Below you will find comments by Scot Wolf on Scripture and Political Opinion as well as my responses to his comments. This is a valuable discussion! Enjoy!
Scot’s comment begins: The interpretation of scripture that government should force people to lead a godly life goes against God-given free will. Adam and Eve had choice – eat the fruit or not. Jesus Disciples had choice – follow Jesus or continue leading their lives. The free will theme is present throughout the Bible.
My comments: Surely, Scot, you want to think through what you have written, above. Does God really want the government of any society to fail to force people to live “a godly life,” that is, in accordance with God’s law, because to do so goes against their free will? You do not mean that. Truly, most nations today pick and choose which behaviors proscribed in the Old Testament laws are also forbidden by federal and/or state/provincial statutes. However, we do want laws against stealing and against murder on the books, neither of which limit my free will, but both of which give me pause. As Billy Graham’s wife Ruth, responded when asked about whether she had ever considered divorcing him, “Divorce, no, never. Murder, yes, but divorce, no!”
We do want the government to force people to curb their free will when it comes to murder and theft. In an earlier time our society also had laws against divorce. As a society we decided that justice was not served by forbidding divorce and, doing justice, after-all, is the purpose of government. And in an earlier day, because of the Christian witness in the public square, it was determined that since without a perpetual redistribution of wealth, society itself fails, it was tantamount to murder as well as theft for the most wealthy persons to keep all the riches they had “earned.” The first income tax in the U.S. was levied against only the top 10% of earners. A century ago, a time so much like ours, when the wealthy could essentially buy the labor of the poor for a pittance, our political/economic system was corrected by the income tax a bit but not enough. More redistribution was needed.
The business of government is to provide for defense against all enemies, foreign and domestic and to promote both retributive and distributive justice. Of course, in the early 20th century, because they had free will and a lot of money and power, the wealthy began paying accountants to figure out ways to protect their income from the new tax. They were quite successful at this and the gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen. Government cannot force anyone to lead a godly life. It can and must, however, protect itself and the larger society against anything and anyone that threatens the integrity of constitutional, republican democracy. Internal, domestic threats can sometimes be more dangerous than the external, international ones.
U.S. founding father and co-author of the U.S. Constitution and author of the Bill of Rights, James Madison worried in his private letters that it would be a wealthy elite in the U.S. which would bring down the nation from within by buying the votes of the legislators so that the voice of the common people was silenced by the rich. His worries have become our national reality. Even Madison, though, probably could not have imagined an obsequious state governor eagerly doing the bidding of a rich man from another state which we overheard recently in Wisconsin: “A trip out to California? That would be awesome!” So do not worry about free will, Scot. Everyone has free will and it cannot be taken away by any force. It can only be constrained and it must be so. You would not live in a society, like Somalia, in which it was not and neither would I.
Scot continues: I notice too that SIG only wants government to force wealth redistribution, not any morality issues, nor any eternal life issues. Why not task the government with spreading the gospel if government is responsible for creating a godly society?
There is also a logic flaw with cherry-picking parts of OT law like Jubilee or Gleaning and saying these laws dictate government action today, but ignoring OT Law about death penalty for abortion and homosexuality. Or ignoring OT Law about destroying Asherah poles (other religions).
My comments: Scot, you are repeating, yourself, man, and then I find myself doing the same to answer you again and that is just not productive. Your straw man here is “government is responsible for creating a godly society.” Nowhere do I claim such a thing as that. The task of government is justice. As an institution, if any government is to some day bow the knee before Jesus, it must work on those things which lead to justice.(And in that respect, redistribution of wealth is an eternal life issue!) On the other hand, government, it has been recognized, if it does things like enforce religious purity, does injustice. We in the U.S. and Canada are, by intention, design and happy accident, pluralistic societies. Our nations contain people from many backgrounds, languages and religions. There are some laws in some states against religious practices which include the sacrifice of animals, but in states where Santeria, for instance, is widely practiced, those laws are overlooked and some chickens do die in their services. (Then again, the slaughter of chickens is nothing new in this country.) However, if anyone is to come to know King Jesus, it could never be by enforcing laws against any other religion. Like making cars, the government is lousy at evangelism.
You accuse me of cherry-picking, Scot, but, with all due respect, you are the cherry-picker, picking subjects which are beside the point, the point which you have regularly skirted and never addressed. I keep making the central point that for the sake of the common welfare, the government of the U.S. used to redistribute the wealth. You may have forgotten, but this is a discussion about public response to murder and theft. The one issue you brought in this time which is germane to that larger point, although the topic is addressed nowhere in scripture, is abortion. We probably do not need to talk about abortion much because we both believe, I expect, that abortion should be illegal, for the sake of justice: another life and death issue. Because of the marginal circumstances of most women who have abortions, I do not believe they should be prosecuted, but abortion itself should be illegal for the sake of public justice. Back to the main point.
