Jesus Christ: He Can Control Corruption Inside Us and Within Our Societies (Part Two)

In Part One, we discovered the central fact about corruption, namely, that it lies within each human being by virtue of the reality of original sin. Thus, efforts to control and bridle this global “beast” will not succeed if we merely rely upon policy, economic, or legal solutions; rather, we must find a way to control the problem within each of us. Part Two aims to not only demonstrate the full impact of personal corruption, but also the ultimate hope for controlling and bridling it.

Jesus Christ: He Can Control Corruption Inside Us and Within Our Societies (Part One)

I wrote the book Taming the Beast: Can We Bridle the Culture of Corruption? because of my work as a campus minister amongst international students at the University of Minnesota for the past 30 years.  Early on, as we sat together with our Cokes, or cups of tea in the case of most Asians, I found that the single most aggravating fact of life back home in their countries was corruption.

The Church as Model Nation

© 2015 Robert Osburn

I thought about titling this essay “The Magnificent Church,” but, to some folks, calling the church “magnificent” is like calling a trailer court an “estate.”   “Fractious, stumbling, squawking” may seem like better adjectives for an institution in which Americans have declining confidence. One reason for the decline may be that, although only a tiny percentage of church leaders abuse, sexually or otherwise, their flocks, the media widely report about such abuse.  But, there is something going on inside of our churches, at least evangelical churches: While in most of the world, especially the Global South, the evangelical church is vibrant and growing, by contrast, a weary, cautious, shrunken spirit has infected North American evangelicalism.

The church muddles along.

But, then, like a diamond that stubbornly glistens on the cloudiest of days, Ephesians 3:10 declares:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.

Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, precedes this declaration with the stupendous claim (believe me, it was utterly shocking at the time it was written in about AD 60) that Gentiles are now “heirs together with Israel” in a completely new institution, the church. By its presence and practice, the church stuns the world by revealing that God has more wisdom than the gangs of professors that roam the halls of academia.  God intends it to be a model nation.

The church?!

The way God shows He has a much better grasp on reality than Oxford’s dons and Harvard’s robed gods is to craft a Body (v. 6) whose Head bled to death so that He could end the hostility between ethnicities that are now reconciled by His blood (2:14).  God’s wisdom is not only multi-faceted (“manifold”), but He intends to make that wisdom known to those who are both spiritual and earthly leaders and authorities. (Please understand that the phrase “in the heavenly realms,” in this passage and Ephesians 1:21, was likely a metaphor for powerful authorities who reigned imperially over their subjects, though it probably also has secondary reference to the spiritual powers that animate much leadership in our world.)  Those with imperial authority desperately need a wisdom greater than theirs that is on full exhibition through the church that is envisioned as a model nation.  As such, the church has replaced Israel’s previous role as a model nation (Isaiah 60:1-3).

My friend Dr. Bob Moffitt of Harvest Foundation (and a co-founder of Disciple Nations Alliance, of which the Academy is a member) declares around the world that the church is God’s instrument for healing communities and nations.  But I think it is not only that the church, whether in its universal or local expressions, is the most effective institution for solving community problems; it ought also be a meaningful institutional example of how leaders should organize public affairs. 

When I spoke over a month ago in the troubled northeastern Indian state of Manipur, I told churches there that the leaders of Manipur aren’t finding solutions to the multiple systemic dysfunctions that plague their region.  I said that the only way Manipur’s leaders will find lasting, genuine solutions is by learning from the church (which is very pervasive in that part of India). What prevents Manipur’s churches from being effective models to government officials is their disunity.   

For too long, the church of Jesus Christ has pictured itself as either a social club or a social agency (mostly liberal denominational churches), or, in the case of 20th century American fundamentalism, a refuge from society.  In the former case, theological liberals have made themselves virtual appendages of government (as have many Christian social service agencies, for example); in the latter, fundamentalists made themselves irrelevant to government by solely teaching the personal dimension of Christian faith.   The former is the ever-shrinking mainline church, the other a marginal church.  I am suggesting that Paul’s vision in Ephesians 3:10 was that the church would be a model to the nations of the world.

