Politics and Religion 2 - New Testament thoughts

At the suggestion of my friend Rebecca Baker, I've touched the surface of some of the New Testament issues concerning poverty and the government. This is all I have time for right now, but if you make comments, I'll try to get to them.

Approaching the problem of government from the Christian Scriptures is more problematic. Moses was giving practical rules to create a more just society (like the one in Deuteronomy 25 where women are forbidden to rescue their husbands by grabbing the assailant’s testicles – that business is right out if you want to play fair). There is no corresponding practical approach in the New Testament. I think that if we take the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke as being the exact same thing, we can get into dangerous theological territory.

There are, of course, numerous passages in the NT that support giving to the poor. The first that come to mind are “Blessed are the poor…woe to the rich” from the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. The parables of Jesus are too numerous to mention here. There is a famous passage from Acts 2 where all the believers held everything in common. There is a troubling passage in Acts 5 where God strikes Ananias and Saphira down for lying about their contribution to the common fund. Acts 10 says that God heard Cornelius’ prayer and “remembered his gifts to the poor”. That one is significant because Cornelius was not a member of the Christian community at the time. In Paul’s retelling of the 1st Jerusalem Council in Galatians 2, the ending of the Church leaders advice to him is “that we should continue to remember the poor” which Paul says is, “the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” St. Paul’s vision for the church in general is in 2 Cornithians 8:13-14 “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality…”

When these passages are brought up in support of government policy, the normal response in some circles is to suggest that they are in reference to how things should function within the church and not for how government should be run. This insular approach to the concept of charity might be a starting point, but I don’t see it as any sort of end point. From what we know about them, Jesus and the Apostles spent a great deal if not most of their time working with the poor. In the case of Jesus, the Gospel’s are clear to make the point that this work wasn’t limited to people of his own faith group. I would also point out that one of the common criticisms that Judaism levels against Christianity (and I think rightly) is that the focus on an afterlife has led to complacency when helping people in this life. (I would argue that this is actually a departure from New Testament theology because of the Greek influence on the Church Fathers.) I’m not sure I have all the answers here, but if you spin the argument out from the other side, what do you get? Do you suggest that Jesus or St. Paul want monetary equality in the Church but outside of it that they support oppressive systems? I think part of the problem here is that the specific words of the New Testament get taken out of context. Jesus and St. Paul were Jews that were fully aware of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. However you interpret their words, I think it is dangerous to place them in opposition to the radical commitment to economic justice that their religious tradition had given them. That commitment included working against unfair government structures that oppressed the poor. It is also significant to note that as the prophetic tradition grew, it expanded beyond Israel to include working against oppression in surrounding states.

The second normal objection is centered in personal responsibility. There are many passages throughout the whole of the Scriptures that suggest that personal responsibility is something that should be valued. The chief verse that gets used is St. Paul’s, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Whatever the specific context of Paul’s statement (I’ve always been curious about why this argument doesn’t get applied to Jesus and his three years without working.), there is a more insidious argument that lies underneath. Specifically, if you’re poor, it’s your fault. I don’t doubt that this is the case sometimes, but it ignores the systematic oppression of people that get trapped in a cycle of poverty. The ironic part of this argument is that the heroes that we love most in the Bible were not “responsible” in the worldly sense. I’m not opposed to personal responsibility, but can we really suggest that Isaiah going around naked for three years at the command of God was acting in a responsible fashion? Was he really holding down a job during this time? If you can say that he was being “responsible” (and I do), then the situation becomes much more complicated. Sometimes being responsible before God means being irresponsible in the eyes of everyone else. If that is the case, we shouldn’t be so quick to make a causal connection between irresponsibility and poverty.

The situation becomes clearer if we place it in a more modern context. I don’t know whether or not Mother Theresa advocated for any specific form of government. I imagine she didn’t. Maybe I’m wrong. I do know that she dedicated her life to serving the “poorest of the poor”. Given that life, even if she did not advocate for a specific form of government, I don’t think she would support a system that allows 400 people to have as much wealth as the bottom 150 million. I think any school yard child could see that it is an unjust system. Those that are defending that system in the name of Christianity have really just invented their own religion and given it an old name.