Exploring Our Matrix
The Blog of Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis
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The folks in the Facebook group “Christians Against the Tea Party” have made a quote from a recent blog post of mine into a poster once again. I am not used to this!
You have to admit you’re pretty quotable at times.
The trouble with a pithy quote is that it tends to over-simplify. You’ve made some excellent observations about unenforceability of the ten commandments, for example: the law on coveting is unenforceable even in theory, but honoring one’s father and mother is a highly subjective standard, and strict enforcement of the law against blasphemy would at least result in a bloodbath today, starting with every little kid who says OMG.
In a similar vein, I don’t even know for sure what “capitalist values” are. If it’s a value that says “gain is godliness,” or that glorifies getting wealth as a value in its own right, then I’d agree–scripture is pretty outspoken about condemning that. At the same time, “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not covet” are both in God’s top ten list, so many leftists would stand equally condemned: hating “the 1%” and calling for their expropriation to distribute their goods to others would seem pretty clearly to run afoul of both commandments.
The Law of Moses commands both (1) not to steal, and (2) TO open one’s hands wide to the poor. It seems clear enough that in a society with both of those laws, the man who refuses to help the poor is a criminal, but so also is the poor man who takes what he needs by force. Solomon specifically commented on this, saying in effect, “Everyone sympathizes, but he’s still a thief and will be punished as such.” It’s a modern idea (like the idea of the state itself) that the state is exempt from such laws, and therefore taking what you need by force is a crime when you do it yourself, but somehow noble when another does it on your behalf. It’s quite unclear how “biblical” that is. Although the Bible is replete with kings breaking laws with impunity, I don’t find much in there endorsing the practice.
Note further, though, that “opening one’s hands wide to the poor” is completely unenforceable. How wide is “wide”? How big is a “corner of your field,” which you’re commanded to leave unharvested for the poor. How much giving is appropriate, and at what point are you within your rights saying that you’ve given all you can and need to worry about providing for your household? If I’m living better than a buddhist monk, with his meditation hut and his begging bowl, then obviously I CAN give more; by what selfish standard do I declare that no, I need a car for myself and one for my wife, and a three-bedroom house? Why not a two-bedroom house? Why not one car? Or no cars, and use public transport? And who decides?
In the OT, the individual is commanded, and apparently the individual decides. Giving to the poor is one of not that many commandments that comes without any stipulated penalty–whether it’s to be “cut off from among his people,” or “stoned with stones, that he die,” or to “pay a fine, such as the judges determine,” or even for the charity he withheld to be taken by force and distributed. I’m not conversant with rabbinic interpretation of this law, so I don’t know what later Judaism has to say about enforcement of it, but on its face it’s not enforceable, and for purely logistic reasons it would be insanely difficult to enforce.
And arguably, enforcement would be a hellish thing, like enforcement of “not coveting.” Again arguably, socialist societies were founded on 100% “charitable giving,” whereby nobody owns anything except his jacket, his toothbrush, and the next day’s rations. The result was rife with corruption (which I’d argue is intrinsic to any authoritarian system, which necessarily includes any one that attempts to enforce “morality”), but also horrible outcomes such as mass starvation. I think we can take it as read that nobody wants to live in a society like that. Many would say, though, that we can enforce a basic level of charity, up to some minimal living standard, without going to such extremes. Others would reply, with equal sincerity, that what we need is an entirely different approach to charity than one based on enforcement.
But this leaves me open to being accused of “capitalist values” that the “Bible condemns.” An unfair accusation, since I don’t value wealth as an end in itself, don’t consider gain to be godliness, and do believe that everyone from the richest to the poorest should be held accountable for his or her actions. And I’d like to see all that turned into a quotable byte suitable for a Facebook image.
Not only are you quotable – but that one is particularly relevant. Straw man makes some good points in reply. But we discover in our age as in the past that the wheels of enforced justice move slowly and the courts are jammed. There is a better way than enforcement – but it doesn’t fit the self-protective paradigm that capitalism requires. It requires a self-giving paradigm.
“Christians Against the Tea Party?” This must be an Irony-Free Zone.
I let the Rick Warren thing slide, Dr. McG. I didn’t and don’t think it’s right to spin it back on him in any respect. ‘Twas you who pulled the Brian Ross on this—Rev. Warren is blameless.
As for America’s “capitalist values,” I don’t know about that. “Capitalism” to its critics means Wall Street parasites; to its defenders it’s the Protestant work ethic and liberty as the necessary means for human flourishing.
BTW, your idea on time-travelling tourists is brilliant: unfortunately in Robert Silverberg’s 1969 “Up the Line.”
Silverberg’s narrative includes some cleverly worked out details about the problems of time-travel tourism. For example, the number of tourists who over the years wish to witness the Sermon on the Mount has increased the audience at the event from the likely dozens to hundreds and even thousands.
Cheers, sir. Now I shall leave you in peace, until the next time you breach it.
It’s my custom to sign my real name to what I write—I got caught up in the commenting protocol as “tomlosangeles.”
Tom Van Dyke
I am not used to this!
Oh, please. Just a few years ago people were talking about “James McGrath: The Only True God.” Surely being quoted is a come-down from divinity.
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