Imagine a church whose vision is inspired by this verse in Ephesians: “We exist to demonstrate God’s multifaceted majestic wisdom to the leaders of our community.”

How will they impact the “rulers and authorities” in their communities?  Through them, political and other leaders will discover that leadership is best done by serving the community, that the central problem facing the community is spiritual (lack of forgiveness, reconciliation, and regeneration), and that politics is a necessary but insufficient system for solving community problems.  As did America’s founders, they will also learn from the church that a federal system of government best balances local, regional, and nationwide concerns and interests.  They should learn from the church a vision for public justice that takes account of both individual and collective needs by means of what is often called principled pluralismAnd, finally, they must learn that religious freedom, or freedom of conscience undergirds all other human freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.  In the final analysis, by proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ, our churches will remind our international, national, regional, and local leaders that there is One Just Ruler after whom they should model their own leadership.

If our churches catch the vision as model nations, the church will increasingly be known as magnificent, not muddling.

Why the Incarnation Makes All the Difference

At Christmas, at least in the West, we are swollen with pleasant sentiment: gifts, lights, and music. We might, therefore, miss one of the most important questions that humans should consider in a world blasted and bewildered by terrorism, mistrust, and inequality: “Is the Incarnation the key to human flourishing?”  

The Failure of the Aid Model: A Surprising Discovery about What Caused Dependency in Africa

Most aid programs in Africa are moderate to spectacular failures. By contrast, all indications are that well-designed efforts built around income generation are the only way forward for those who want to escape poverty’s miry slough of despair.  But, how, in fact, did Africans end up in this terrible predicament in the first place?  Animism (the traditional worldview), endemic corruption, and terrible leadership are part of the answer, but…

Cracks in the Ivory Tower


© 2014 Robert Osburn

Updated 4-11-2019.

For at least a century, American colleges and universities have been identified with a monolithic secularism that vigorously pits academia against the church, and vice versa.  Why this is the case is brilliantly narrated by George Marsden in his 1994 classic The Soul of the American University.

One of the many implications of academic secularism has been a faculty often resolutely at odds with orthodox Christian faith.  Study after study has confirmed that faculty, especially those who are the elite within the natural and social sciences, hold very diffident (at best) and sometimes hostile (at worst) attitudes toward Christianity.  African American sociologist George Yancey has shown in his 2011 study Compromising Scholarship that self-identified evangelical Christians are sometimes the victims of anti-evangelical bias when it comes to faculty hiring.

The secular ivory tower holds firm, or so it seems.  However, there are indications that cracks are beginning to appear in the tower’s forbidding secular walls.  For three reasons (outlined below), the prospects for evangelical and other conservative Christian faculty are just now beginning to brighten. 

The first, and most important, factor is that postmodern Perspectivalism has opened the door to Christian scholarship.  Admittedly, postmodernism---the view that, instead of seeking truth, the only thing we humans care about is getting power---has had tragic effects on society and the church.

However, one of its ancillary claims (which happens to be very true) has given religious believers a “foot in the door.”  One of the many implications of postmodern thought is that humans inevitably interpret reality through a worldview, or perspective that colors how they understand the data of reality.  Take human beings in all our complexity: Scientific naturalists see complex biological machines, whereas, without denying the complex biology, Christians see evidence of God who designed us in His image.  

Prior to postmodernity (which began its rise in the 60s), the scientific naturalist simply proclaimed, “Here is the data, which speaks for itself,” as if they were perfectly innocent of any interpretation of that data.   Postmodernism calls them on the carpet: You interpret the data just like everybody else, precisely because you have a perspective, a worldview.  The net effect is that academics, especially younger academics, are increasingly schooled to see the importance of perspective (worldview) in how we make sense of reality.  They are also much more comfortable with the idea that different professors have different worldviews. Thus, as Marsden showed in his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, scholarship interpreted through a Christian perspective is a viable option for academia. (He expands on this idea at the end of his 2014 book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.)