I will not waste time on the next straw man, that I claim the Old Testament laws dictate things to us today. If anyone is interested in my response to that false claim, see the last post, March 3rd.
Scot continues: Jesus parable told in Luke once again speaks to the individual. Jesus doesn’t go to the Sanhedrin and say: “Fools! Why do you let the rich man have all that wealth! Go and take it and distribute it to the poor!
Jesus talks directly to the rich man.
Luke 12: 16-21 The Parable of the Rich Fool
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.
He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Notice the free-will. The man has choice to give excess wealth to the poor that will please God or to hoard it.
My comments: Scot, where in the text do you find Jesus talking to “the individual?” Your framing of this passage and the next, especially when coupled with your final remark, is an illustration of something I teach in Week 1 and Week 2 of A Year in the Bible on the necessity of interpretation. You compare my (supposed) reading of these passages, tainted, you suspect, by my “personal political beliefs” with your interpretation –based, in fact, on an enlightenment concept, that of “the individual”– which you then point to as “what God actually says in Scripture.” Remember the Scottish Realists, Scot? They said, ‘we do not interpret the text, we just read what it says.’ Time to re-examine your assumptions, brother!
As a matter of fact, from this point on, I do not think it useful to address my remarks to Scot W. directly or specifically. I never thought for even a moment I would change Scot’s way of thinking or that he would change mine in the course of these posts and comments. I am just finishing reading Kathryn Schulz’ fine book, Being Wrong. In her book the author remarks at how easily we all form opinions based on the flimsiest of evidence and yet how difficult it is for any of us to change our views once they are first formed. Although I never expected to convince Scot of the error of his individualistic and libertarian viewpoint, I did expect to get a clear exchange of ideas in these posts and comments. That we have truly had! I, for one, am deeply grateful for it. In fact, what we have above in Scot’s remarks and in those which follow, is about as clear a difference as one might hope to find between my approach to “what God actually says in scripture” and the individualistic, dualistic approach which Scot so clearly represents for us. It is clearer to me than ever before how the individualist gospel fits hand-in-glove with a libertarian politics and economics. For that I am grateful to God and to Scot. So, forgive me, Scot, if from this point out I mostly address my remarks to those who may yet learn from them. My great thanks to you, Scot, for this spirited interchange. You are a worthy jouster! Perhaps we can do this again some time on another topic.
In a certain way, this small piece of this over-all blogging-exercise may be the most valuable yet. Left to our own devices, none of us ever examine our own assumptions, our undoubted biases, the a priori mental substrata upon which we build our conscious articulations of everything we see, think and feel. Scot has apparently adopted and built from a humanist worldview which begins with the human individual as the building-block of everything else. Ironically for Scot, that individualism is the central tenet of what is known worldwide as “liberalism.” In the U.S., because we use “liberal”to mean something else, we tend to call this worldview “libertarianism.”
So let’s look at how libertarianism influences Scot’s view of Scripture. He says, “Jesus talks directly to the rich man.” Actually, Jesus does not. In my classes, I teach participants to look closely at what happens in the text just before Jesus speaks and to note his audience. In this case, the audience is not a rich man. It is a man who wants Jesus to settle the particulars of a family dispute over money. After telling him off, Jesus addresses a much larger crowd (those around him on the way to Jerusalem) about the danger of greed and how it ruins the lives of those who forget there is more to life than possessions, that our lives in community are ruined if we focus only on wealth. Luke, shortly after the time of Jesus, chose a few stories and parables not told by Mark and not present in whatever document Luke and Matthew both used to fill out their gospels. These are the unique Lucan passages, addressed to the young communities of faith about how they will be ruined if their members begin to bicker over stuff. In short, both Jesus and Luke address these stories to communities  about how wealth has already and can again ruin the witness of their community.
Scot, on the other hand, imagines Luke’s audience as a sole rich man, not a member of the Christian communities to which Luke would have written, weighing for himself whether he will live as Jesus suggests and be generous, or, enjoy almost every cent he “makes” in the broken economic system and then take his chances with Jesus later in heaven. Where in Scot’s view is the communal challenge to bring heaven down to the earth? Where is the radical witness of a people rooted in King Jesus? The essential context of impending eschatological judgment and radical, catastrophic change is nowhere to be found. No-matter. Scot is on a roll now, having clearly shown that he has the true, neutral reading of the scriptures, unsullied by “personal political opinion,” and so, feeling good, before he lays out another parable of Jesus, he allows himself some sarcasm:
Scot continues: Oh wait, Jesus must task government with caring for the poor in another parable.
Parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
” ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
The wealthy man did not follow God’s Will and scripture teachings on caring for a neighbor in need. The rich man had free will to do what he wanted with his wealth. But with free will come consequences. His consequence was eternal damnation in hell.
My comments: Everything I said above about the individualistic framing of the first passage applies to Scot’s treatment of this second Lucan parable. Again, there is no recognition of how a parable like this was addressed not to an individual, whatever that is, but to the communities of faith of Luke’s time which were coming to understand the implications of the Torah-wisdom of the older covenant within the light of their new marching orders, to bring heaven down to earth. This is what Paul called dwelling ‘in heavenly places’ (Ephesians 1:3, 3:10, 6:12) and ‘bringing to nothing the things which are’ (I Corinthians 1:26-28).
This parable, like every other word of the New Testament, is addressed to those who are discipling the nations, those who have taken ‘the God Movement,’‘the Regime of God’ as the reason for and the hope of their lives. They were people working in every walk of ancient Greco-Roman life. A small number were wealthy before they entered into the common purses of their local Christian communities. A few were people with positions of influence and power but most were poor and many were slaves. Yet, they made up the communities which had opened their hands to those in need, even in far-off Jerusalem. They were not each individually figuring out what they could get away with on this side of heaven. The only two people in the New Testament who tried that were named Ananias and Sapphira! These communities knew they were charged, as we are also charged, to transform all things: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” They understood their Lord’s prayer contained their marching orders, so their prayers, their confession and their spiritual service was to bring heaven to earth in everything they did every day, not to make as much money as they could, live the good life on the earth and pay God back for it later. The first audience of Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel heard the Word together with power.
Not so with Scot’s reader. Scot’s reader does not listen to the Word; he reads it alone, by himself, like the old story about W. C. Fields, ‘looking for loopholes.’ And to be sure, what are we to think if an earlier generation of Christians in the U.S. saw that bringing heaven down to earth meant, among many things, the government needed to take from the rich and spread it around so that the whole society did not implode? Scot’s ‘individual’ rich Christian just does not see it. He does not see that unregulated capitalism leads inexorably over time to a few wealthy people having everything because the economic system itself is fallen, and just like everything else, it needs to be transformed, it needs to be saved from itself just like all the rest of creation. Transforming the government so that it does justice on the earth is not a part of the gospel for Scot’s reader. In fact, a lot of ‘everyday life’ has nothing to do with the gospel. Scot’s reader is only a Christian sometimes, like when doing ‘church’ things. His work-life and his political and economic views are outside of the gospel of Jesus. According to him, Jesus did not recruit a new community to replace “the world, the flesh and the devil” with holy living, transforming all things by the power of God’s Spirit. The individualist’s Jesus saves souls for heaven; he is not part of a community, busy bringing heaven down to the earth. And if he is a Lutheran,  then better still, because then, only faith: believing the right doctrines, counts. One’s works, one’s life, what one has done on the earth does not matter: Viva, Sola Fides! (I wonder if the Koch brothers are Lutherans? They certainly should be. [Now I am the one heavy with the sarcasm.])
Scot continues: Notice also what Jesus didn’t say in the parable. He does not call on the Jewish government, the Sanhedrin, to take food from the rich man and give it to Lazarus. Jesus doesn’t call on the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, to tax the rich man and give money to Lazarus. He doesn’t even scold the Temple priests for not intervening in the situation. The call is for individuals to assist the needy with their own resources.
My comments: N. T. Wright, in Jesus and the Victory of God remarks that Jesus was not arrested and executed for the things he did and said much earlier than he was, mostly because he kept moving and stayed out of the big cities of Galilee, Tiberius and Sepphoris. Had he been slower on the uptake or had he been trapped inside the walls of a Galilean city, his ministry would have been cut short.
The other thing Jesus did to keep out of jail was speak in parables. This comparative and referential mode of address kept his meaning vague until he was ready to speak out clearly in Jerusalem at the very end. How long do we suppose Jesus would have lasted if he had abandoned his vague references and spoken clearly of the justice which the leaders of Jerusalem were not in fact doing? Actually, in this parable, Jesus gets very close to accusing the Sanhedrin of failing to do justice when he has Abraham mention Moses and the prophets. The prophet Isaiah claims the wealthy of Judah are behaving like wild animals of the forest, devouring the poor and that the leadership of the country in Jerusalem are acting like pet dogs, sleeping by the hearth and closing their eyes to the injustice around them (Isaiah 56:9-12). Isaiah was referring to the elders of Israel. They were supposed to rule against the unjust practices of the rich in their time. But they had been paid to look the other way. Just how long do we expect the post-exilic Isaiah lasted after he spoke those words?
