The Gospel is Not a Political Programme
I remember an Outer Limits episode from a few years ago where a guy living in some dystopian future where humans are mind-controlled slaves to a conquering alien race is liberated from his thralldom by an underground movement proclaiming itself as a sort of Human Liberation Front. They deprogram him, teach him that he is free to think as he wants, reunite him with his wife, and then send him on a mission to kill High Muckety Muck Overlord Humptyfratz of the Alien High Council. He goes forth on his dangerous mission and against all odds, succeeds in the assassination. When he returns to the Underground Headquarters, he discovers that the Human Liberation Front is controlled by the Great Dalmoody Hoositz of the Alien Military Command, who needed Humptyfratz killed in order to seize power and control the Alien Government. He is then remanded back into slavery along with his wife and given a mind wipe by the New Order.
Good times. Good times.
I am reminded of this story as I read this perniciously wrong-headed piece in by Gregory Paul in the WaPo, which (rightly) argues that many of the dogmatic political commitments of conservative Christians to laissez faire capitalism, militarism, and so forth are only granted Christian baptism by an extremely selective reading of Scripture. Indeed, as he points out, many of these commitments gain much more of their inspiration from atheists like Ayn Rand or sundry social Darwinists than they do from Christ. Somebody who gleefully whoops “Yeah!” at the thought of an uninsured person dying is just not on the same page as the One who wept at the tomb of Lazarus. The sooner Christians are deprogrammed from the notion that individualistic, consumer-driven capitalism is Sacred Tradition, the sooner they will be able to clear their minds of cant and think with the mind of the Church. This will include constant attempts to enlist, for instance, St. Paul as a political commentator on government programs for feeding the hungry.
For the fact is this: When St. Paul says, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10), he is not talking about condemning state-run welfare programs. He is not, in fact, talking about the state at all. He is talking about life withinthe community of believers and demanding that members of the body of Christ, not the body politic, pull their weight. How we are to treat the poor, whether inside or outside the Church, is discussed, not in political treatises, but by Jesus, who, says (scarily), “Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.” I have no idea how to do that, so I do what you probably do: try to give as I can and pay my taxes which support state efforts which do that, as well. Does this mean that Jesus is, as Mr. Paul tries to insist, a “socialist”? No, it means that Jesus is also not proposing a political programme any more than St. Paul is. Jesus has no theory of government or economics to propose. He recognizes the right of private property (implicit in the command “You shall not steal”). He radiates a general distrust of wealth, but he does not condemn possessions and he deliberately absents himself from quarrels about money (though uses the imagery of money and finance to illustrate his parables constantly). But he is no more a proto-socialist than he is a proto-capitalist.
Nor does the early Church propose socialism as Mr. Paul claims when he notes that Acts tells us “the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. … No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. … There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” This is, once again, a record of how the embryonic Church conducted its internal affairs, not a record of the Church marching to Rome and demanding the state embrace socialism. Mr. Paul’s grotesque claim, “Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx—who likely got the general idea from the Gospels” has to be one of the most illiterate readings in history of both the New Testament and Marx. Somehow, I missed the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by means of force, the state imposing the will of the proletariat with power growing from the barrel of a gun, and the worship of Christ as the opiate of the masses in the book of Acts.
In the same way, the Council of Jerusalem (which was essentially a sort of monarchical democratic model of consensus decision-making) does not mean that the Church went around demanding that the Roman Empire be replaced with a similar model, or holding the Second Continental Congress and cheering for democracy as a Christian value. The burden of the Church is not to micromanage our economics and politics. Nor is it to commit us to some political theory.
Of course, Mr. Paul writes with a transparent agenda. He wants to arraign Christians as hypocrites—an easy enough task in a community consisting of nothing but sinners. But deprogramming us from the lie that ruthless individualistic consumer-driven capitalism is a feature of sacred tradition is not really helped by trying to reprogram us with the lie that Jesus was a Marxist or that the Gospel is, at bottom, a political ideology. It’s not. It is itself and our impoverished little human systems of order we call “ideologies” are just scraps torn from it. The old word for such scraps was “heresy”—an unpopular word today, which is a pity since it still describes ideology perfectly. “Heresy” comes from the Greek word referring to the drawing out of thread on a whole weave, so that a piece of the garment falls off and the whole thing is ruined. That’s what heretics and ideologues (but I repeat myself) always do: take a piece of the Gospel and use it to attack the whole. If somebody tells you Jesus was a capitalist or a socialist, a liberal or a conservative, a nationalist or a globalist, a member of this party or a member of that one, you are talking to a heretic.