The Bible, Barack Obama, and American Business

First, let’s make sure that the president of the United States is quoted correctly and in full (unlike in Bristol Palin’s recent blog post and so many similar corners of the internet):

Now, some thoughts relating to those who have been complaining about what the president said. I can see how all sorts of arrogant and prideful people could complain, but I honestly don’t see how anyone who is a Christian, and grasps even superficially what the Bible says, could do so. The Bible has a strong emphasis on our dependence on God and upon other human beings. (How Protestants whose central emphasis includes phrases like “not of works, lest anyone should boast” can view life as an individualistic meritocracy is particularly puzzling, but perhaps a separate issue.)

Read some of the psalms which cry out to God on behalf of those oppressed by the wealthy – like Psalm 10, and perhaps even more directly relevant, Psalm 49:

People, despite their wealth, do not endure;
they are like the beasts that perish.

 This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,
and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
 They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd
(but the upright will prevail over them in the morning).
Their forms will decay in the grave,
far from their princely mansions.
 But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.
 Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
 for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them.
 Though while they live they count themselves blessed—
and people praise you when you prosper—
 they will join those who have gone before them,
who will never again see the light of life.

People who have wealth but lack understanding
are like the beasts that perish.

Look at the prophets’ words, decrying those who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, in passages like Isaiah 5:8 or most of the Book of Amos.

Look at the laws the ancient Israelites made (or, if you prefer, which God gave them), prohibiting them from charging interest or being able to buy or sell land for more than a generation before it returned to its original owner. And while Americans are used to reading the Bible as writings for each individual to do with as they see fit, laws like those in Leviticus 25 were given to the nation and were implemented collectively, including through taxes. Those laws say things like:

If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interestor any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.

Those on the right wing economically and politically object to trying to offer a minimum of equity in health care, and yet the law of the land found in the Bible would make it illegal to make any profit from the sale of food to the poor! I can’t see Americans – even those who say they value the Bible – going for that one.

And so when Proverbs 29:7 says “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern,” some people are picking a side which is incompatible with the claim to be Christian – unless they think that calling oneself a Christian while being deliberately and unrepentantly wicked is OK.

But some of the most relevant words for those who found the president’s point objectionable appear in the Book of Revelation. First, in the words addressed to the church in Laodicea, there is the accusation against those who considered themselves rich and thought that they have no need of anything or anyone (Revelation 3:17). But even more striking is Revelation 18, which depicts the downfall or “Babylon the Harlot” – i.e. the Roman empire. The downfall of Rome is mourned by merchants and those who work in transportation in particular:

The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore — cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.

They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’ The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out:

‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,
and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!
 In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!’

Every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors, and all who earn their living from the sea, will stand far off. When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city ?’ They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out:

‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
where all who had ships on the sea
became rich through her wealth!
In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’

To put it in modern terms, businesspeople mourn the downfall of what today would be their nation, because without it they lack customers for their goods, passengers and cargo for their ships.

In other words, if the nation fairs poorly, those who engage in commerce suffer.

Of course, some in our time have managed to amass such great wealth as to have no need of commerce to survive.

Of course, some have become so wealthy that they really don’t need to care whether they create jobs or not, whether the policies they advocate help the society and community of individuals on which they scarcely depend any longer. A complete collapse of the nation might bring about some discomforts, but they could easily relocate, and still obtain what they need.

In many respects the United States is not fundamentally different from the Roman Empire – particularly in terms of the enormous network of commerce that entwines and entangles us. No one achieves great success completely alone, do they?

But if we recognize our interdependence, and care about implementing justice for as many as possible, then we can choose to be less like the Roman Empire and more like the just and egalitarian society that the authors of the Bible envisaged.

What puzzles me, in all of this, is the way that Christians can jump on a political and economic bandwagon, engage in misrepresentation, oppose moves which, however flawed and imperfect, aim at addressing serious issues related to economic and social justice, and not realize that those actions are so profoundly at odds with so much of what the Bible says. And what also puzzles me is how not only they themselves, but also so many others who hear what they have to say, can still take seriously that these are the most faithful Christians out there, those who are the faithful defenders of the faith. They seem more like opponents trying to undermine it from within than adherents.

