case, then that is a clarion indication that something has gone seriously wrong. Will we have ears to hear?

* The church for most of its history interpreted Jesus' words in the sermon on the mount straightforwardly that we are to 'give, without expecting repayment'. It is only during the last 500 years that charging interest (and other means of making money with money) became legal. Of course our entire Western society is based to a large extent on the practise of making money on money - mortgages, student loans, business loans, insurance, annuities and so forth. And we Christians carry on doing this without the slightest pang of conscience. Our behaviour betrays the fact that we are always negotiating with ourselves just what constitutes 'Biblical' values; or to put it another way, it is a matter of judgement, which could be different. (Or we could bite the bullet and refuse to participate in interest-bearing activities and try to find alternatives. {Some Muslims do this in terms of Sharia mortgages, since some interpret Muslim teaching as forbidding interest.} There might be good reasons for withdrawing from the money-making machine.) But I suspect most of us would be loath to do so, or to do what we can to stop supporting arms makers, or to advocate for workers' rights. But gays, the cover of Cosmo, and (I suppose) profit-making are the big moral issues of the day: not a promising sign.

** Notice, for example, the shrillness of the leadership of the Southern Baptists, who historically have advocated 'soul freedom' and liberty of conscience in interpreting Scripture, but who now, ironically, are imposing certain readings as authoritative.

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Blogger Pamela said...

You might be making a worthy point here, but when you set up such an obvious and intellectually dishonest straw man of a gun owner who will "blow you up" if he had the chance, you rather ruin the opportunity to be heard clearly.

I honestly don't understand how you can establish yourself as being strongly opposed to the practice of Christians disassociating themselves from "the other" in any given aspect of biblical interpretation when I so frequently hear you do it over the gun ownership/control issue.

You really need to get to know real Christians who own real guns. Geesh. :p

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 4:16:00 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Obviously, we are on different sides of this issue, viz. the legitimacy of Christians owning guns. Taking a firm stance on something is not the same as disassociating oneself from the other. Obviously there are other perspectives: you've stated one.

You feel no compunction against stating strong opinions on controversial issues on your own blog as being an authentically Christian perspective on things - in doing that do you disassociate from anyone who disagrees from you?

But the post - you did read the post and the linked article, right? - said not 'arms' or 'guns' but 'armaments', which usually refers to a military or naval force or the process of preparing for war (I take my def. from Merriam-Webster), not to small arms.

And my point in the post is not even that investing in armaments might not be a solid money-making investment, but it is an odd usage to call it 'biblical', in a way that wouldn't cover alcohol and/or tobacco. This isn't 'biblical' in some obvious and unambiguous way, it is a certain take on the Bible.

I'm not entirely confident that we can have a productive conversation on this topic; I'm far less confident that we can if you continue to throw brickbats like your first comment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 8:35:00 AM  
Blogger Pamela said...

Nah, Jason. I wasn't throwing a brickbat. I was pointing out the way you seemed to be attempting to discredit those who own guns. But would you really have me believe that you mentally excluded individual gun owners in that first-person characterization?

I don't begrudge you the ability to make arguments on your blog. Like you said, I do it, too. And whenever we do, by definition of debate, we distinguish ourselves from whomever believes the opposite.

That's partly why I said in honesty, not desperation, that I honestly don't understand your concern over Christians disassociating themselves from "the other". Apparently you must not be talking about drawing the lines of philosophical or theological disagreement.

Is it the way in which we Christians relate to those with whom we disagree? Is it the way we characterize them when they aren't listening?

If so, then it's not such a bad thing that I called you on that straw man.

I don't read your blog for the arguments, Jason. I read it because of the friendship we've had. And because of that friendship, I welcome you to challenge anything I write on my blog, especially if I've committed a logical fallacy or failed to communicate my point.

Of couse, I'd have to blog something first. It's been a long time, and that fabulous Distraction Fest didn't help any.

Cheers, mate. God bless you.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 9:15:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thank you for your lovely, clear, irenic response; I'll try to live up to it on my end....

Actually, if the truth be known, yes I would have you believe it in this one instance - I honestly took the article to be referring to munitions, large arms, bombs, etc. and not to, say, hunting rifles or handguns. Apart from my testimony to this point, though, the only other thing to support this reading is that I wrote 'blow up' rather than 'shoot'. I had in mind a bomb as I wrote that. Obviously I'm not saying that we're on the same page as regards firearms, etc. - you know a well as I do we're not - but in this case, I really had a more limited thing in mind.

More than that, it was an attempt at humour - dashed off, maybe careless - in order to make a point, to point out the oddness of supporting manufacture of armaments, but not (say) alcohol, and to claim that this represented a 'biblical' perspective (presumably in contrast to other funds which would be - by implication? - unbiblical).

But it might have been ill-advised to bring in the armaments in the first place in view of the article itself not sufficiently developing this idea past the leader.

But moving on, to clarify what I mean about the 'other' in this context: no, I don't think that concern with, care for, hearing the other ever precludes philosophical or theological disagreement.

That would seem odd, almost tantamount to insist that 'no matter what you say, we're all saying the same thing', which would actually not be care for the other at all. It would be something more like colonising the other.

I wouldn't use the term 'disassociating' from the other though, even in the context of disagreement. (Not sure if you meant 'disassociating' in a strong sense.) What I mean is something more like: differentiating oneself, disagreeing with the other, while also refusing to disassociate from them, refusing to claim that, if they disagree they are out, or I am not a part of them, or they are beneath notice, etc. It is a refusal to duck the challenge of the other.

