Jesus and Politics

jesus politics
jesus democrat

My recent post on capitalism has brought several questions about how Jesus would handle the political world today. I’m not sure I can identify the political world that Jesus would envision.

The libertarians say, “Surely Jesus would want everyone to make charitable decisions on their own. And more people will have more purchasing power  to do more good and help more people in a more free market.”

The statists say, “Surely Jesus would want the needy cared for. And the individual wealthy clearly aren’t doing it on their own. Look at all the poor still among us and the enormous wealth inequality.”

I hear people of all different political stripes say that Jesus would agree with them politically. And they all have a decent case. But I’m not sure if Jesus would take a stand for any of our existing parties or systems.

I see a very political Jesus in Scripture in one sense, but also a very apolitical Jesus. To the secular world, his primary message seems to be “repent.” Stop oppressing people and take care of them. And also: your only real hope will be found in communion with God, not by your own strivings. We could get into skirmishes over the best economic and political systems, but I don’t think any of our secular models really work. In a fallen world, they all break down when it comes to caring for the most needy. [see “Christians, Capitalism, and Ayn Rand” for a brief take on why these all break down]

I think Jesus’ more political statements are for believers. And his call to them is to live out a different economy than our world’s, not to go advocate for a better system within the world.

To clarify my earlier suggestion: I’m suggesting that Christians give their energy to living out a Christian economy in a secular world. I think that’s our better contribution than trying to make secular world political decisions. I don’t think we need to waste much of our time affirming one economic system or another or choosing one party affiliation or another. I think we can provide a third way.

That’s not living in a bubble. It’s just engaging in a very different way. Not stepping into the back-and-forth political fray – which seems to be mostly about power – but instead creating an alternate economy.

I don’t know whether Jesus would be an advocate for big government or small government. What I do know is that among believers, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” We’re not doing that yet. I think much more fruit will come from that than engaging in the secular arguments, where I’m starting to believe both sides are wrong.

Oddly, a lot of these thoughts came for me when I started reading Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and other capitalist economics. The more I read, the more I realized that these people really think our society’s great hope is unfettered capitalism, and it was all based on assumptions I disagreed with — about the point of life (some form of material prosperity and happiness), the point of society (more middle-class people with purchasing power), and the state of humanity (generally good, just needing more freedom).

[See the problem with our notions of independence and freedom]

I got so frustrated with those assumptions that it made me start questioning the whole system. I realized that I had wanted to make Jesus a capitalist just as much as others had wanted to make him a socialist or Republican or Democrat. And what we consistently see in Scripture is that when people ask Jesus “A or B?” he typically says something to suggest, “wrong question” or “have you considered C?”

I wonder if my questions – “Republican or Democrat?” “Capitalism or Socialism?” “Big government or Small government?” – were the wrong questions all these years. I wonder whether Jesus’ challenge back to me would be: “How come you have two shirts and your neighbor has none?” Woe be it to me if I say, “Because the wrong person got elected!”

Also of interest:
The Church as Alternate Economy
Christians, Capitalism, and Ayn Rand
Escaping Conformity

Christians, Capitalism, and Ayn Rand

cap-socIf you pay any attention to politics, you’ve been deluged with economic talk for the past, oh, four years. We’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the return of Gordon Gekko, and polarized political views about how to fix a slumping economy. And that barely scratched the surface of what you’ll get in the next three months.

In the midst of it all, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what is an appropriate Christian stance and response.

Capitalism and Christian Economics

Let’s look first at the ardent capitalists. Ayn Rand’s fame has soared in the past few years. People like Edward Conard are writing about how growing income inequality is a sign that our economy is working (see this long but interesting interview with him).

So far as the goal is to increase the number of middle-class people and to increase their purchasing power, I agree with nearly everything the capitalists say. I’m concerned, though, that they seriously underestimate how much people will lie, cheat, steal, and oppress because of their love of money. Rand and Conard clearly don’t believe that the love of money is the root of all evil. Actually, they might say that the love of money is the root of all human ingenuity.

Rand summed up her whole belief system for us: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

The problem: a Christian worldview disagrees with every bit of this. Christ is the hero, who saves depraved humanity from our sinfulness. Holiness, not some secular understanding of happiness, is the moral purpose of life. Service to God is our noblest activity. And reason often fails and deceives.

I can’t get over the feeling that Rand’s (IMHO) bad theology and anthropology led her to develop a bad economic model. She built her model on the assumption that humanity is essentially good and that an individual’s own happiness is the point of life.

Christian theology and anthropology tell me that humanity is corrupt – that without regulation, people will mistreat others to satiate their own greed. Christian theology tells me that greed is at the root of all kinds of evil. Christian theology says Gordon Gekko is wrong – greed is terribly harmful to individuals and society.

I’m not a Socialist

So now you’re thinking I must be a socialist. Or at least a Democrat. I’m not. I’m not going to belabor the point here, but lest all the conservatives begin assuming I’m just another flaming liberal, I’ll admit that I don’t remember the last time I voted for a Democrat.

Governments are run by depraved people, and they’re equally likely to lie, cheat, steal, and oppress. We’ve seen that when we give government more power, they don’t use it all to fight for the little guy. They use a lot of it to pick their own special interests and protect their own power. In a fallen world, socialism is just as flawed as capitalism.

Regardless if your system is capitalist or socialist, it concentrates a lot of power in the hands of the few. That power will rarely be used in the interest of the person without power, status, or wealth. Whether they be at the top of a government bureaucracy or a big business, people love money and power and will fight for more of it.

Chilling for the capitalists is the suggestion that because of that concentration of power, capitalism will lead to socialism.

In the end, I struggle to know what to believe about politics. I think the capitalists’ philosophy only works if humanity is inherently good – or if the goal is creating more middle-class people, often at the expense of the poorest. If humanity were inherently good, socialism would work just fine for those purposes, too.

A Christian Economic View

As economics go, I think Christians should seek to embody an economic culture that reflects new creation — not counting our possessions as our own, selling property and sharing as anyone has need, having no needy persons among us. That’s very different from the goal of creating more middle-class people with more purchasing power, or from forcibly taking from those with more to give to those with less. No policy can accomplish it.

Are Christians today more focused on fixing the secular economy than living out a Christian economy? In a secular world, greed and extravagance will always prevent a new creation economy, regardless of legislation. Someone will always be scammed, oppressed, left on the outside.

Regardless of where we find ourselves in the world — capitalist, socialist, distributist – I wish Christians would give their energy to taking care of the people who got left out of the system. Our culture has been so immersed in the Tea Party-Occupy world of pragmatic, secular economics that I’m worried Christians are forgetting that our economics start from a different place.

If you have the time to read it, the brilliant theologian Jamie Smith participated in a symposium with a Christian economist that is a great depiction of the problem that economists and theologians are having even trying to have a discussion. I think we’re starting with such different sets of “givens” and assumptions that it’s hard to even understand each other in a conversation. Smith’s opening article is great. If you read the whole thing, you’ll see just how much they’re talking directly past each other because of different starting points.

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