I say this as someone who knows he does not do everything that he possibly could to help address injustices and inequities in the world. I am not attacking those who fall shorts, who stumble, who fail to live up to the lofty and arguably unattainable principles that the Bible in its best passages sets before us and challenges us to put into practice. I am addressing those who claim to be Biblical and yet have no idea what the Bible says about these topics. I am addressing the problem of those who ignore or have chosen to deliberately set aside the Biblical principles highlighted in this post, and yet who claim nevertheless to be defending – rather than demeaning and undermining – the Christian faith and its Scriptures.

Let me leave you with a snippet from Isaiah 10:

  • Straw Man

    Demonizing those we disagree with again. Anyone who doesn’t endorse government-run charity, can only be doing so because he’s indifferent to the cause of the poor, and hence of course not Christian (or at least a miserable excuse for one). It can’t possibly be that anyone sincerely believes that government-run health care will produce worse outcomes for the poor, for example, and that you are actually harming the cause of the poor, albeit well-meaningly.

    As for Obama’s quote, I don’t think anyone is confused to the point of believing he said that Sam Walton didn’t start Walmart. They understand that he’s referring to the undeniable fact that all such achievements are a cooperative act between an entrepreneur and the rest of society. Nor would any sensible person deny that this is true. There is instead, for some at least, an honest opinion that Obama’s remarks devalue the contribution of the innovator too much. This is clearly a chicken and egg question: Walmart wouldn’t exist without trucking and roads, but we had trucking and roads for decades with no Walmart until Sam Walton came along, and might still if he hadn’t.

    Some also object honestly to the implied bait-and-switch, whereby government becomes synonymous with society–l’etat c’est moi! It’s true that whoever you are, “somebody” gave you a hand; your mom did for starters. Obama’s speech interprets “somebody” giving you a hand as a debt to “society” (rather than to “somebody”), and in turn interprets “society” to be the federal government. His argument is as fallacious as the obviously offensive caricature that, “Your mom got you where you are in life, so you owe a debt to me that you can never repay.”

    There’s nothing Christian about reasoning of this type: it’s a blatant example of saying, “these be thy gods, O people, that give you food and clothing and shelter and all that you need,” substituting an idol for the true (proximate) source, the moms and farmers and textile workers. One can object to this blatant attempt at stealing credit for all good and perfect gifts, without being ungrateful for the gifts or despising their true givers.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      It seems to me that you agree with everything that the president said on this occasion, but are persuaded that he must be wrong about something, and so are looking for anywhere that you can read things into what he said that you can disagree with.

      But you also seem to perhaps genuinely believe that matters like food safety, workers’ wages, work environment safety, and other matters are dealt with more effectively by being left up to individuals rather than having oversight by government agencies which we the people ultimately put in place and use to hold businesses and their owners accountable for more than just their own profits. I am absolutely aware that these government institutions are frequently inefficient, at times bordering on the incompetent. But everything I have read or learned about what life was like before they were in place suggests that things were not better beforehand. It seems to me bizarre to suggest that less rather than better government oversight is the key to having the well-being of the majority of people in this country safeguarded. Time and time again experience has shown that it is harder to individuals to stand against wealthy businesses than it is for a united society working together through government and ultimately as government.

      As for the accusation of demonizing, you outlandishly suggest that your opponents are idol-worshipers. Is there even a slight chance that you could be projecting your own tactics onto your opponents? :-)

      • Straw Man

        You are making all sorts of inferences about what I believe based on facts not in evidence, which speaks to my point nicely. I said nothing about food safety, but you conclude that since I disagree with you on an nrelated matter, therefore I don’t care about the poor, and of course believe in poisoning people.

        Note that I didn’t say “he must be wrong about something.” I said exactly what he’s wrong about. Did you overlook it? Or have trouble comprehending it? Or did you notice and understand it, but decide to ignore it (which is intellectually dishonest)? I said that his statement is true on its face, but that he fallaciously equates “you had help from various people and prior generations,” with, “you owe your success to the government and should consider taxation to be a partial repayment.” I stated precisely why it’s false to equate the two, as well. You ignored all that and suggested that I want arsenic in the water supply, or something.

        Also note that I accused nobody of idolatry. I certainly made an analogy involving idolatry, in which a pretender (in this case, government) takes credit for providing that which actually came from another source (in this case, numerous sources). In using this dishonest rhetoric, Obama makes the government he represents a kind of idol, precisely the way that Aaron gave the calf credit for parting the Red Sea. This implies nothing about others who credulously accept the fallacious claim. They might be referred to as idolaters in a very abstract sense, as for example Paul does a coveter, but they clearly are not in the sense that would be mutually exclusive of being a Christian, or that would make them liable to death by stoning.