So you are exactly right when you say that 'it the way in which we Christians relate to those with whom we disagree? Is it the way we characterize them when they aren't listening?' What you say is what I mean, but more: it is also the way we characterise them when WE aren't listening (i.e. to them). In the body of Christ it seems we need a stubborn patience which holds that, as God has knit together the body with all its various parts, each part has something to offer to the whole. If I - or any of us - get caught up in a smug self-sufficiency, a self-certainty without recourse to others, then it seems we are in grave danger of wandering away from God and being satisfied with our own devices.

Or to transpose it into the idiom of our friendship: one of the most interesting - and sometimes vexing! :D - things is that, despite our quite deep disagreement on a wide range of issues, we love and serve the same Lord and are each a part of his body, beloved of God. I can never dismiss you or write you off or refuse to listen, although we also don't need to agree on everything. (In fact, the disagreements can even be helpful and productive in thinking through an idea or an issue and getting a different perspective.)

I don't contest your calling me on a straw man, but the nature of things is that we might need to have a discussion about whether what I said was a straw man. I am trying to indicate above that it is not yet clear to me that it was, although I will admit it may have been infelicitous. (I'm honestly not trying to be mulish on this.) But this is the nature of trying to communicate: asking questions, clarifying meanings, contesting expressions, whatever. It just takes time and patience.

I'm glad you enjoyed Distractionfest. I might actually get it fired up again soon, appropos of nothing but having some fun stuff to post - do you like Jacqueline DuPre?

Thanks again for your response! And may God bless you and yours, as well.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 11:56:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

P.S. I look forward to seeing more from Three for Thee when you've a chance - It's in my Google Reader.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 11:57:00 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

Ah, well, this is where I failed to communicate. It's the attribution of agression, of having a trigger-finger, to the responsible gun owner (or the responsibly armed nation): "I'll blow you up if I have the chance."

Most gun owners will tell you that having to aim and shoot to kill person is the absolute last action they would ever take. If necessary, they would shoot to disable an attack, but their hope is that merely displaying equal or superior strength to an attacker will keep the situation from getting fatal.

This attitude is also present in responsibly armed nations. The hope is that armaments will show rogue governments that it's pointless to attempt another Hitler or Napoleon. Responsible nations generally don't go looking for ways to go to war unnecessarily, and a reputation of being responsible will distinguish it from being considered a rogue nation.

Here in Chicago we're fresh off the news of a gun shotting of 5 women at a women's clothing store, not to mention the students trapped on the NIU campus while a seriously disturbed man uncontestedly laid many people victims.

This is frustrating to those who care about protecting the vulnerable, because we understand that 1) people are indeed capable of owning and carrying guns responsibly, and 2) if the professor (for instance) had been armed, he/she could have changed the final course of the situation for the benefit of all.

That's why I said you should get to know real Christians who own real guns, because then you would be able to appreciate the sincerity of their interest in protecting the community against such violent law-breakers.

Hope that helps.

Thursday, February 21, 2008 2:07:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...


(Yes, terrible news out of Chicago - and out of many schools around the nation over the last month or so. I read the Chicago Tribune online most days to keep up with what is afoot back home.)

I hear you that people who own weapons (guns, for example) are not inherently more violent than those who do not.

Naturally we're all - or at least I believe you and I are - interested in protecting the vulnerable; our disagreement is over the means.

But before we enter into a much longer discussion - an interesting one, but one for which I haven't the energy just now, for all kinds of reasons - on better means of protecting the vulnerable, let's instead return to the original post and what I meant to say.

As so often with my blog, I was talking about language usage.* Specifically, I was talking about the selective deployment of the adjective 'biblical' and musing about the criteria for such deployment, and also raising a question about what this might mean for the church.

I admit that my little jingle may have been infelicitous, and not have conveyed the meaning I intended. So I'd like to suggest an emendation to my text:

For: "'I don't drink and I don't dance, but I'll blow you up if I've the chance.' doesn't appear in the Bible, that I recall."

Please read: 'Christians have historically been divided on the issue of the legitimacy of the use of and support for the manufacture of armaments, and have likewise been divided on the issue of the legitimacy of the use of and support for the manufacture of alcohol, and both groups have founded their support or resistance on solid exegetical grounds. (Let us bracket for the moment the issue of tobacco.) In light of this, I wonder why the modifier 'biblical' was used to support only one configuration (of a possible four) of these perspectives?'

I might also hasten to add that the term 'instruments' in the subsequent paragraph in the text refers to investment instruments, i.e. the investments under consideration in the post.

I hope that clarifies things.

So, do you like the work of Jacqueline DuPre?

* Perhaps inevitably, subsequent discussion also deals with langauge usage!

Thursday, February 21, 2008 3:22:00 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

Hey, Jason, I didn't go looking for this; it came across my path. It's a list of parameters used by the Biblically Responsible Investing Institute to report on company practices. It scores companies based on 50 criteria known to be factors for concern among Christians.

You'll be very happy to know that Armaments shows up as a negative. Their definition: "Provides weapons products, systems, technology to terrorist sponsoring nation."

Turns out that it's also a negative for the fund reported in the Guardian article. The editors must have misunderstood that when they wrote the headline.

I know you have other problems with the concept of Christians making "biblical" investments, but at least it seems as though this one can be put to rest.

I have to confess ignorance on my part regarding Jacqueline DuPre, but I appreciated the first half of an old documentary I found on YouTube during my research. It was late, and the series was longer than I expected, so I didn't get to see the whole thing. I need to return to it. She seems like a remarkable woman.

Thursday, February 28, 2008 11:32:00 PM  

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