Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

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Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 3)

September 6, 2017

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review; pt. 2)

August 30, 2017

The fundamental difference between the two, as Comey presents it, is the different ways each uses Christian scriptures to support his views. Following David H. Kelsey, Comey distinguishes between “direct” versus “indirect” authority.[1] Direct authorization is when a claim is based on a direct quote from Scripture, or is analytically true based on a direct quote from Scripture. While Comey does not give an example, I would presume that refusing to eat pork because Scripture says that you shall not eat any animal with cloven hoofs that does not chew its cud would fit. What Kelsey does say is that it is hard to find examples of direct authorization, because usually the scripture is more the basis of the theological command and not its content. Again using my example, the Torah commands the Israelites to “bind these words (the Shema) as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,” but it does not say how to do this; Orthodox Judaism has interpreted this mitzvoth to come up with the form of the tefillin. It’s not much of a leap, but it is an interpretation; that makes this an indirect rather than a direct authorization. Why write the scriptures on a paper and put them in a box, rather than write them on a ribbon and tie them on?

Further complicating the question of scriptural authorization for a theological proposition is that the Scripture may serve any of several functions. It may be a direct warrant for the theological conclusion, or it may be backing for a warrant, or data in the argument, or even a rebuttal. In each case the use of the Scripture will be different. For example, in the abortion debate, there simply is no direct warrant saying “thou shalt not commit abortion.” It simply wasn’t an issue that they debated or felt needed much explanation.[2] Instead, attempts to produce a biblical pro-life argument will use some scriptures to attempt to show that the unborn is in fact a person (data) and others to show that killing a person who has committed no crime is wrong (backing) and that since abortion is thus the killing of an unborn person, abortion itself is wrong (an indirect warrant).

Falwell, as you probably suspect, generally claims that his interpretations of Christian ethics and political goals are directly warranted by Scripture. He is a fundamentalist and hence an inerrantist. Comey points out that this does not mean that he is always a literalist. Falwell is claiming that all Scripture is inerrant, without error or contradiction; in cases of apparent contradiction, he is quite willing to claim that a particular passage is not literally true. For example, when Jesus says “if your eye offends you, pluck it out,” that is not a literal command to self-mutilation but rather a hyperbolic expression to teach the importance of avoiding sources of temptation.[3]  Furthermore, because the Bible must be without mistake or contradiction, seemingly contradictory passages must be harmonized, rather than allowed to stand in isolation or to remain distinct in tension with each other. For example, Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus did not find him but were met by an angel who said he was alive, and that they were so terrified that they ran away and told no one. Matthew says they did tell the apostles. Luke says Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. John says that Jesus appeared in person to Mary Magdalene, and that she told the apostles. Rather than accept that there are four distinct witnesses to the same event that report it differently, the fundamentalist must attempt to harmonize all the accounts into one story incorporating all (or at least most) of the elements of each. Furthermore, it cannot be left to the individual to decide what “really happened,” what one actuality lies at the basis of all four reports; the fundamentalist commentator must produce the harmonious interpretation and present it to the layperson as the authoritative understanding.[4]

Reinhold Niebuhr, by contrast, relies on indirect warrant from Scripture for his theological thinking.[5] While fundamentalists like Falwell treat the Bible as factually true, even describing it as “superscience” and insisting that the philosophy, history, science and even basic cause-and-effect reasoning have no place in Christian faith, Niebuhr argues that the Bible is in fact often factually wrong and even calls it “myth.” He argues that the Bible tells great truths, revealing the true nature of God and of ourselves, but that it “falsifies some of the details” in order to express a deeper reality. As Comey puts it, “Science and history give the facts while religion and myth tell the truth.”[6] The purpose of the myth is not to report facts, but it is not mere fiction either; it is a symbolic expression of realities that exceed the ability of the human speaker or writer to express directly, and likely exceed all human ability to verbalize.

From the Fundamentalist perspective, this sort of reasoning is hopelessly vague at best, and blasphemy at worst. If you can’t trust God’s truthfulness on things like the origin of the world, then you won’t be able to trust Him about heavenly things like salvation; therefore, you must hold onto the belief that everything in the Bible is not only “true” but also “factual.” Niebuhr argues that not only is this sort of factuality demonstrably false, it also falsifies. It risks making our historically conditioned, finite judgments about God into absolute eternal truths, rather than recognize that they are true expressions of God but only partial.

