Michelle Bachmann has done so many strange and dubious things with the Bible that at first this seemed like just another example. Here’s what she said when speaking recently:
When you have government forcing private businesses to fire people because the people aren’t complying with what government says, then you’re denying people the right to earn a living. In the book of Ecclesiastes, it says when you deny someone the right to their living, it’s the same as murder, and so our government is engaging in probably some of the most horrific actions we have ever seen. If you take all the bad actions of government throughout the entire history of the United States and you put them all together, they pale in comparison to what we’re seeing now. This is a very unique time, so people shouldn’t think they’re crazy when they’re looking at current events and wondering what’s going on. This really is the absolute worst times.
There’s so much there that’s appalling and deceptive here. When the government requires businesses to ensure safety and comply with health guidelines, and they don’t, and they are closed down as a result, this does result in workers suffering loss of employment. The solution is to comply with health and safety guidelines, not to blame the government for requiring you to do what you ought to do out of human decency without the law requiring it of you. The situation at present is just one more example of that same sort of thing.
By claiming this is the worst time in history, she shows why there is such a crucial need for education about slavery, Native Americans, and other aspects of U. S. history when things were much worse. Of course, those weren’t “the absolute worst times” for people in the same ethnic pigeonhole as Bachmann, but that’s precisely why her statement is so utterly appalling, and not merely inaccurate.
With so much wrong in this short paragraph, it would be easy to miss what is going on with the biblical one. At first you might just think that Bachmann doesn’t know the Bible or is lying yet again, since Ecclesiastes nowhere says what she claims. But if you’re well-versed in biblical matters you may find, as I did, that suddenly something clicks and you realize that Bachmann wasn’t getting Ecclesiastes wrong, she was remembering something that she probably saw in an internet meme, from a book which is sometimes confused with Ecclesiastes since the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira is also known as Ecclesiasticus. I think Bachmann had Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 34:26-27 in mind, in particular the statement “To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder.”
Two things make this particularly interesting. One is that this verse and the book it is from are not in Bachmann’s Protestant Bible. You can find it in Catholic Bibles among the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books. So Bachmann wasn’t quoting from something she regards as scripture. What’s more, this verse is a favorite one for many Catholics because it emphasizes social justice.
Here’s the fuller context of the verse or verses s I think Bachmann had in mind (Sirach 34:21-27 NRSV):
If one sacrifices ill-gotten goods, the offering is blemished;
the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.
The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly,
nor for a multitude of sacrifices does he forgive sins.
Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes
is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.
The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;
whoever deprives them of it is a murderer.
To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder;
to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood.
This is not a text that a Republican who thinks God loves unbridled capitalism ought to be quoting. It emphasizes employment not as a counter to government sanctions against illegal activity but as a counter to the greed of the wealthy who might withhold wages, pay inadequately, and replace people with machines to maximize profits at the expense of their wellbeing. And sticking more closely to the focus in the original context, the point is about the wealthy who think they are doing something wonderful when they give generously to God, and yet that wealth was acquired through injustice and so is abhorrent to God, who loves justice and cares for the poor and oppressed.
If I am correct, Bachmann’s appeal to the Bible is thus doubly ironic: the text she had in mind isn’t in her Bible as a Protestant, and its message runs counter to the things she and her party stand for.
Here’s the video with Bachmann saying the things quoted above: