Camel and Needle

Camel and Needle

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 27 1997 3:30 AM

Camel and Needle

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Dear Father Sirico:

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       In our previous exchange, you accused me of being anti-capitalist. Now I am guilty of being (more or less) a socialist and a communist. Given the trajectory of the accusations, I can only wonder what's next. (Two things remain constant, however: I am always placed in the company of heretics, and you always despise the Washington Post.)
       Since we are winding down our "Camel and Needle" debate, I will confine my response to issues that I think will help advance the discussion. Our exchanges are a matter of public record, so I am quite comfortable letting people read what I have written, and read what you say I have written (often the two are very different). A few thoughts, then:
       1) What seems to agitate you most is that I pointed out that you took the words of Christ ("Woe to you who are rich") and changed them (by adding "unjustly" before "rich"). That is, in fact, precisely what you did. I will leave it to discerning readers of SLATE to determine if what you are doing is, as you insist, making an Augustinian-like distinction, indeed "the first step in sound Christian political reflection," or whether you are, in fact, bending Scripture to fit your views. After reading your response, I remain firmly in the latter camp.
       2) You write that "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." You would never know from this statement that what I did in my original article was quote the Lord and St. Paul. It is their words you interpret in the manner you do, which I think is a problem for you, not for me. Obviously the rich are not "always and everywhere" a rotten bunch. And I certainly don't object to people who make their money in perfectly respectable ways. But the point remains: When Christ spoke about riches, it was almost always with cautions and concerns attached. Honest Christians need to confront that, and not simply wish his words away.
       3) You profess concern (repeatedly and passionately) that the words of Christ ought not to be "politicized," that his words are not a "political plank," that we "don't elect politicians to legislate the Beatitudes into law," that it is "silly" to cite Jesus' words as a political program, that to politicize the words of Christ is "more or less absurd," and that to politicize the interpretation of Christ's words is to make a "mockery" of the Lord's beautiful sermon. Interesting words to hear from you. But I do wonder if you have articulated these deep concerns before, or whether these concerns arise simply because we are discussing riches? I would only urge you to be consistent. It would be a shame if your concern about the Gospel being politicized was limited to issues that you perceive as a challenge to your political ideology, and that you are willing to use the Scriptures to justify your support of things to which you are politically sympathetic.
       4) You insist that a "balanced exegesis" should employ the whole of Scripture. Amen. But the political issues that you and others choose to give (or withhold) the imprimatur of Christ seem to be capricious. An emphatic "No" on riches, but a strong "Yes" to capitalism? And a "Yes" to tax cuts, a parental-rights amendment, and abolishing the Department of Education? This is a "balanced exegesis"? Based on the "whole of Holy Scripture"?
       5) You write that my argument has a twofold assumption: In order for Christians to act on something in the political realm, a) Jesus had to have made direct reference to it, and b) the urgency with which Christians should approach an issue is increased in proportion to the number of times Jesus made reference to it. That's not quite right. I believe Christians can and should act in politics as they see fit; they are, after all, citizens. But I will say that for those who argue that their politics are directly informed by their faith in Christ, it probably helps your case if Christ, or the apostles, said something about it. People are right to be suspicious of Christians who ignore issues that Christ refers to directly, repeatedly, and urgently, and who choose to advance political issues (under the banner of Christianity) about which Christ or the disciples say nothing, and about which they offer no guidance (political or otherwise).
       6) Christ says a staggering amount about riches, more than about almost any other topic. More than about faith and prayer, more than about heaven and hell. You therefore face a daunting task: reinterpreting verse after verse after verse on riches. So you decide the best way to handle this problem is to strongly imply that Christ's words on riches were meant to apply only to first-century Palestine! This is an astonishing and (for you) a very problematic assertion. Astonishing because there is simply no good reason why one should assume this. Problematic because you cannot give a good explanation on why you are eager to employ this tactic on the subject of riches, and not on issues like homosexuality, divorce, adultery, envy, strife, and a whole host of other things.
       7) You would have us believe that the Lord's teachings on riches are passé because riches are now made through the workings of a free economy. This claim is farcical, though quite revealing. It completely ignores many of the words of Christ and the apostles. Your clearly implied argument--Christ said what he said only because in a pre-industrial world, riches were mostly gained through illicit means--falls apart when we get to the story of the rich young ruler (to name just one example). And your argument ignores the widespread, two-millennia-old understanding (articulated by many of the Catholic saints) of why riches are a danger: the pull of worldliness, the difficulty in not setting our hearts on riches, the corruption of our affections, the danger that we lose sight of the fact that we are pilgrims and wanderers. These temptations did not disappear after the first century, or simply because we become rich through, say, smart stock investments.
       Your starting point seems to be that capitalism is virtually synonymous with Christianity, and that Christian concerns about riches (even when they are based on the words of the Lord) are inappropriate in our time. These concerns ought not even to be raised, and those who do are immediately suspect. Which helps explain, I think, why my original article struck such a sensitive nerve with you.
       Let me close with a thought experiment: How might the encounter with the rich young ruler have gone if it had involved you instead of Christ? Based on your writings, we can fairly surmise it would have gone something like this: The rich young ruler asks, "Father Sirico, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" You respond, "Obey the commandments." The young man asks which ones. You tell him not to murder, commit adultery, steal, or give false testimony, and to honor his mother and father and love his neighbor as himself. He says he has kept them all, and asks if there is anything he still lacks. You reply: "Young man, so long as you have earned your money in a free economy and not by taking from others, you have nothing to be concerned about. Invest well. Bear the risk inherent in all economic projects. Be creative. Be productive. And above all, don't worry." And the rich young ruler, upon hearing this, went away happy.
       We have said about all that needs to be said on this topic, I suppose. The good news is that by virtue of our faith, we will one day see Christ, in all his glory and splendor, where he will be the Ultimate Arbitrator--even of debates like this.
       See you there.

Sincerely,
Peter Wehner

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.