Both Falwell and Niebuhr would say that the Bible is central to all human thought about God and about our place in God’s creation. For Falwell, it is the accurate, direct statement of what God has done in history and what God has commanded humans to do. Scientific, historical and ethical thinking must first accept the inerrant revelation of truth through the Bible; any human thought is only appropriate as it is necessary for explaining and applying that core biblical data. For Niebuhr, the Bible expresses God’s nature and our own, not by revealing literal events and literal words but by expressing fundamental truths. For example, to Falwell it is essential that the Christian affirm the creation of the world in six days. For Niebuhr, the truth of the Creation story is that God is in command, God is other and beyond the world as well as involved with it, that God loves the world and us and that the world is good; and we too are originally and essentially good, although we also fall into sin and separate ourselves from God and our essential nature.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review)

August 28, 2017

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.”  Honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982.

 

After President* Donald Trump fired James Comey, several news stories appeared discussing his undergraduate senior thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and how his theological convictions might have affected his performance of his duties as Director of the FBI. My first thought, naturally, was, “Wow! A religion major found a job!” My second though was, “ I have got to read that thesis!” So much is on-line these days that my first thought was to Google it. No luck there. So I went to the public library, found the thesis title listed in a database of college theses, and requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Unless I get permission from the College of William and Mary to post it, I suggest you go to your library and request it yourself; it is a fascinating read, well-written and informative, reflecting some deep thinking from its young author.

Comey’s thesis compares two theologians who each had a powerful effect on Twentieth-Century American politics. The first, Reinhold Niebuhr, was one of America’s most influential religious thinkers from the 1930s through the 1960s, still widely read after his death in 1971. The second, Jerry Falwell, was at that time something of the new kid on the block, described by Comey as “a well-known fundamentalist television preacher” and an example of the Religious Right, which had been very influential in the 1980 presidential election. [1] Both were Protestant Christian theologians who urged Christians to become involved in politics as part of living out their faith. However, while both rejected Communism and urged the United States to oppose its spread, they had very different political agendas and very different strategies for linking their political teachings to their biblical studies. Comey’s project was to compare the two theologians, to examine each one’s approach to the Bible, politics and the task of connecting them, and to critique the strengths and weaknesses he found in each writer’s position.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 5, conclusion)

August 25, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 5

 

James seems to ask, if you are not stealing from your workers, how did you get so rich? And if you are not too much in love with your money and your luxuries, why are you so rich? But is this what he’s doing? Is this an indictment of the wealthy as a whole? Is it a call to repentance, a reminder that they need to be honest and to love God more than money? Paul reminds his readers that “not many of you were of noble birth,” not to condemn those who were but only to remind them all not to think too much of themselves (1 Cor 1:26-29). Therefore he tells his readers in Corinth that those who have should live as if they did not have, those who buy should not live as if they could hold their possessions forever, and that those who live in the world should not love it too much (1 Cor 7:29-31). When you have a lot of money, James and Paul are both saying, you are tempted to love your money and your goodies more than you love your Lord and what is good. Money indeed can change everything: your relationship to God, to your neighbor, even how you see yourself.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In the Torah, those who have and those who need are tied together in God’s covenant; the rich are called to lend to the poor and to give generously. James writes, “Faith without works is dead;” it is in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked that our faith comes alive. Without a hungry person to feed, the rich person’s faith could not come alive. And without a rich person living out his or her faith, the hungry person might not live at all. Both need each other, one to live and the other to live spiritually. Both can live in community, by the grace of God since our own human instincts are not sufficient, giving joyfully and lovingly and receiving joyfully and gratefully. We all get our turn to give and to receive, and everything we give and everything we receive comes from God, belongs to God and should serve God. Money changes everything. It changes us, it changes our relationships to others, and it changes our relationship to God. It can become a force that divides us, rich versus poor, proud versus humble, self-righteous versus repentant. Or, it can become a means of building up the body of Christ, as each person does what he or she can to build up God’s Kingdom using whatever resources God has given. Do what God commands you this day, that there should be no poor among you.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 3)

