Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Monday, May 16, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers

St Peter at the Beautiful Gate
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

One of the more dangerous trends in American politics is the alliance of the Christian Right with the plutocrats. This leads to absurd situations of stunning hypocrisy, where "Christian" corporate shills take the money of religious-minded folks and spend it covering up all sorts of adulterous, and other misbehaviors (see the recent Sen. Ensign resignation for a classic example). Yet I think smug denunciations of hypocrisy won't help us on the left, to challenge the Right's assertion of representing "Christian values." We need to point out to American Christians (most of whom are neither right nor left) that the Christian Left can offer a promising alternative to the wealth glorification and bigotry promoted by the Christian Right. Here's a concise summary of the Biblical support for this argument:

Some who call themselves Christians in America have taken to raging against the threat they believe socialism poses to America and to Christianity. They see socialism as the antithesis of all things Christian and they are not entirely off base in their fears. Some movements and countries that have called themselves socialist have been explicitly anti-religious. The former Soviet Union is a clear example of this. Religious people (as well as many others, it is worth noting) were oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their beliefs. But even so, does it stand that Christianity and socialism must always be opposed? In short, no. Christianity and socialism actually have much in common.

In the book of Acts, it can be seen that Christ’s Apostles, lived in a communal way. The book states that “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” and “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32). Holding things in common, giving to anyone who had need, that seems very similar to the radical socialist notion of mutual aid, often expressed in the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The accounts in Acts are born out in the Pauline and the Catholic epistles. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, reiterates the egalitarian spirit of the early Christian commune, saying, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (8:13-15). In 1 Timothy, Paul condemns greed, proclaiming “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” before exhorting Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (6:10, 6:17-18).

And Paul is not alone in his epistolary encouragement of equality and charity. James says “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:15-18). Peter writes in his first epistle, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (4:9-10). In 1 John, we are again told “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (3:17-18).

From the Acts of the Apostles through the Epistles it is clear that the Apostles and the early Church believed that charity and a striving for material equality were requirements for being a good Christian. However, this parallel between Christianity and socialism did not arise from Jesus’ followers, but rather from their faith in God’s teachings. Christ himself is the wellspring for Christian socialists.

Christ, in His teachings, repeatedly condemns the rich and the accumulation of wealth. In Luke, Christ declares “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation” (6:24). In Matthew He states, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (19:23-24, 6:24). In describing the final judgement, Christ tells of how He will deal with the greedy by saying, “‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’…And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-43,46). Christ’s wrath against greed also takes tangible form when He drives the merchants from the Temple, crying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” and “Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (Mark 11:17, John 2:16).

By the same token, Jesus extols generosity and sharing throughout His teachings. In Mark, He tells His followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (12:31). In Matthew, He tells a rich, young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (25:21-22). In Luke, He advises giving to those who cannot give back when He says, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:12-14). He further promised eternal salvation to the generous, saying “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34-36,40).

Through His teachings and actions, Jesus made it clear that to be righteous the prosperous must distribute their wealth to the poor. This teaching was not some new innovation, but a continuation of God’s teachings as given through the Prophets, David, and Moses. Indeed, in declaring His mission, Jesus cites Isaiah, announcing “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
God’s condemnation of greed and selfishness can be seen in Ezekiel when He states He destroyed Sodom due to its people’s greed. He declares “Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (16:49). His anger can be seen again in Isaiah when God rails against those who would oppress the poor and weak, declaring, “Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees, Who write misfortune, Which they have prescribed To rob the needy of justice, And to take what is right from the poor of My people, That widows may be their prey, And that they may rob the fatherless” (10:1-2). But God also encourages the righteous to “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

Through the Psalms, one may again find God’s mercy to the poor and to the generous. Psalm 41 states “Blessed is he who considers the poor; The LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.” Indeed, the Lord Himself considers the poor. Psalm 35 praises God’s protection of the poor when it says, “All my bones shall say, ‘LORD, who is like You, Delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him, Yes, the poor and the needy from him who plunders him?’” God’s protection of the poor is echoed in Psalm 12 which says “‘For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, Now I will arise,” says the LORD; ‘I will set him in the safety for which he yearns’” and in Psalm 146 when it proclaims “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the LORD his God…Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners.”

While the Prophets and Psalms proclaim the wickedness of greed and the goodness of generosity, it is through Moses that God explicitly proclaims the need to create equality by redistributing wealth. In Leviticus 25, God tells Moses that every 49 to 50 years land sold by the poor shall be returned to them even if they cannot pay for it. He tells Moses, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me. And in all the land of your possession you shall grant redemption of the land. But if he is not able to have it restored to himself, then what was sold shall remain in the hand of him who bought it until the Year of Jubilee; and in the Jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his possession.” God goes on to tell Moses that “‘If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit…And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave” (25:35-37,39).

Even before this, God tells Moses that the Israelites must share amongst themselves in a way that is remarkably similar to ““From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In Exodus, God commands that when gathering manna the Israelites must divide the heavenly food equally. God commanded “Let every man gather it according to each one’s need, one omer for each person, according to the number of persons; let every man take for those who are in his tent” and “Then the children of Israel did so and gathered, some more, some less. So when they measured it by omers, he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack. Every man had gathered according to each one’s need” (Exodus 16:16-18).

There is, then, a clear message throughout the Bible that to be righteous and to find salvation, those who have much must share it with those who are in need. Those who bow to greed and turn their backs on the poor, betray God and and face eternal punishment in “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Does this mean that a Christian must be a socialist? Not necessarily, there may be other ways to structure an economy that is fair and insure the equality of all people. But it does mean that socialism is an economic arrangement that is completely in harmony with the teachings of Christ, the commandments of the Father, and the faith of the Apostles. The same cannot be said for capitalism with its foundation of greed and inequality.


Cletis L. Stump said...

Ulysses, I agree completely. I refer to myself as a follower of The Way as early Christians did. "Christian" has become such a hateful term. If young people knew Jesus through the prism of his socialistic teachings, they would be far more receptive to the beauty of his message. Great post.

Ulysses said...

Thanks Cletis! Did you know the modern "trust fund" actually developed because some Christians in medieval Europe couldn't understand how all this worked? St. Francis of Assisi reinvigorated Western Christianity with his emphasis on "Lady Poverty." Wealthy folks wanted to give Franciscans money to gain favor with God. The Franciscans didn't want any money, and suggested to these folks that they help the poor directly instead. Yet they insisted, and finally the papal bankers in Siena, Florence, and Rome figured out a way to accept the money that wasn't offensive to the Franciscans. And so the trust fund was born!

Underground Politics said...

Ulysses, this is a pretty awesome post! I love it!

Cletis L. Stump said...

Dude, I stand in awe of your education.

Traveler said...

This is an excellent discussion. My mother, who voted for socialist candidate Norman Thomas in her first election and who was very active in Christian churches (first Presbyterian and then Baptist) throughout her life, would have really applauded your defense of the compatibility of Christianity with progressive/left views of social justice.

Ulysses said...

Y'all would appreciate the good work done by Faithful America: http://www.faithfulamerica.org/

Motivated In Ohio said...

Wow, I was out yesterday and missed this. I am so glad to hear someone accurately quote the Bible. I believe in the "Good News" and have been very upset at the high-jacking of Christ by some people in order to bring fear and hate.