Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Don't Put a Dollar Sign on Faith
Time was, bad theology told previous generations of America's Christians that activities like going to the movies was a sin.
Almost two centuries before that, bad theology led Christians on witch hunts in New England, staging religious trials which today we're learning were probably ploys to deprive unpopular women of their property.
Nowadays, Christians not only represent a significant market for Hollywood, they even produce movies themselves. Even lonely old widows are today pursued by faith-based organizations hoping to be included in their wills. Proving that over time, people of faith can managed to work through a lot of bad theology. So does that mean evangelicalism in the United States is finally legitimately authentic?
Of course not. Today we have people bent turning America into a religious state by melding weak interpretations of Scripture with passionate patriotism. People, for example, like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Institute, who wrote on CNN.com Tuesday that Jesus championed free markets and wouldn't have endorsed the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Perkins claims that "Jesus rejected collectivism," even though Biblical accounts of the early church actually show them practicing it joyfully. And Perkins claims "the parable of the king and the servants endorses the principles of business and the free market," although the Bible never teaches of Christ personally endorsing any economic system.
If Perkins was alone in his contention that Christ and the Bible preach capitalism alongside salvation by grace, then his editorializing on CNN wouldn't matter much. Unfortunately, however, free markets being the God-endorsed economic system for all mankind has become a stunningly prevalent and popular idea among many American evangelicals. Many of America's politically conservative evangelicals, that is.
The Gospel is Not Salvation by Money
Why has capitalism become a virtue of Biblical proportions among Republicans of faith? Might viewing America's economic system through such a theological lens help us protect the wealth many of us have managed to amass here in the United States? Might preaching capitalism also help deflect personal responsibility? Not the personal responsibility we accuse impoverished people of forsaking because they apparently don't work hard enough. But the lack of responsibility rich people feel towards helping out the less fortunate?
Not that capitalism and free markets are wrong in and of themselves. Or that America's welfare system hasn't degenerated into a morass of generational poverty.
All things considered, even in their excesses and abuses, capitalism and free markets represent the best systems for managing an economy. For proof, just look at the two Koreas: robust South Korea, and shriveled North Korea. But as good as capitalism and free markets are, they still were never ordained as God's financial rubric. For Perkins to draw that conclusion from the words of a Man Who literally owned only the clothes He was wearing is gravely misleading. The fact that Christ refers to making a profit in the parable of the talents is to help explain that, as Perkins surprisingly manages to state correctly, "there are no excuses for doing nothing" with the resources God has given you.
If Perkins can take this parable and extrapolate a doctrine of capitalism from it, then can't somebody else take Christ's command for the rich young ruler to give away all his possessions as a doctrine of communism?
Ultimately, Perkins blows his credibility a few paragraphs later when he claims "wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual." Wow. Not only is that stunningly unsympathetic towards the legions of hard-working Americans who've lost nest eggs in Wall Street's recent travails, it is frighteningly heretical if Perkins is precluding God's sovereignty over the affairs of man.
Let's just hope Perkins didn't mean it the way he wrote it.
Some semblance of a free market economy obviously existed within Israel during the time of Christ's earthly ministry, so it would be only natural for Christ to incorporate the principle of investing as He taught His disciples. Indeed, to a large extent, economic principles from what we today call free markets and capitalism today were used even in Old Testament times in terms of rewarding labor, commercial transactions, and ownership of property. But just because free markets and capitalism are the most useful and productive tools for a nation to grow its economy doesn't mean God deigns to lower Himself to be a pitchman for socioeconomic paradigms.
The Bible is God's story of redemption from sin. That includes being freed from the love of money. It also, actually, includes being freed from debt every seven years, not charging excessive interest, sharing with those in need, paying all your taxes dutifully, and running your businesses so you can provide jobs for God's people. All things that are quite counter-cultural to us Americans. In fact, speaking of being counter-cultura, the Gospel of Christ is applicable for His children who live in remote Papuan jungle villages, oppressive Burma, Communist Cuba, and Socialist Greece, just as it is applicable for the believers who lived during feudal times, or who live today in converted condominiums literally across Broad Street from the New York Stock Exchange.
Perkins, myself, and all Americans benefit greatly from the economic system we enjoy in this country. Is it perfect? Of course not. Has greed corrupted some of the basic principles of capitalism? Of course it has. But Christ was never, ever concerned with helping His disciples establish a financial economy on Earth. He instructed at least one rich guy to give all his money to the poor. Gulp! Christ cherished the Widow's Mite, while blasting the monied classes who only gave a token of their wealth to the temple. Not one of the rich people celebrated in the Bible were hoarders or miserly with the money with which they'd been entrusted. How many middle-class Americans - let alone our One Percenters - would be so commended by Christ if He returned for a 21st Century checkup of His Church?
Talents and the Irony Thereof
When He gave the parable of the talents, was Christ expecting His followers to assume He simply meant to go out and earn money until He returned? Or was Christ teaching that with whatever resources He may choose to bless us, and in whatever amount, we are to deploy those resources for His glory? Yes, those resources may take the form of money, but they could also be an education, a particular skill like fixing toilets, or an ability to make other people laugh at honest humor.
Your talent may even be reaching out to people desperate for meaning in their life, like money-lovers who lust after financial wealth, or those who lust delusionally after other forms of satisfaction instead of salvation by grace.
Just this past weekend, an unemployed drug addict died of an apparent overdose at one of the Occupy camps here in north Texas. He was just 23 years old.
Was he simply another lazy loser, as one of the commenters on the story has posted online, or was he, as Perkins insinuates about the Occupiers from his caustic editorial, enjoying the "luxury" of being unproductive?
Frankly, I didn't think too much about the story of this guy's death when I first heard about it on the news, either. But then today, I learned that the drug addict was a nephew of a friend of mine. A woman who, ironically, is practically part of the much-reviled One Percenters. She isn't one by income, since her take-home pay pales in comparison to that of her clients. But she almost could be one by virtue of the fact that her clients are international banks with offices sprawling throughout the world's major financial centers. Clients for whom she works long hours as a financial management consultant.
She told us on FaceBook one morning this past fall of standing outside the Lower Manhattan skyscraper housing a major Japanese bank, one of her clients. She was talking on her smartphone, wearing a navy pinstripe suit, with a leather briefcase in her other hand, the picture of Wall Street power, being ogled by a gang of roving Occupy Wall Street protesters. She said it was an oddly eerie feeling, suddenly being cast as a One Percenter by people who didn't know who she was.
She manages a team of consultants from Europe to Asia, all of them worlds away from her less-vaunted status as an aunt to a homeless, 23-year-old drug addict in Denton, Texas.
Now, granted, I haven't exactly been lavishing the love on America's Occupiers myself. But I have acknowledged that in their more lucid moments, Occupiers have been able to at least remind the rest of us that our economic system has injustices - or, at least, discrepancies in functionality - that need to be fixed sooner rather than later. To the extent that Perkins points out how productivity benefits society more than petulance does, I can echo his sentiment. But why do I have the nagging suspicion that Christ looked down on the Occupiers with less sorrow over their sociopolitical ideologies than concern over their eternal destinies?
One of Wall Street's legitimate power brokers will be joining with her family to bury a dead Occupier in the next couple of days. Economics couldn't save Darwin Cox, my friend's nephew, just as it can't save anybody else.
That's why the Gospel isn't about money. But rather, the extent to which our love for it - indeed, our love for any created thing - can take the place of our love for Christ.
Mr. Perkins, I hope you agree with me: this is not bad theology.