August 15, 2017

Is there a way to resolve this? Observation tells us that both reflect reality. The Torah tells God’s people how they should live, and promises that if they do there will be no poor; it does not, however, seem to be saying that no one would ever be even temporarily in need. Rather, its provisions, such as the year of jubilee and freedom for slaves, allows that those who have fallen into crushing debt should not be permanently impoverished; eventually they, or their families would be reinstated as free people and property owners, able to contribute to the economic life of the nation. The Prophets tell us that all too often human beings ignore God’s law and its call to give opportunity to the poor; when this happens, God judges the nation that has sided with the rich and powerful oppressors and destroys it. Those books such as Psalms and Proverbs, known collectively at The Writings, depict both what is and what God wants to be. These were composed on a long period of time, from the days of David until the return from the Babylonian Exile, and reflect the people’s evolving understanding of how God works among us. As Calvin says, God “condescends.” To our ears that sounds snooty, but the literal meaning of the word is joyful; God comes down to us to be with us on our level. God gives us God’s truth as far as we are able to understand it, and may reveal more to us tomorrow than we were able to handle yesterday. When people needed to know what being a godly people could mean and should mean, the Torah laid out an ideal vision of social harmony. When people needed to know how to live their personal lives to be the best they could be, writings such as Proverbs taught personal standards to follow, including both lessons on avoiding laziness and on practicing generosity towards the poor. And when people needed to know that their society had gone astray, that the rich were using the promises of the Torah to justify their own oppressive greed, and what God was going to do about that, God sent the Prophets with words of judgment and promises of redemption.

To be continued.  Next:  New Testament perspectives.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt 2)

August 7, 2017

The prophets testify that the people did not, in fact, obey, and that there were poor in the land and often they were terribly oppressed. We read that, despite what they were commanded, merchants kept dishonest scales that would read light when weighing the grain they bought from the farmers, but heavy when selling the same grain later. The rich felt no guilt sleeping in cloaks seized from poor persons as collateral on a debt, or seizing the children of debtors as slaves and not releasing them when the jubilee year came. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others announce God’s judgment on those who oppresses the poor; but most relentless is Amos. The book of Amos starts out like it must have been a well-received sermon. He follows a pattern, “For three transgressions of _______, and for four, I will not withhold punishment, says the LORD:….” Again and again he calls out the sins of Israel’s hated enemies, the neighboring kingdoms of Moab, Philistine, Gaza and so on. His audience must have been cheering him on. “Preach it, brother! Tell it! Give’em hell, Amos!” And then he gets to his own nation, Israel: does he say, “We will crush those wicked people, because we’re the good guys”? No, he does not!  Amos preaches:

 

 

 Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

 

Amos warns the Israelites that God is angry with them, angrier than at the Philistines or the Edomites for their war crimes, or at Judah for its religious failures; God is angry at the Israelites, because they have oppressed the poor, their own neighbors and kin, and grown rich and happy off their injustice. No matter how righteous they may be in their own eyes, no matter how bad their enemies are, they will be punished because they have gotten rich by impoverishing their countrymen.

If we stopped with Deuteronomy, we might think that every rich person is being rewarded by God and every poor person punished. If we stopped with the Prophets, we might assume that every rich person was someone who hadn’t been punished by God yet, but would be. John Calvin taught that when we read Scripture, we need to read it entire, and bring the unclear passages in conversation with the clear ones. In saying this, he recognized that there would be points like this that were unclear, either because they contradicted our expectations or seemed to contradict each other. Even in a single book, like Proverbs, we see this sort of tension. Proverbs 13:23 says, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice;” while Proverbs 20:13 states, “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” So Proverbs tells us that poverty is caused by the laziness of the poor person, but elsewhere says it is because of oppression and injustice. We sin if we ignore either possibility, since both are the word of God.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 1)

August 1, 2017

 

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything

 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,  and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”  have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?  Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

                   You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors

—–James 2:1-9

 

I read on the internet that nostalgia for the 1980s is stronger than ever; and if it’s on the internet it must be true. (I’m still waiting for that miracle hair tonic I bought to work, but the Nigerian prince I’ve been chatting with assures me that it will.) I am never one to question a trend, so I would like to take a moment to remember Cyndi Lauper, a singer whose vocal range was only matched by her far-ranging hairstyles. You may remember that she, like all girls, just wanna have fun, but I always preferred the song “Money Changes Everything.” It’s a bouncy tune, but the first verse tells an old, sad tale: we said we would love each other forever, but I’m leaving you because I found someone new. We loved each other once, but money changes everything.

I said it was an old tale, because it is as old as the Bible. When Moses led a group of escaping slaves into the desert, no one had very much. Each had what they could carry, if that. And God led them forty years in the wilderness, and they lived day to day on the manna they gathered, which would not last and could not be hoarded but had to be received from God a day at a time, so that they could learn that one does not live by bread alone, but by relying solely on every word that comes from the mouth of God. They were equal in their need of God’s faithfulness. But the Torah warns the people not to become complacent when they enter into the land of milk and honey and become comfortable or even rich, not to become self-assured and to think that their own intelligence and industriousness has brought them all this wealth and that they deserve it, when really it is a pure gift to be received with gratitude as a gift.[1]

A good parent prepares and educates the children before they come into their own money, so that when they do they will know how to handle it and not waste it on things that are harmful, or use it to hurt others. In the same way God gave the people laws that would guide their business lives when they settled into towns and became farmers and traders. In Leviticus 19:35-36 we read that God’s people are to be honest in business, and not to cheat each other by having fixed scales to use when they were weighing out grain and produce to be traded. In 19:9-10 he tells them to leave a little something in the fields when they harvest, so that the poor and the immigrant can gather food for themselves. (Imagine that: treating foreigners the same way they were to treat their own citizens! But that’s another sermon.) Every seven years, creditors were to forgive all debts owed to fellow Hebrews (Deut. 15).  There are strict rules for lending to protect the rights and the dignity of the poor person, limiting what the rich lender can take as collateral and what measures the lender can take to collect on the debt (Deut. 24). In Deuteronomy Moses promises, “There need be no poor among you, for God will richly bless you if only you obey;” but later he says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Why did God say “there need be no poor among you,” and then “There will always be poor people”? Is it because God knew the people would not obey?

To be continued.  Next:  the prophets.

[1] Deuteronomy 8

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

July 15, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

A reading from the book of Job, chapter 42, verses seven to nine.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

 

 

One of the first things I learned in college was that I could save a lot of time in the morning if I stopped shaving. Another thing I learned was that Caymanians hate beards. When I started meeting my Caymanian relatives after I grew my beard, I heard many complaints. My grandmother said to my sister that seeing me with a beard was the greatest tragedy of her life. She was a widow. I’ll let that sit there a bit.

My great-uncle Dillon was more direct. He told me directly that I should shave. I told him that many of my friends at school thought it looked good. He replied, “Those ain’t your friends, they’re your enemies!”

Now, Dillon was a bit of a jerk, and despite what my Caymanian relatives thought or think, I saw several of my friends trying to grow beards after I grew mine so I still think I was onto something. But what I want to focus on today is not my choice of facial styling. I’m interested in that saying. Dillon was PROBABLY not saying that those people who I thought were my friends were really wishing me harm. What he meant was that they were giving me bad advice, they were misinformed, and they were harming me when they tried to help.

Our scripture for today is about three of the best-meaning, least-helpful friends in the whole Bible. We should pay attention to this, both in what they do and what they fail to do. I believe this book has much to teach us today, because we humans are slow and still haven’t learned all the lessons of the book of Job.

First, let’s be clear that they really were good friends. Job 2:11-13 says that they each heard that Job had suffered many calamities, and met together to comfort him. When they saw him, he was so sick and so miserable, having lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, that he was unrecognizable. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I can barely manage a few words of consolation at a funeral; they sat with their friend seven days! They didn’t just say they were sorry he was sick; they stayed and shared his pain with him. They didn’t speak until they were spoken too. The writer wants us to understand both the depths of Job’s suffering, and the depths of his friends’ suffering for him. It’s important both for providing us with the emotional background to feel the story, and the information to interpret what happens next.

Finally, Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. It is an expression of despair and anguish, an expression of Job’s feeling that his life is miserable, and meaningless. In death, he says, the rich and the poor, the prisoner and the taskmaster, the wicked and the good are all together, and whatever happened before no longer matters. Suffering is bad enough, but meaningless suffering is worse; we need a sense of meaning or a goal to help us keep going through the rough times. Job says he sees no meaning in his life, or in life at all. Perhaps that is why Job’s friends thought a little theology would help. The bulk of the book is a series of admonitions from the friends, and replies from Job. Initially, the eldest friend, Eliphaz, seems to have thought that he was comforting Job. He assured him that life does indeed have meaning. If one is suffering, it is because one has done something wrong. No one suffers meaninglessly or unjustly; God would not be so callous. Therefore, Job need only repent of his sin, and his prosperity will return. Job insists that he has done nothing to deserve misery and suffering; it has just happened to him, and there is no reason why. Later speeches by the friends become more insistent; not only do they seem determined to reveal Job’s supposed guilt for his own good so he can repent, but they begin to get a little angry at him because he seems to be finding fault with God. Their intentions seem to drift from comforting their friend, to analyzing his situation and instructing him, to rebuking him and defending God. What they are saying was, in fact, a common theology of the time. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, God punishes sin. If Israel lost a battle or was oppressed by an enemy, it was because the nation had sinned. If an individual was sick, that person had sinned, or maybe someone close—God was said to visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And likewise, if someone was well-off, it was because that person was blessed by God, and thus was both virtuous and pious. We see claims like Proverbs 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” We see this sort of reasoning even in the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written down, when Jesus encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