In his remarks, Scot wants me to quote Jesus explicitly, giving us a new law for economic and political life. Of course, he knows no such laws exist because we live in the age of the Spirit, not of Law. Yet he cannot see Old Testament redistributive justice being updated through the mechanism of taxation, a Spirit-driven leading to an answer to an old problem: economic systems which are continually in need of saving from themselves. That is what we Christians have today, the Spirit which leads us into the truth as we live out our salvation in fear and trembling and in loving joy before the Lord of Hosts. It is God who gives us the Spirit of truth to guide us as we seek to love God with everything we’ve got and our neighbor as much as ourselves. The Spirit guides communities of faith as they seek to bring the ways of heaven to every area of human life (Colossians 3:1-4:6). Even government and the problem of the rich getting richer until society breaks down completely.
Moreover, in regards to this parable, lest we forget: there was no rich man, no poor Lazarus, no hot place and no bosom of Abraham. There was just Jesus’ story. From Jesus’ mouth this parable came as a warning against the fate of an entire generation – it will be too late to go back and warn the others if you do not read and live by Moses and the prophets now – and it became too late just forty years later. A society of a few super rich and many grindingly poor people cannot long stand, especially if it claims to represent the ways of God! (Did you know, by the way, the U.S. reached a new milestone this year? Twenty-five percent of children in the U.S. now live in poverty, often homeless, living in cars and tents, often going to bed hungry. It has not been this bad since the Great Depression. These are the children of the disappearing middle class, people who used to have good jobs, jobs which have been shipped overseas by corporations who care only about their bottom line, corporations which hired more people last year in other countries than they did in the U.S. Our nation is approaching a crisis; things are heating up. We Christians in the upper middle class are fast becoming the rich man of the story and Lazarus is our neighbor, being foreclosed, all around us.)
Scot concludes his comment: SIG readers need to decide which is more important to them: Their personal political beliefs, or what God actually says in scripture.
My comments: Yes, we need to pay close attention to what God actually says in the scriptures, in the light of the times and the context in which they were written. In the case of the Gospels, then, we must enter into the crisis of their moment and hear what God is saying through Jesus to Jews just forty years before the great tribulation of his people and through Luke, using Jesus’ stories to warn and empower a next generation with a mission to subvert and transform the world’s way of eating and ruling and its distribution of the earth’s resources and every other worldly Greco-Roman/Jewish way.
Only if we begin with a neutral world in which economics, politics and other aspects of society exist outside the sovereign will of God and we see our job as going to heaven, then Scot can be pretty close to right when he says my views of what is right and wrong in society are just my personal views and it is too bad I have muddied my teaching of the Bible by introducing such irrelevancies as political and economic issues.
So you tell me? Are the people of God called to be individually, relatively good until they go to heaven or are they, as Paul told the Corinthians, called, as a community, to “overthrow the existing order” (I Corinthians 1:28 [NEB]) through love and truth and grace until Jesus returns with a shout and a trumpet sound to complete the transformation of creation? How we frame the text before we hear “what God actually says in scripture” makes all the difference in the world and beyond it.
This has been a valuable discussion! If there are still people who want to pursue it, I may need to open a second page on the blog to accommodate it. I need to get back to the larger themes on this main page; how we hear the Word of power all over our lives together in Christ. Please comment. I read every one and only toss out spam and complete nonsense.
Peace and grace,
1 Back to Post End Note 1: Luke addressed his gospel to one man, Theophilus, but clearly not so that he could keep it to himself. Many scholars believe Luke was influencing Theophilus to finance the making of many copies of the book for a wide distribution among the predominantly Greek-speaking Christian communities of Europe and Asia.
2 Back to Post End Note 2: Here I am, admittedly, unfairly picking on Lutherans. The Achilles Heel of the entire Protestant tradition is the miss-use of Sola Fides (by faith alone). Faith, defined as believing the right doctrines, is hardly what the New Testament meant by faith, nor do I think Luther would be happy with the cheap grace which has flowed from his important declaration that a walk with God must begin with, be founded on, faith. So, let me apologize now to any true Lutherans who failed to see the point I was making: saying you believe in Jesus and then living like the devil hardly fits what salvation looks like in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.