Does Justice Demand the Death Penalty?

by David Baer

Michelangelo

The Last Judgment / Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed justice required the death penalty, and many today, following Kant, have argued that to abolish capital punishment is to undermine principles of justice essential to a healthy body politic. The Christian churches, historically committed to the idea of retributive justice, long supported the death penalty, turning against it only in the twentieth century. Indeed, Pope John Paul II came close to rejecting the death penalty altogether in the encyclical Evangelium vitae. What do these competing evaluations of the death penalty teach us about justice and punishment? Does justice require the death penalty or not?

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Are Hungary’s Churches Confronting Their Communist Past?

by Laura Viktoria Jakli and Jason Wittenberg

Source: evangelikus.hu

Source: evangelikus.hu

Háló 2, a collection of original essays and primary source documents spanning the first half of the cold war, is an important study of Hungarian Lutheran church-state relations under socialism. The collection chronicles the dilemmas faced by leaders of the Lutheran church as they struggled to reconcile the church’s spiritual mission with socialist ideology. The editors focus specifically on two church leaders—Bishop Zoltán Káldy (1958-1967) and Bishop Ernő Ottlyk (1967-1982)—whom the state recruited as informants. The essays and documents in Háló 2 reveal how each of these leaders wielded his authority and managed relations with the state. The overall conclusion is that under their leaderships the church became fully subordinate to the regime.

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The Church in the Bloodlands

Ukrainian Churches Must Encourage and Engage Civil Society

by Cyril Hovorun

Ukrainian Priests and Protestors / Source:

Ukrainian Priests at Maidan / Source: imgkid.com/ukraine-protests-priest.shtml

The “Russian spring” in the east is a revolution of paternalism. Its ideal, often unarticulated, is for a comprehensive, state-directed system of social organization that protects individuals from the risks of freedom. It reflects nostalgia for a time when the state assumed responsibility for all aspects of life, a time when the state was the society. It would be wrong to interpret this nostalgia as simply a desire to restore the old Soviet system. The neo-Soviet ideology is quite different from the old communist ideology that espoused an official atheism. The nostalgia for a safe, stable past borrows also from the now long-gone Russian imperial ideology.

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This article was originally published in First Things (October 2014).

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Read the article in Ukrainian here

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The Nature of Christian Political Action: Lessons from Bishop Ordass

by David Baer

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Bishop Lajos Ordass / source: Lutheran Church in Hungary website

For Christians, to find the right form political action represents an on-going challenge. They must avoid, on the one hand, the danger of absolutizing relative political claims, and, on the other hand, the danger of growing indifferent to politics. No single solution to the dilemma exists; rather Christians must continually search out solutions best suited to their time and place. In doing this, they will certainly attend to the character of the societies in which they live; but they will also look to great confessors from the past, persons who with their lives modeled faithful Christian engagement with politics. In this regard, Hungarians are fortunate to have had such a confessor in their recent past, Bishop Lajos Ordass. Bishop Ordass was guided in his public actions by the ideal of fidelity, and his great fidelity teaches us about the nature of authentic Christian political witness.

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Robert Benne on “Illiberal Democracy”

Robert Benne Source:  https://www.luther.edu/

Robert Benne
Source: https://www.luther.edu/

Robert Benne is Jordan Trexler Professor Emeritus and founding Director of the Center for Religion at Roanoke College, USA.  He has spent his scholarly career studying the relationship between religion and politics and is the author of ten books, including, most recently, Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics and Reasonable Ethics: A Christian Approach to Social, Economic, and Political Concerns.  He has spent extensive time in both Germany and Britain and follows European affairs with interest. In light of the heightened attention Hungary has received in the Western media after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő), Principium asked Prof. Benne to share with us his impressions of the speech.

Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) has received a lot of attention in the Western media. You’ve read the English translation of the speech available on the Hungarian government webpage. What did you think?