It is an idea that is as old as the earliest written Scriptures and carried through even until today.   Today we call this thinking “the Prosperity Gospel,” and it has been particularly well-suited to the American character. There is certainly Biblical justification for this idea, although many of today’s Prosperity preachers don’t make much use of Scripture. And in some ways, it can be a very comforting idea. If I am feeling miserable, I can do something about it; I can work harder, I can pray more, I can tithe and show my faith and faithfulness, and then God will reward me with wealth, health and happiness. And if I am feeling great, then I can feel even better because the Prosperity Gospel tells me that my good fortune shows that I am not merely lucky or merely blessed, but smarter, more industrious, more virtuous, more devout, more worthy than other people. It is no wonder that Prosperity preachers, from Norman Vincent Peale to Paula White, have been so popular with the rich and powerful, and why they in turn have been so enamored of those worldly celebrities. Unfortunately, as Job’s friends show us, this theology has a dark side: it is very easy to move from “if I obey God, God will bless me” to “God has cursed you, you are miserable, therefore you must have done something wrong; you deserve to be miserable, because God would not allow undeserved suffering.” Often today we take it a step further than Job’s friends did, moving from “you deserve to suffer” to “I need not care about you, because you deserve to suffer.” The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, preaching nearly three hundred years ago when this country was still a group of British colonies, opened this door a crack when he said that after the Last Judgment the righteous in Heaven would look upon the suffering of the wicked in Hell, and rejoice at seeing justice done. Edwards did not, however, say that we should love our living neighbors any less, even if they are wicked, for they are still loved by God and forgiven sinners like us, and Christ died that they too might repent and be saved.[1] But too often today we get ahead of ourselves and are quick to turn away from those who have done wrong in our eyes. And Edwards knew that not all who suffer in this world are sinners, and not all who are at ease are righteous. He did not say we should cease to love our neighbor who was sick, or whose crops had failed, or who otherwise was suffering. But too often today, Christians do say such things. We are so obsessed with stopping the unworthy from getting a “handout” that we are willing to deny many more whose need is genuine and undeserved. And we are quick to assume that everyone who is rich has worked hard and done well and must be smarter and better and more worthy than the rest of us, when our only reason to believe this is the fact that they are rich. There’s much less interest in requiring the undeserving rich to help the deserving poor than there is in requiring the poor to contribute to the welfare of the rich. It gives us comfort to believe this, because the alternative is to admit that we don’t control our own lives, that God alone rules and rules in ways we might not understand, and that we can’t assure ourselves of wealth and health simply by tithing and working. And it gives us comfort to think that we deserve what we have and that those who lack have no claim on us because they deserve to suffer.

The writer of the book of Job wanted us to see the problems with that sort of easy equation of material comfort with spiritual worth. Even decent, well-meaning and godly men like Job’s friends, people who I think might have otherwise been better men than I am, were led astray by this idea that worldly suffering is always deserved. Their theology conflicts with their sympathy. And furthermore, they begin to rebuke Job for insisting that his suffering is not deserved, and that therefore God owes him an explanation. Job says he has searched his heart and can find no sin; he has not neglected to sacrifice and show his devotion to God, nor has he failed to show kindness and to give aid to the poor and unfortunate when he had abundance. His friends say that his current state is all the proof they need that Job has failed somehow, and that to believe otherwise is to disrespect God. No evidence that the other side can give will convince any of them. Only God’s appearance can answer the unanswerable questions raised by inexplicable sufferings. God speaks first to Job, and in fact God’s answer to Job seems a little strange. He never tells Job why he has suffered, that it was all a test to prove that Satan’s charges against Job were false. Job seems satisfied simply to realize that God is so much more than he had realized before, and that even his suffering has a place in God’s plan; he doesn’t demand to know what that place was, but humbly acknowledges his ignorance. But God is much more direct to Job’s friends, saying to Eliphaz “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is only when Job prays to God for his friends that they are forgiven, and it is only after Job forgives his friends and asks God to forgive them that his good fortune is restored.

The book of Job was written both to comfort the suffering, and to discomfort the well-off. Things happen for reasons we cannot understand from our human perspective. Because of this, we are all together, both the rich and the poor. Job comforted the suffering when he was prosperous; when his world fell apart, he found comfort from his friends, but also judgment. The attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures towards wealth and poverty is, as we have seen, mixed. If it were not, we would not need the book of Job, because there would be no unexplained or undeserved suffering. Instead, we find again and again through the ages that we do need Job, both to give voice to our mourning when we are in distress, and to remind us of our place when we are the ones who are well-off and witness the suffering of others.

[1] http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/contemplated.htm