        As I commented the last time you engaged in this demonization, I respect your right to your opinion, and the sincere motivation behind it, although I disagree. What I’m interested in is only acceptance as a fellow human and Christian; an acknowledgement that we can disagree without that making me indifferent to the poor or any of the other things one is so casually slandered with for holding a different opinion.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          It is hard to get to what would otherwise have been a fairly easy point to reach, respectful disagreement, when every time I say “this approach shows a lack of concern for the needs of the poor and marginalized” you restate it with phrases like “arsenic in the water supply”! :-)

          • Straw Man

            So we can respectfully disagree as long as I cheerfully accept the slander that I’m lacking in concern for the poor? How gracious of you! Or not. I’ve pointed out that it’s slander. You respond by repeating it. There’s no way we can amicably disagree as equal fellow-beings if a prerequisite is for me to accept my (morally) inferior status.

            If I were a woman, and you told me that you “realize girlies can do anything men can,” I’d tell you to “check your privilege.” In this case privilege doesn’t quite seem to be the issue; it’s more like self-righteous bigotry. Rather than address my stated view, you assume that no explanation for my view exists (despite my giving you one) other than lack of concern for the poor, and you proceed to interact with me on the basis of your assumption.

            This is unfortunate on a personal level; I value your insights on many topics and want to feel like a fellow. It’s also unfortunate on another level, because if I become convinced that you will never interact with me as a fellow Christian and person, but will instead interact with me as a caricature, then sooner or later I will return the favor. This is how tribalism works. And it’s why half the nation views the other half as not-really-human and as evil, and the other half does likewise. If two humans can’t get along, when one asks the other very nicely, then we might as well give up on the human race as a whole ever doing so.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Perhaps instead of constantly translating what I write into outlandish caricatures, you could simply explain what your stance is and how it does care for the poor? I think that would be more conducive to a fruitful conversation than pretending I am accusing you of tampering with the water supply.

              • Straw Man

                My views are not at issue: the issue I’m raising is that you keep making the Manichaean assertion that one either supports this legislation or else lacks concern for the poor. I’m interested in whether you’re willing to relinquish the self-righteous bigotry that entails.

                You have plenty of experience of the other side of that coin, I’m sure. That you accept the fact of common descent, for example, p”proves” that you deny the inspiration of scripture, disbelieve God, think you know more than Him, are not (or not fully) Christian, etc. The fact that you endorse gay marriage rights “proves” that you hold God’s moral standards in contempt. Etc., etc.. You would rightly reply that one can love God, revere His word, and be fully Christian, while holding a differing opinion on these subjects. I believe you would expect to be treated as a fellow human and Christian, by those who disagree. You would blog about your low opinion of someone who suggested that you are either a YEC or a God-hater. And you’d be right.

                I’m simply interested in receiving the same treatment. I’m not interested in advocating my view here. I’m content to keep it to myself and enjoy your excellent writings on biblical topics. All I’d like is not to periodically finding those who disagree with you being marginalized, particularly when that happens to be me.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  I was not trying to make your views the issue. I simply find it hard to expss my respect for your views when I am not quite sure what they are. But I definitely do not think that all Republicans, or everyone to the Right of me, or to the Left of me, or whatever, are incompetent or fools or evil or any of that. One reason I asked about your views is because you seem to me perfectly rational, and I am eager to figure out how I managed to make you feel that I was regarding you as a baby-eating, water-poisoning monster or anything else along those lines. I certainly believe that in economics and politics as in theology and most other things, there are more than two options.

                  I still can’t get over the fact that the person who has been accusing me of a straw man argument goes by the nickname Straw Man…

                  • Straw Man

                    You made me feel that way because you’ve as much as said that one either endorses this legislation, or else lacks concern for the poor. You may recognize that there are more than two choices, at least as a general rule, but you clearly make no room for option (C) on this matter.

                    By the way I don’t recall accusing you of using a straw man argument in this discussion. Mainly what I’ve said (ad nauseam) is that you’re presenting a false choice. This would have the effect of poisoning the well, if we were actually debating, but we’re not. I’m interested in not feeling pre-judged, not in persuading anyone to my opinion.

