Sunday, July 22, 2012

This Time It's Biblical

In the superb Nova documentary, In The Path of a Killer Volcano, about the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, one of the scientists on the scene described the climax of the eruption as "Events were ...[searching for word]... Biblical. That could easily describe events in American politics now. Considering all the cultish bilge spewing forth from the Religious Right, I'd like to offer an alternative interpretation.

In C.S. Lewis' book The Great Divorce, one visitor to heaven keeps demanding his rights. His guide says "I didn't get my rights, or I wouldn't be here." This is important. We have no rights at all in the eyes of God. If God decides to do something, what court will we go to overturn His decision? What higher standard of justice will we appeal to force him to change His mind? We have no property rights with God. We only have stewardship, and if we fail to exercise stewardship properly, He can and often does take it away from us.

The travelers on the Jericho road were perfectly within their legal rights to ignore the robbery victim. There was no law forcing them to stop and help. The robbery victim could not have sued them in court. The victim had no right to accost passers-by and demand help, or attack them if they didn't offer assistance, or steal from them because he had been robbed. There was only the moral obligation, which only the Samaritan obeyed.

A more modern example was the Marshall Plan after World War II. Britain and France had no right to demand that we help them, still less Germany and Italy, who had been our enemies. We offered aid to friend and foe alike out of a sense of moral obligation, coupled with enlightened self interest. We were the only intact industrial power. Had we not exercised that stewardship wisely, the result might very well have been a Communist takeover of Europe, with us eventually reduced to impoverished isolation if not actual subjection.

If we do not exercise our stewardship faithfully, God can take it away from us. Rand Paul, the GOP candidate in Kentucky, is under fire for expressing doubts about the Civil Rights Act. In principle, the decision whether to rent or sell to or hire another person should belong solely to the owner of a business. In practice, so many people abused their property rights to harm other people that God stripped that right away. In fact, pretty much every Government regulation that people complain about was God stripping away rights because people failed to exercise proper stewardship. If you use your freedom to produce defective products or engage in deceptive practices, or pay slave wages just because you can get away with it, God will take that freedom away from you. Don't like teachers' unions? You should have thought of that every time a teacher got fired for discussing something controversial in class, or decisions were based on cronyism rather than quality. (What do you suppose happened at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses announced the Ten Commandments and some toddler asked "Mommy, what's adultery?")

Once upon a time, Christians ruled supreme in America. They had every chance to build decent roads, give every child an education, create public libraries, pay decent living wages, and keep the water clean. They did not. So God stepped in and used non-Christians to to the job for Him. Even now, what is stopping Christians from setting up a universal health care system? Every single regulatory or spending program that conservatives oppose exists because the free market failed to deliver or failed to live up to its responsibilities.

Here's what happens when you don't exercise stewardship:

(Jeremiah 22, NIV) This is what the LORD says: "Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: 2  'Hear the word of the LORD, O king of Judah, you who sit on David's throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. 3 This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien [that means foreigners, in case you were wondering], the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. 4 For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David's throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people. 5 But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin."

 6 For this is what the LORD says about the palace of the king of Judah:
       "Though you are like Gilead to me,
       like the summit of Lebanon,
       I will surely make you like a desert,
       like towns not inhabited.

 7 I will send destroyers against you,
       each man with his weapons,
       and they will cut up your fine cedar beams
       and throw them into the fire.

 13 "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
       his upper rooms by injustice,
       making his countrymen work for nothing,
       not paying them for their labor.

[Isn't it amazing that in 150 years, no Southern apologist for the Civil War has wondered whether that verse might have some relevance? Whether, maybe, the South was visited by judgment?]

 14 He says, 'I will build myself a great palace
       with spacious upper rooms.'
       So he makes large windows in it,
       panels it with cedar
       and decorates it in red.

 15 "Does it make you a king
       to have more and more cedar?
       Did not your father have food and drink?
       He did what was right and just,
       so all went well with him.

 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
       and so all went well.
       Is that not what it means to know me?"
       declares the LORD.

[I wonder how many people who ask "Do you know the Lord?" know that verse?]

 17 "But your eyes and your heart
       are set only on dishonest gain,
       on shedding innocent blood
       and on oppression and extortion."

Note that the destroyers didn't have a legal or moral right to plunder. The Israelites could stand there and scream about their rights being violated and they'd have been 100 per cent correct. It's about consequences. Fail to meet your moral obligations and God may just remove His protection from you and allow your rights to be violated.

Then there's the warning of James in the New Testament:

14  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2: 14-17)
If James were writing today about the health care debate, he might well write:
Suppose a brother or a sister is sick and cannot afford a doctor. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; stay healthy and get that cancer treated,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
He'd also be bothered by the way conservative Christians favor the rich: "Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? (James 2: 6)

I've been watching the teabagger and birther movements, and there is only one thing that can explain how so many people got so deranged and irrational so fast. God has utterly removed His grace and protection from them. "Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." (Romans 9:18) "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear" (Romans 11:7) "Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done." (Romans 1:28). Or, as the writer Euripides put it, "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."

Christians are not shielding America from judgment. America is shielding Christians from judgment. America doesn't prosper because Christians tithe. Christians prosper because America tithes. The Old Testament Jews tithed and got nothing in return except a smug, self-righteous, corrupt class of priestly parasites who did nothing at all to benefit the society. I paid more than 10% of my gross salary last year in taxes, and I got roads, schools, airports, weather satellites, national parks, and a host of other things in return. Also I helped pay for efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and nurse the sick.

The Old Testament world was pretty primitive. The bar is set far higher for us. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48). We know how to grow abundant food; therefore stewardship requires us to see that everyone is fairly fed. We know how to cure disease, therefore stewardship requires us to treat the sick. How are we going to answer God when he asks us about feeding the hungry and points out we didn't even need to lift a finger to do it ourselves, all we needed to do was not obstruct the people who were doing it?

Liberals have their own stewardship sins, the worst of which is adamantly refusing to couple benefits to socially responsible individual behavior. I voted for McCain, and I see serious problems with some of Obama's reforms, but at least he is trying to exercise the stewardship that Christians have so miserably failed to exercise responsibly. We have a choice in 2012. If we turn America over to the teabaggers and birthers and the likes of Glenn Beck, Rand Paul, Bryan Fischer and Joe Arpaio, we may just bring God's judgment down on us in a way that the most ardent fire and brimstone preacher can't even begin to imagine.

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