It has become quite popular in many quarters of the Christian Left, from the “emerging conversation” to the old-fashioned New England liberalism of the mainstream denominations, to assert that the message of the Gospel isn’t primarily about personal salvation, saving faith, holy living, and the like, but instead is mostly about “the immanent kingdom,” the kingdom of God that is with us now, expressed primarily as concern for the poor, and (all too often) support for socialist-inspired approaches to “taking care of the poor.” The Gospel is portrayed (betrayed?) by these well-meaning folks as a reflection of the battle of the rich and the poor, with the poor being preferred by God, and the rich had just better watch out, or they might wind up going to the Hell that the Christian Left doesn’t really believe exists.
There are a few problems with this:
1) For most of human history, almost everyone has been poor. There really haven’t BEEN very many “rich” people in any society until pretty recently. Are we to believe that the exhortations of Jesus and the Apostles to seek God and live holy lives were mostly aimed at the tiny minority of rich folk down through time? This interpretation of scripture makes it mostly about the rich/poor dichotomy, and lets the poor mostly off the hook because their problems are the rich folks’ fault. Did Jesus come just to condemn the rich if they didn’t shape up and pay up? Or was His life, death and resurrection about a bit more than wealth redistribution?
2) The “rich” in Jesus’ time were mostly not merely wealthy, but disposed of considerable political power, with the ability to directly control the lives of many people. There was one law for the rich, another for the poor, and that wasn’t just the de facto status of being able to hire better “attorneys,” but was literally the state of the law. A rich man could murder a poor man, and perhaps only pay a fine, while a poor man who murdered a rich man would be executed. Shoot, people were sometimes executed just for theft… or less.
3) People in prison were mostly political prisoners, not mere felons. Felons were likely to be executed, not imprisoned, which cost too much. So visiting people in prison didn’t mean just visiting rightfully imprisoned criminals, it meant visiting people unjustly imprisoned for primarily political reasons. And note that visiting the prisoner was probably itself a risk, since it meant identifying publicly with someone who had piqued the rulers’ ire. Think Nelson Mandela, not Baby Face Nelson.
4) Jesus and the Apostles simply talked way too much about personal living decisions, moral behavior, and living out of love to divert the center of the Gospel into “social justice.” The poor are as responsible for showing love to the rich, and each other, as the rich are to everyone else as well. The poor are not given license to demand anything from the rich, any more than the reverse. Remember, the “rich” meant the politically powerful, not just people with an upper-class lifestyle. The President of the United States does not have the legal power to do to any US citizen what “the rich young ruler” could probably have done to those in his sway. When Jesus said, “To be perfect, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and follow Me,” what He probably meant was mostly, “Give up your direct physical power over others and follow Me.” That was the reality in that time and place… indeed, in most times and places in human history.
Having said all that, the “rich” do have a responsibility to do two things:
1) Give what they can and feel led by God to give, wisely placed to do the most good, consistent with meeting their responsibilities to others, which includes their families, the people who work for them, their customers (i.e., the people who benefit from their being economically productive), etc.
2) Support public policies that will have the effect of improving the condition of the poor. But this has to be done wisely, too. Mere handouts mediated by the government have proven NOT to lift people out of poverty, as a group. Successful economies do, though, by providing opportunities that no government program can sustain over the long term. No program of government aid has ever done as much as a vibrant, free economy to lift people’s condition.
Oddly, and to the contravention of the common leftist meme, many capitalists love big government programs, as long as they can get the contracts to service them. One of the biggest temptations of the rich is to use that power to push government programs that sound “caring” on the surface, and will result in the government sending money their way to carry out some aspect of the program. That’s why Washington DC is awash in lobbyists: precisely the rich, jockeying for a spot on the rail. If Washington DC wasn’t the fountain of government programs to “help the poor”, there’d be a lot fewer wealthy people and corporations there dipping into the river of money.
The big medical providers have positively loved Medicare, even as they whine about its restrictions. The drug companies love the new prescription drug benefit that Bush added for Medicare recipients. Ditto the crocodile tears. Price supports and agriculture subsidies to rich farmers are another prime exhibit. All of these were sold “to protect the little guy” and yet the primary beneficiary is people who already had lots of money, enough to hire lobbyists, while the rest of us pay higher prices (the poor pay those higher prices, too) and higher taxes because of those programs.
So: a big temptation of the rich is to use government programs (ostensibly to “help the poor”) to line their own pockets. But it’s hard to turn down free money, isn’t it?
The notion that the Gospel is primarily about “the kingdom on earth now,” particularly viewed throught the lense of class warfare, is simply not scriptural or historically grounded in either the facts on the ground at the time Jesus and the Apostles lived, or in events since. To wit:
1) If Jesus had been primarily concerned about the economic condition of the poor and downtrodden, don’t you suppose He could have done just a little behind the scenes tweaking to the climate, the growing season, etc.? Couldn’t He have managed to cause the unscheduled diversion of several Roman galleys due to weather and unexplained large waves and winds, so that the poor and downtrodden of Palestine could have kept the fruit of their labor from the evil Roman overlords? Couldn’t he have arranged for Herod to fall down the palace steps and break his neck?
2) All the welfare, relief and charity in ALL of human history (and I mean right up to the present) have not liberated as many people from poverty as free markets, free trade, and the division of labor. It’s a fact. You may not like it. Deal with it. If Jesus’ primary concern is for Christians to do what will have the most beneficial effect on the economic status of the poorest, then all Christians should be voting against statism (which always and everywhere adds to total poverty, and acts as a leech on the economy) and for more or less libertarian economic policy (which floats all boats). This is, of course, the exact opposite of the tendencies of “rich/poor class warfare” Christians, who seem always to vote for the state to victimize the poor by making them poorer. I’d like to believe it’s out of ignorance, but I’m not so sure.
3) Jesus simply never said He had come to impoverish the rich and enrich the poor, economically speaking. It is prooftexting of the highest order to twist His words into that interpretation, when His entire ministry and actions are taken in context. He died on the cross and rose again, but he didn’t write a self-help book, nor did he prescribe socialism as the ideal state. He did have a very great deal to say about the moral meaning of personal choices, made freely (both by rich and poor), and absolutely nothing to say in favor of the state forcing people to give to the poor at the point of a gun, which is the very thing most of the Christian Left votes for, feeling oh so spiritual and moral as they do it.
Oh, wait: I forgot, there is one scriptural reference detailing Jesus’ teaching that it’s good for the government to take money from people who earn it and give it to other people. It’s covered here, in a post from before the election.