                    As for my colorful phrasings, I’m surprised you find them so confusing or distracting. If disagreement means I “lack concern for the poor,” then it can only be because I oppose the poor receiving medical care, which is tantamount to wishing them ill (literally). It is only a slight exaggeration to describe this as wishing them dead, or wanting to thin their ranks, or enjoying their misery, etc.–and those are no more objectionable. When you describe them as outlandish, you’re distinguishing those very offensive things from your accusation of “lacking concern for the poor.” Which only indicates to me that you don’t appreciate how offensive that accusation is.

                    And this is what interests me about your accusation. Not its fallacious logic, but rather what it says about your regard for your fellow man. If your Mom disagreed with you, you’d think twice about saying, “That’s because you just don’t care about the poor, Ma!” Your willingness to make that accusation suggests that the people you’re talking about are less human, or less real, in your eyes. Just as a man who demeans women, or gays, or minorities, to that extent dehumanizes them. In my experience liberals and conservatives (and I am neither) are terribly prone to doing that to each other, and equally prone to accusing the other of it.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      My posts on this topic have by and large been aimed at those Christians who speak and act as though there were something inherently unchristian or even anti-Christian about the proposed legislation. Since it sounds like that is not your view, I can only apoogize that you got caught in the crossfire. I have in several recent posts attempted mirroring the rhetoric of those I was seeking to counter, but I have always done so somewhat tongue in cheek. If I have veered from the domain of fighting with fire (“You say your view is the only Christian view? I say it isn’t even Christian!”) into actually genuinely sounding like a mirror image of those who adopt that stance, then I really do owe you an apology. I am truly sorry.

              • Straw Man

                I don’t need you to respect my views. I only need you to drop the assumption that everyone who disagrees with you on this matter is lacking in concern for the poor.

                I’d like you to do that even if it turned out that I personally AM lacking in concern for the poor. It has nothing to do with me. For all you know, I use the blood of poor children to make my matzo. Nevertheless, you are assuming a false choice that damns approximately half of your countrymen as lacking concern for the poor. It’s this Manichaean false dichotomy I object to. It has nothing to do with me, since I realize I’m a stranger to you. The effect for me personally is only the knowledge that telling you I happen to disagree on this matter will not result in your assuming that I lack concern for the poor, or attribution of other vile qualities to me. Just as a black man would be content knowing you don’t assume he’s a hoodlum, and a woman would be content knowing you don’t assume she’s mechanically inept. Even a woman who IS mechanically inept would be offended to learn that you assumed it because she’s a woman. Similarly, it’s your assumption about me (and some 49% of your countrymen) that I find offensive, even if in my particular case you happened to be correct.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  I do not assume that everyone who disagrees with me is wrong. On the contrary, I would have to assume, based on past experience of learning more and changing my mind, that there are many people who are right while I am wrong. I can only hope that I might perhaps be fortunate enough to find out when that is the case.

                  So presumably there is nothing else to say, except that, if you use the blood of any children to make your matzo, I hope you stop! :-)

          • Straw Man

            Concerning “arsenic in the water supply,” that was precisely the subject of outrage against Bush some years ago, when his EPA proposed to raise the maximum allowed arsenic level by a few parts per million. Opponents blared that the conservatives were trying to put arsenic in drinking water. Which I guess they were, to the tune of a few parts per million.

            You suggested without any foundation that I support elimination of such standards, or that I naively believe that some sort of honor system is sufficient. There are many ways to paraphrase that, and “arsenic in the water” is an a propos example drawn from recent history. But paraphrased or not, you are attributing some mix of heartlessness and imbecility to me, in the context of my appeal for you to stop doing that.

            (As for the limit on arsenic in water, I have no opinion, because I have no relevant expertise. I’m leery of such discussions because they lend themselves to caricature. For example, there’s a standard limiting the amount of rat droppings in ground black pepper, and the limit isn’t zero. Imagine raising OR lowering that one! Either side could accuse the other of “putting rat droppings in the kids’ pepper!” Bloggers like yourself might talk about heartless capitalists feeding kids rat poop. The standard exists because rats live in warehouses, so a nonzero quantity is unavoidable. And similarly there’s a non-zero amount of arsenic allowed in water, because it occurs widely in nature.)

    • Gary

      Isaiah 10…
      “To whom will you run for help?
      Where will you leave your riches?” I guess Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Switzerland.
      “It can’t possibly be that anyone sincerely believes that government-run health care will produce worse outcomes for the poor”…worse than if the poor had no health care? How about that terrible Medicare. No Medicare = no health care for anyone over 65, since the recepients have a pre-existing condition, called old age, and can’t afford the premiums. I am sure ALL the churches will step up and pay the medical bills for the poor, instead of paying clergy, and building nice churches. I’m sure Romney will give some money to someone besides the Mormon church. To quote him, I pay my taxes, and “I don’t pay a dollar more”. Especially when there are tax havens in Bermuda. But he sure would like to invade Iran and Syria, as good old America takes the lead. The “collective” Keika mentions seems to like collective action against other nations via war, but no collectivism for things that actually benefit people, instead of killing people.
      “Walmart wouldn’t exist without trucking and roads, but we had trucking and roads for decades with no Walmart”…until Eisenhower started a massive government program to build freeways. Let’s all re-institute the draft, so you can send your kids off to war in Iran. Until Romney rejects bombing Iran, because they are a threat to Israel (with one bomb, Pakistan with multiples, and Israel hundreds), I’ll support Obama, thank you very much. Dispensationalism is alive and well in the Mormon doctrine, according to David O McKay, among others. We all need to volunteer to be the first to arrive in Tehran.

      • Gary

        And yes, I know Mckay is dead. 3rd temple built in Missouri, with Jesus presiding over sacrifices again, qualifies as dispensationalism. I have no problem whatsoever with someone believing it, but NOT when it influences US foreign policy – and gets Americans killed for religion.

  • http://youtu.be/fJ1Z6hWzfsA Keika

    Obama makes me want to vom. Are you offended by this:

    “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

  • http://youtu.be/fJ1Z6hWzfsA Keika

    With regards to the “Context Matters Facebook” quip: “Ayn Rand collected social security.”

    What is, Obama? A Democrat? Social Anarchist? Marxist? Collectivist? Antichrist?

    “You didn’t do that! Someone else made it happen.” –Barack Obama

    “Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group — whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.” Throughout history, no tyrant ever rose to power except on the claim of representing “the common good.” Napoleon “served the common good” of France. Hitler is “serving the common good” of Germany. Horrors which no man would dare consider for his own selfish sake are perpetrated with a clear conscience by “altruists” who justify themselves by — the common good.” — Ayn Rand, in “The Only Path to Tommorow.”

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Collectivism

  • BlueVA

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    James, in this case context doesn’t matter. The context does
    not change the meaning of his phrase “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t
    build that. Somebody else made that happen” it merely explains his reasoning.
    Had he said, as his supports claim he meant, you didn’t build it by yourself,
    there would be no argument. Romney is not running on a platform of abolishing
    the government. As it stands the entire passage is offensive to anyone who has
    built a business as would the assertion that Amelia Earhart didn’t do anything
    for women, a man built her plane or MLK didn’t do anything for the black
    community, a white congress passed the civil rights bill. Obama would like us
    to think (I don’t think he is so naive to believe it himself) of the productive
    elements of society as beggars and orphans dependent on the good grace of the pharaoh
    so we won’t mind them being fleeced to pay his supporters.

    Regarding the prophets and the poor, it would be nice if
    people thought of the whole of their nation or even the whole human race as
    their family and were willing to put out the effort to help out of familial love.
    Certainly this should be the attitude of the good Jew, Christian, and Muslim to
    help poor strangers as we help poor relatives. Unfortunately most people don’t
    feel this way and in a circumstance such as that using the state to deny that
    money be lent for interest or food be sold to the poor at a profit does not
    give the poor access to cheap food and loans, it deprives them of cheap food
    and loans. The prophets cared about the little guy, but they weren’t economist.

  • mentalgravity

    Wow, equating government control and redistribution of our money with Christianity and love for your neighbor. I cannot imagine anything that perverts the Gospel more.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Wow, refusing to take advantage of our say in a democratic context to work for social justice, and ignoring the Bible’s many passages on the rich being brout down and the poor lifted up, and forgetting that the poor are your neighbor. I can imagine plenty of things that pervert the Gospel every bit as much, but I am still disappointed that so many Christians have these blind spots when it comes to the Bible’s teachings, and instead equate Capitalist values with Christian ones.


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