Camel and Needle

Camel and Needle

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 20 1997 3:30 AM

Camel and Needle

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Dear Peter,

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       Let me commend you for your professed devotion to Holy Scripture and your desire to discover and do the will of Christ. If, as you say, you wish to strive for theological and intellectual honesty, then perhaps some of what I have to say will be helpful.
       You assert that I am making up my own gospel, "the Gospel According to Father Sirico," you call it. "As for me," you add archly, "I'll side with St. Luke." Are you sure it is not a St. Luke of your own invention?
       Jesus' words from the Beatitudes in St. Luke's Gospel were "Woe to you who are rich," which was also the title of your original article in the Washington Post. But surely, this is not a political plank. It's enough to ask that government adjudicate matters of strict justice. We want government to say, for example, woe to you who are unjustly rich, with the focus on the adjective. Theft is an unjust means of acquiring wealth; governments, too, can be unjustly rich, when they plunder property in wars or through unjust taxation or inflation.
       My purpose, then, in adding "unjustly" before the "rich" is not to write my own gospel; it is to underscore the crucial distinction between our responsibilities to God and the government's duties toward the citizenry. This is what St. Augustine called the City of God and the City of Man. Understanding the difference is the first step in sound Christian political reflection. Please take that step.
       It should be obvious that Jesus was not engaging in political punditry with his words, but rather suggesting something of theological significance. Being rich will not get you to heaven; for that, you must experience the grace of God. Riches, like other earthly pleasures, can (but not of necessity do) distract us and even bar us from that spiritual goal.
       Further, the sermon deals directly with matters of individual sin and repentance because the working out of salvation requires we turn our eyes toward God and away from material comfort as an end in itself, as St. Paul suggests. The government has no business "helping" us not to be distracted by wealth. We don't elect politicians to legislate the Beatitudes into law.
       To be sure, Christ's words have a social dimension. The apostle John elaborates, "Whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" The other side of the coin is presented by St. Paul, "Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need."
       Yet legislating the Beatitudes--or regarding them as holding some secret redistributionist political implications yet unrevealed by the whole of Christian orthodoxy--would be an abuse of Christ's words to his apostles. After all, the passage in St. Luke begins with our Lord standing before the multitudes and "turning His gaze on His disciples." If he had meant for his words to be construed as a political program, I suppose he would have sought an audience with the government authorities instead.
       You assure your Beltway audience that Jesus' words have political implications profound enough to merit even a Washington Post op-ed. Yet you have so far refused to venture a single concrete suggestion as to what those might be, but for suggesting they have something to do with making us less resistant to "part with" our money. Hmm, I wonder what kind of policies those would be? It is easy to see how a government that operated according to its own rendering of the Gospel might easily degenerate into abuse and tyranny.
       Let me underscore how silly it is to cite Jesus' words as a possible anti-wealth political program. Our Lord follows his admonition about the rich with these additional words: "Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep."
       Are you prepared to make these sentences parts Two and Three of your collected works on the political meaning of the Gospels for future editions of the Washington Post? Are we to have Christian activists protesting full stomachs and excessive laughter on grounds that these are condemned by Jesus?
       To politicize these words is no more or less absurd than to suggest Jesus' comments about riches mean that government should crack down on private wealth. Truly, a politicized interpretation of these words makes a mockery of the central point of our Lord's beautiful sermon, to wit, that heaven is the reward of faith, not earthly pleasure, wealth, or accomplishment.
       This leads me to a troubling feature of your argument, which has a twofold assumption: 1) In order for Christians to act on something in the political realm, Jesus had to have made direct reference to it. 2) The urgency with which Christians should approach an issue is increased in proportion to the number of times Jesus made reference to it. Now, what is wrong with this exegetical tactic?
       For one thing, it is more fundamentalistic than all the fundamentalists I've known. It would mean that because Jesus never said a word about, say, nuclear proliferation, then Christians need not concern themselves with the issue. It would be as absurd as saying that because Jesus repeatedly employs agricultural metaphors, that farming takes on moral urgency. It would mean, in keeping with the words of the Parable of the Talents, we should all become high-interest-earning investment bankers in order to win God's favor.
       There are other literalists who commit the opposite error. There is the Prosperity Gospel of small Christian sects, who claim that earnest praying is more materially profitable than compound interest. When Scripture says, "The same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him," this interpretation renders it to guarantee at least a comfortable middle-class living standard for believers. This is the danger of half-cocked hermeneutical exercises; they may be suitable for the opinion page of liberal dailies, but they don't substitute for taking Christian social teaching seriously.
       To engage in a balanced exegesis, you would want to employ the whole of Holy Scripture, in light of tradition, and in light of a historical understanding of what has formed the Christian conscience for 2,000 years ("The lives of the saints are the footnotes to the Gospels," someone once said).
       You would need to take into consideration some of Jesus' wealthy followers like Joseph of Arimathea ("a good and righteous man") and probably Mary Magdalene. Jesus was not averse to enjoying their hospitality or accepting their gifts (e.g., the seamless garment), and St. Paul explicitly claimed that he was comfortable with much and with little.
       If you say you want to side with St. Luke then you'll need to take him a bit more seriously. Look into the context and language of his statements. When Jesus refers to the "rich," don't you suppose that it is important to ask what it meant to be rich in 1st-century Palestine? In a pre-industrial world, the notion of wealth, and poverty for that matter, was tied to something deeper than economics. This is understandable. For much of human history wealth was seen as static, obtained by political manipulation, theft, and war. Only rarely was it associated with trade, investment, or productivity, as we understand it today.
       Do you understand this? In a free economy, people become wealthy, not by taking from others or making others poor; people acquire wealth by dedicating themselves to the service of others, by bearing the risk inherent in all economic projects, by discovering better ways of doing things, by treating others as worthy of attention and respect, by dealing honestly, by keeping their commitments, by thinking about the future, by sacrificing today's pleasures for tomorrow's reward from creativity. This is what is meant by productivity.
       These are not activities the Christian tradition has condemned; on the contrary. Such behaviors and values are taught by Holy Scripture, strongly implied in the words of the apostles and Jesus, praised by the saints and martyrs, and encouraged by the best political leaders and statesmen in history because they are consistent with the common good. To suddenly pop up in a liberal daily and imply that the rich are always and everywhere a rotten bunch is to be at war with everything we regard as a Western view of the material world.
       Consider the opposite view of José Porfirio Miranda. In his charming, if heresy-filled, socialist tract called Communism in the Bible (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), he writes that "no one can take the Bible seriously without concluding that according to it, the rich, for being rich, should be punished." He also says, "All differentiating wealth is ill-gotten ... therefore to be rich is to be unjust." If you think he's got it wrong, I wish you would spell out precisely why. Your published work thus far seems less like St. Luke and more like Miranda-lite.

This dialogue grows out of an article by Peter Wehner, which appeared recently on the Washington Post's op-ed page. To read the article, click here.