Divine Patrons and Capitalist Democracies

When a North American reads the description of the cultural values of the Greco-Roman social world into which Christianity was born, they get the sense that they are dealing with a world closer to The Sopranos than the ideals that the United States, for instance, tends to view favorably. The analogy is appropriate, since the Italian Mafia’s values certainly do derive from the Mediterranean world and from a culture whose traditional values are closer to those of the New Testament world than are those prevailing in North America. Patronage (and patronizing), loyalty, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, nepotism, favoritism – all of these things that were considered normative and (on the whole) appropriate in the New Testament world are viewed with (at best) suspicion in ours.

What is particularly ironic, but not always recognized as such, is that many Christians seek to emulate such Mediterranean elements in the pattern the New Testament presents regarding how to relate to God. Yet these same Christians would often regard behaving in the same way towards their clients as God was expected to behave towards his as immoral or at least problematic.

In a society in which we consider it appropriate to reward people based on merit rather than relationship, and sanction rewarding those with whom one has a relationship as a conflict of interests, ought we to rethink religion in such terms as well? Or should Christians, conversely, be seeking to oppose the impersonal pattern of North American society and defending the prioritizing of relationships over merit on religious grounds? One or the other would make sense, but to be counter-cultural by accident in one’s conception of the divine-human relationship, and utterly follow one’s culture in interpersonal human relationships, seems like a rather odd hodge-podge indeed.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he hints at a possible Jewish and Christian challenge to ways of thinking about God based on the culture of patronage. Indeed, he goes so far as to offer instead a merit-based model that had a certain currency in Judaism. “God will give to each person according to what he has done…For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:6,11).

This marks an interesting contrast to the “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” approach that not only prevailed in Paul’s day, but is very popular in certain circles in ours.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    I am reading one of William Willimon’s books and I don’t think he would appreciate your sentiment. Thanks for the contrast.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Why not? I’m not that familiar with Willimon (although I just checked and he has a blog). Anyway, please do say more about what we’re saying that’s different, and whether you’d recommend the book! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08014885672703727636 Ken Brown

    Recently the Christian radio station in our area (to which, yes, I do listen occasionally) has been playing a song with lyrics that claim something like: “It’s not who you know or what you did, it’s how you lived…” I always laugh at how sharply this clashes with the anti-works tripe that they play normally. There is a tension here between election and response that will probably never be fully resolved.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07306357650551548310 Brian

    Very interesting blog. I’ve thought for a long time about the “its not what you know, but who you know” concept as it relates to God, and particularly Jesus. I’ve never heard a preacher say that its ok to know about Jesus in preference to knowing Jesus. So the golden ticket to heaven is predicated on who you know not what you know.There is an intrinsic belief within our Western culture, that it is the highest and most developed civilisation in history, so it must be right. I liked your reminder that other cultures have different values structures (from ours), but that does not mean they are wrong – just different.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    “but to be counter-cultural by accident in one’s conception of the divine-human relationship, and utterly follow one’s culture in interpersonal human relationships, seems like a rather odd hodge-podge indeed”I call it hypocrisy – or at least lacking integrity. The sermon on the mount is about maintaining integrity between inner drives and outward implementation of those drives. This is reflected in “love your neighbor as yourself”. Thus there must be consistency in divine-human and human-human relationships.I recall an episode of “Real Housewives of Orange County” (yes my wife and I have that swill on during slow Saturdays when the kids are sleeping and it functions as both background noise and morality play). This wealthy, driven, materialistic, plastic vision of humanity was discussing her daughter’s potential sexual activity with her boyfriend. Sitting in her mansion she said, that sex before marriage is not what the bible says to do as a legitimation for her ethical bearings with her daughter. Thus, counter cultural on the one hand, a purveyor of capitalist entrepreneurship in order to maintain a veneer of material wealth as a good on the other.Christianity in these situations collapses into commodity – a sign of the times quite literally.


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