Benne: I can understand some of Mr. Orbán’s grievances:  the danger that nations will lose their independence to a large bureaucratic state, i.e., the EU; the cultural decadence of Western popular culture; powerful foreign forces buffeting a small nation; and domestic political deadlock.  But the solutions Orbán offers are abhorrent because they will lead to authoritarian nationalism.  His list of “models” for Hungary is truly appalling:  Russia, China, and Turkey being the most outlandish.  All three are authoritarian states with few freedoms.  The other two don’t fit:  India is moving toward a more open-market democracy, and Singapore is more like a libertarian city-state that has its own demographic problems.

What do you think of Prime Minister Orbán’s ideal of an “illiberal democracy”?

Benne: I found it truly worrisome. There is a whiff of fascism in the vision–direct knowledge and mystic representation of the people, strong racial nationalism, xenophobia, an impulse to co-opt and coordinate civil society (Gleichschaltung?), and a rejection of human rights.  Truly an illiberal state.  But like strong-men before him, Orbán underestimates the power and resilience of Western democracies, especially the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.  Although 2008 was damaging for democracies, it was not a historical paradigm-shift.  An American President like the current one, who wants to retreat from foreign affairs, will not be in office forever; and Europe, though weakening, is not exactly dead.

But in Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) Orbán said he wanted to build a nation on Christian values. Shouldn’t Christians respect him for that?

Benne: One is tempted by his respect for Christianity, but I fear Orbán’s would be a “tamed” Christianity subservient to political power.  Orbán is right that Christianity can provide the wholesome values needed to sustain a good society, but Christians need to be free to speak out and act according to their own vision of the truth.  Religion co-opted by the state soon becomes dishonest, impotent, and, when it abandons its commitment to transcendent truths, even demonic. Co-opted religion quickly becomes compliant or complicit with evil. Co-opted religion isn’t truly free. Orbán should show greater respect for the First Freedom, namely, freedom of religion.

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Martha, Mary, and the Meaning of Work

by David Baer

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Silbermann organ, Hofkirche, Dresden

That leisure is better than work is not an idea with many supporters today.  To work diligently in one’s vocation, say Luther and Calvin, is an important way to love and serve the neighbor.  Yet Jesus tells Martha, who works, that Mary, who does not work, has chosen a good portion.  David Baer reflects on the puzzle of worship and work, Mary and Martha, and the lives of Johann Sebastian Bach and Albert Schweitzer.

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Gilbert Meilaender on Infant Euthanasia in Europe

Belgium parliament

Belgian Parliament legalizing euthanasia / Reuters

In February of 2014 the Parliament of Belgium acted to permit euthanasia for children experiencing “chronic and unbearable suffering,” if those children were able to and did request euthanasia (and if parental consent was also given). This represents a somewhat more restrictive practice of pediatric euthanasia than that in the Netherlands, where infants with a “hopeless prognosis” may be euthanized even if the child is too young to request or assent to such action.

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Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University, USA. He served as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002-2008, and is a Fellow of the Hastings Center. He is the author, among others, of Bioethics: A Primer for Christians; Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging; and Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person. In this article for Principium, he addresses the problem of infant euthanasia in Europe.

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Why Principium?

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Christ Pantocrator, Hagia Sophia 12th c.

In principio erat verbum – In the beginning was the Word.  We are in great difficulty, no less than was Augustine, to explain what has here been quoted from the Gospel. But shall we then be silent for the cause? “Why then is it read, if we are to be silent regarding it? Or why is it heard, if it be not explained? And why is it explained, if it be not understood?” (Tractate on the Gospel of John). We seek to speak a word of truth on matters of public life. Not that the truth is our possession, for “to speak of the matter as it is, who is able?” But beholden to the truth, we intend to speak the truth as we are able. We, therefore, establish a journal named Principium, and set before ourselves the following goals:

First, that Principium be an international forum for Christian discussion on issues of public import. The challenges Christians confront around the world today are largely common (e.g., secularization, encroachment on religious liberty, indifference to the dignity of human life and the family), yet Christians themselves are often separated by nations, divided by differences of language rooted in the pride of Babel. Even so, as John Calvin has said, “the admirable goodness of God is rendered conspicuous, because the nations hold mutual communication among themselves, though in different languages.” Greater still, God endowed his apostles with the gift of tongues; “Whence it has come to pass, that they who before were miserably divided, have coalesced in the unity of faith” (Commentary on Genesis). In this spirit, Principium is to be bilingual, published in English and Hungarian, in service to the unity of faith.