The second reason for the crack in the secular ivory tower has to do with the effects of family fragmentation.  Mountains of evidence clearly point to one conclusion about family fragmentation: Children raised in fragmented families have poorer academic prospects than those raised in stable, two-opposite sex parent homes.  Not surprisingly, since Christian faith has the overall effect of stabilizing families, children raised in such homes have a higher probability of making it all the way to their PhDs and, thus careers in academia.  That means that a higher percentage of academic hires, notwithstanding anti-evangelical bias on campuses, are starting to involve young, fresh-out-of-graduate school faculty who are active Christians.  Anecdotally, there is evidence this is already happening, and so one can predict that in years to come the faculty Christian fellowships on our secular campuses will grow much larger. 

Finally, the third reason for this particular crack in academia---greater openness to and greater hiring of active orthodox Christians to faculties---is the rise of Christian study centers next to major universities.  Though not well documented, over the past decade the numbers of these study centers where Christ is honored and serious scholarship is celebrated has grown significantly.  The website for the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (full disclosure: I am a founding board member of that organization, and for 12 years directed one of the study centers in the consortium) lists 27 active Christian study centers next to major universities such as Yale, Kansas, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and Cornell.  (Only 15 were in operation when this article was initially written.) As these centers expand and multiply across the USA, they will further legitimize the case for Christian scholarship while also providing a nurturing ground for future Christian academics.  My successor at MacLaurin Institute (now Anselm House) has launched a stipended annual fellowship program (Colin MacLaurin Fellows Program) for Christian students that engages them in the very best of Christian scholarship, the intellectual foundations of Christian faith, and provides a social context that reinforces serious Christen engagement with academic life.  This will translate into a future wave of Christian academics.

Higher education’s very secular ivory tower is covered in crises, pathologies, and injustices (such as the growing aversion to letting Christian student groups restrict their leadership to self-identified and practicing believers).  However, there is at least one crack in that secular ivory tower: The numbers of self-identified Christians who, at least in some cases openly pursue Christian scholarship, is starting to grow.  

Some cracks are bad.  This one looks to be very redemptive.

Another Puritan Gift


© 2014 Robert Osburn

Father and son duo Ken and William Hopper introduced us in 2007 to the idea that the Puritans’ core values, such as thrift and an individualism balanced by the need to cooperate, helped created create US America’s dynamic managerial culture.  In their book The Puritan Gift: Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Financial Chaos (2007), the Hoppers maintain, for example, that the commitment to develop one’s craft within an organization (a Puritan pattern) is better preparation for being a successful manager than is an MBA.

I wish, however, they had talked about another Puritan gift: The Puritans’ unrelenting commitment to self-examination and integrity. And it is this absolute commitment to holiness that created a cultural template of honesty and disdain for corruption in New England.  Given the worldwide flood of corruption in governments around the world (most recently exemplified by that of Ukraine’s former leader Viktor Yanukovych), Americans ought to drop daily to their knees and thank God for our virtuous Puritan ancestors.

Without for a minute discounting the problems associated with their religious intolerance (though Harvard historian David Hall has shown in his 2011 book A Reforming People that it was much less severe than commonly believed), the simple reality is that the United States’ relatively low level of corruption owes itself almost entirely to our Puritan and Protestant forebears who strongly resisted temptations and inner corruption of the soul.  One Puritan prayed, for example:

Grant that my proneness to evil, deadness to good, resistance to Thy Spirit's motions, may never provoke Thee to abandon me. May my hard heart awake Thy pity, not Thy wrath, and if the enemy gets an advantage through my corruption, let it be seen that heaven is mightier than hell, that those for me are greater than those against me.

He was characteristic of the Puritans of the 17th century.  Combined with determination and courage to establish a holy colony in the New World, the Puritans (and most of the other movements that spun out of them, including modern-day evangelicalism) laid a template of honesty and integrity in political and social relations.  Thus, even as early as the 1830s, when Tocqueville the social philosopher studied the USA, he could see that one of US America’s virtues was its honesty.

The culture of honesty bred tremendous business confidence, and thus America could accommodate ever-larger numbers of immigrants, provided they came to embrace that cultural norm.  And most did (except for an isolated group of Sicilians whom we have come to call the “mafia”).

When you hear the word “puritan” spoken with a condescending sneer, remind your interlocutor that it’s because of the Puritans that Americans, unlike Ukrainians, don’t have to revolt against leaders they suspect of looting the government treasury for private gain, and a zoo to match.  And while you’re at it, invite them to join you in giving thanks for this remarkable religious heritage that has forever shaped America culture.

Nihilism, Inequality, and Loss of Agency


Editor Ron Reno penetrates the essential core of the problem of inequality in the March 2014 issue of the journal First Things (“Inequality and Agency”).  Inequality is not just about the masses in the growing lower and barely-middle class struggling to survive on the leftovers of the self-indulgent upper class; the real tragedy is the loss of the ability by these masses to make any meaningful difference in society (that’s what we mean by “agency”). 

Reno says that virtually all the culture-shaping, agenda-driving, justice-pursuing activity in the USA is owned and controlled by the mavens of Hollywood, the prestige media, and the universities.  Everyone else who doesn’t agree and submit…well, they’re woe-begotten souls, benighted, ignorant, anachronistically religious, and, most definitely, “out of step with history.” 

My decades of work amongst international students, along with many trips overseas in the past few years, have introduced me to the reality of whole and huge populations without much agency.  They see themselves as powerless pawns in a game rigged for the benefit of the powerful who are masters of corruption and institutionalized violence.  And now, slowly but surely, the sense of powerlessness and the inability to affect the outcome of society has crept to populist masses in the West, including the USA. 

Marx had it wrong when he looked upon the industrialized masses of the mid-19th century and offered a scientific materialist salvation through a proletarian revolution.  He completely failed to see that the Gospel of Christ has long empowered the powerless to gain the agency they so long desire.  Nietzsche the nihilist instead saw that if society rejected the God of Christianity (which he despised for its “slave morality”) and fully embraced utter materialism, or the philosophy of scientific naturalism, then there would be no meaning (as I wrote about in an earlier blog “Christianity, Islam, and Nihilism”), no morality, and no agency.  Only Nietzsche’s “Superman” could transcend history and make himself an agent that affected the course of history.  In essence, our Western elites, having largely embraced the materialist/naturalist worldview, are exercising their agency as Supermen and –women who transcend history.  They make the rules, they call the shots, and the masses must fall in line.

My populist perspective is true enough from an historical perspective and true tour zeitgeist.  But what gives me hope, and ought to be at the center of Western preaching to the lower and barely middle classes, is that Jesus Christ really does live, He does in fact transform our aspirations from sinful selfishness to radical love for our neighbors, and, yes, He gives us agency to make a difference in history (until He returns and ends history as its Vanquished Conqueror).  This means that our Christian teaching needs to explicate a biblical message (from Genesis 1) that God made us in His image as princely agents who must protect His creation and produce culture by promoting human flourishing and thus advancing God’s glory.  We must declare fearlessly that salvation is not found in redistribution, on the one hand, or libertarian individualism, on the other.  

Rather, the clear biblical witness is that humans have tragically imprisoned themselves as powerless slaves to sin (Genesis 3), and so salvation has to focus on that central problem that destroys agency.  The Christian worldview stands head and shoulders above progressive, postmodern, ultimately nihilistic alternatives for ending inequality.  The Gospel gives us agency because, through Christ’s atoning work, we have been liberated from our slavery to sin and thus restored to our original Genesis 1 calling. 

The real solution to inequality lies in the very heart of the Gospel of Christ.  Government policies and private charities have their place, well and good.  But, the real means to gaining agency is through Jesus Christ.