Second, we establish Principium as a journal free and independent. “The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none” (Luther, Treatise on Christian Liberty). Exercising our Christian freedom, we will not be bound by partial interests, whether those of political power or populist movements. Moreover, we believe that through the exercise of Christian freedom we serve the common good. As John Paul II reminded us in Centesimus annus, “The Christian upholds freedom and serves it, constantly offering to others the truth which he has known.” Together with John Paul II we affirm that “total recognition must be given to the rights of human conscience, which is bound only to truth, both natural and revealed;” and that, “the recognition of these rights represents the primary foundation of every authentically free political order.”

Third, we establish Principium as a journal both ecumenical and orthodox. Mindful that Christ desires his disciples to be one, so that through them the world might know the Father (Jn 17:23), we are committed to open and ecumenical dialogue. “A command is given us in Sacred Scripture to preserve the bond of unity and peace,” Athanasius once wrote; “it is agreeable therefore that we should write and signify to one another whatever is done by each of us individually; so that whether one member suffer or rejoice, we may suffer or rejoice with one another” (Deposition of Arius). Only together, in the unity of faith and with awareness of our common purpose, may Christians hope to meet successfully the challenge our present age poses to authentic forms of life. Since the unity we seek is in truth, we intend to impose no burden on the debate in these pages beyond agreement in necessary things (Acts 15:28). Thus, in the confidence of faith and with hope for the future, but never setting ourselves against the patience of God, we launch Principium.

— The editors

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The Idea of a Christian Political Party

by H. David Baer

In an essay written perhaps in the 1960’s, the German Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke considers the possibility of a Christian political party. While not ruling the idea completely, he clearly has some reservations. By its nature, a political party must compromise and make strategic decisions that are far removed from Christian teaching.  And many of the things a political party takes a position on have no clear cut Christian answer.

Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986) Forrás: Wikipedia

Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986) Source: Wikipedia

Thielicke concludes that Christian political action should focus on specific issues, issues on which there is a Christian position. One cannot say this or that political party is Christian, but one can say, for example, that this is the Christian position on abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and so on. There may be Christian positions on specific political questions, but a political party with a comprehensive Christian platform is not really possible.

There might, of course, be rare exceptions in especially extreme circumstances.  This was the argument made about Hitler in the German confessing church movement.  Karl Barth made the argument famously, claiming, essentially, that to oppose Hitler was a status confessionis (to use Lutheran terminology).

As far as the political situation in Hungary is concerned, one would be hard pressed to claim things have reached that point. The only political event in Hungary that crossed the line theologically was Prime minister Orbán’s speech about the “bird from Turul,” delivered in the town of Ópusztaszer. If this sort of Hungarian paganism were to become an integral part of Fidesz politics, or the politics of another political party or government in Hungary, then Christians would have a duty to oppose such political paganism.  But the “speech at Ópusztaszer” was one crazy speech, and it would be rash to generalize from it at this point.

David Baer writes more about the Lutheran perspective on politics in the first issue of Principium.

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The Meaning of Marriage

by György Heidl

They are going to be disappointed, those who are hoping that, as concerns the theology of marriage and questions of sexual ethics, Pope Francis is going to soften the “strict” teaching of the church on the purity and sanctity of marriage.

catacombe_di_san_gennaro_fresco_Theotecnus_Hilaritas_Nonnosa_VIcEspecially as concerns the recognition of same sex marriage, we ought not to expect even a slight concession. Many have pinned great hope on the oft quoted, deeply humane, but thoroughly distorted comment by Pope Francis, “who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith.” But these people overlook the pope’s first encyclical, where he emphatically affirms the clear teaching of the church. According to Francis, the union of man and woman in marriage “is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh, and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan” (Lumen fidei 52).

György Heidl writes more about the meaning of marriage in the first issue of Principium.

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