An Eye for What Others Failed to See

In early March 2009, Susan and I found our way through a maze of hallways into the office of Dr. Robert Woodberry, then a sociology professor on the University of Texas at Austin campus.  His mother had grown up in the Minneapolis area, and he was doing some interesting work on missionaries and their effect on societies around the world.  We were launching Wilberforce Academy, and had come to South Texas to introduce our new mission to some friends.

Surrounded by literally piles of research materials that covered virtually every inch of floor space, with soft-spoken intensity he began to tell us about his work.  “I’m looking for and finding all kids of data about religion and missionaries, the sort of thing that other sociologists just never see,” he said.  The results of his research were already becoming clear: What he calls “conversionary Protestant missionaries” have had a profoundly positive impact on nations’ prospects for democracy and economic growth. 

I co-wrote about his stunning research in an article recently published in Kairos, a Croatian theological journal, and David Koyzis has written a fine article on the exact dynamics that connect missionary behavior to democratic behavior. But far more significantly, the preeminent American Christian magazine Christianity Today has picked up the story in the January/ February 2014 issue.  The article title is “The World the Missionaries Made.”  This theme that Vishal Mangalwadi first articulated in the 1990s has now received enormous statistical and historical validation through Woodberry’s painstaking work: The Protestant missionaries who went around the world in the spirit of William Carey---sacrificially committed to Christ, hoping to win people to Him, desperate to help the people they served in any way possible, and almost always at odds with colonial authorities---have literally impacted nations in a much more positive way than almost every scholar imagined.

I have long contended that we evangelicals have not done a good job of telling the world about how we have, often unaware and always in simple obedience to Christ, made the world a better place.  We call ourselves salt and light, but we have little awareness of how profoundly true that is.  There should be no occasion to boast (we have far too much that is wrong with our movement), but we ought to get out this word in public forums and university classrooms.

Speaking of university classrooms, though Woodberry’s research has received top awards, the University of Texas-Austin refused him tenure several years ago.  Their loss was a victory for National University of Singapore where he now teaches.  As one blog writer noted, Woodberry is “an American who apparently found more academic freedom for his research in Singapore than the United States.”  



The Gospel Escalator


Social and economic inequality promise to haunt our globalizing world as it rockets forward through the first quarter of the 21st century.  The rich few get richer, while the middle class and the poor stagnate. This narrative of inequality not only has great appeal amongst the chattering classes of policymakers and journalists, but it will slowly gain more transaction amongst the masses.  Even conservative researchers like Charles Murray are sounding a warning bell, as he does in his 2012 book Coming Apart.  The conservative think tank leader Mitch Pearlstein is writing his second book on the subject (his first, published in 2011, is titled From Family Collapse to America’s Decline), and shows clear evidence that family fragmentation is correlated with poverty, under-achievement, and social stagnation. 

While Pearlstein is very sympathetic to the argument that a religious revival is the only way to turn around our social pathologies, most scholars and virtually all politicians ignore what was, until the mid 20th century, a socially-accepted and  powerful source of social mobility (the ability to move from a lower socioeconomic class to a higher one): Christian conversion.  In fact, my own research suggests that Christian conversion often operates in such a way that it provides a virtual escalator between the social classes. Sociologist David Martin has alluded to the phenomenon in his 1993 book Tongues of Fire, as has Robert Woodberry, the American sociologist who has studied the impact of missionaries on social outcomes.

Although the topic deserves much more research, we can suggest likely factors that drive the gospel escalator: 1) re-direction of finances away from self-indulgent activities to those that educate their and others’ children; 2) increased work productivity due to greater diligence and work focus; 3) increased trustworthiness with work tasks 4) refusal to steal from employers; 5) increased willingness to invest in business activities of fellow Christians, as well as to employ them; and 6) greater sense of efficacy, or the ability to make a difference in family, community, and public affairs. 

Politicians are likely to milk the theme of inequality for all the votes they can get, but the wise citizen will recognize that one of the finest ways that public officials can help reverse the rising tide of inequality is by encouraging citizens to seek out religious commitments that will make them into the kind of people who gain social mobility.  For most, this means welcoming Christian conversion and the community that comes with it.