In a somewhat amusing, but unsurprising effort to raise public resistance to the recent tax bill that is before Congress, the leftist Christian magazine Sojourners is Tweeting out in a string of Tweets a large number of verses that they believe unquestionably support their view point.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Sojourners trying to shape the public debate in their favor. And, to be fair, there is a lot in the current bill to be concerned and unhappy about. This post is not about a right to political speech by a non-profit organization or the merits of the bill.
It is, in fact, about the question of hermeneutics and assumptions.
On questions about which Scripture is quite clear—especially topics relating to sexual ethics that challenge contemporary social norms—Sojourners finds the Bible impenetrably confusing. However, on questions that are largely prudential and not mandated clearly in Scripture—e.g., the role of the government in redistributing wealth—Sojourners seems to believe they have the inside track on epistemically certain interpretation.
This is, to understate the reality, amusing to many of who have read the Bible and are familiar with the issues under debate.
What is amusing here is that in an effort to be prophetic and take a stand against the coopting of Christianity in America (this is a paraphrase of a popup on their website from a few months ago), particularly by the Religious Right, Sojourners has come to align themselves with the political Left almost without exception.
Aside from a cautious ambivalence toward abortion, Sojourners and the religious Left consistently parrot the talking points of Democrats and sometimes lean toward the Left end of the spectrum, particularly when it comes to advocacy for heavy handed government involvement in economics. The Religious Right has clearly fallen into this pit trap on different issues, especially in recent years. As Russell Moore eloquently argued last year, the Religious Right have become the people they warned us about.
There is little question that in history, socialism has very seldom gone well for anyone except the ruling minority. Norway seems to offer some hope for young Socialists, as that resource-rich nation has been able to fund a strong welfare state for decades with their mixed economy. However, the evidence of Venezuela, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Bloc, North Korea, Cuba, etc., seem to indicate that socialism tends to go poorly, especially for the disenfranchised.
Given the weight of historical evidence, Christian advocates for socialism, like those at Sojourners have turned to Scripture to support their advocacy for greater limits on private property rights and increased efforts by the government to redistribute wealth according to their preferences. The latest Tweet storm by the social media account of Sojourners is just another evidence of that advocacy.
The trouble is that the verses Sojourners is so boldly throwing out into the internet as proof that the proposed tax cuts are immoral don’t support their position. They could, in fact, support the opposite position. The difference is what economic and political assumptions the reader is making.
The basic assumptions that Sojourners appears to be making is that:
1. Scripture demands that government redistribute wealth according to the vision of the people at Sojourners, which, as they describe it, is for the benefit of the poor.
No Christian should argue with the proposition that the government has the obligation to ensure justice for its citizens, and particularly for the poor. However, one must also suppose that wealth redistribution is a legitimate means for rectifying the supposed injustice of economic inequality. In reality, unless the religious Left is willing to accept government policing of sexual ethics according to the law given to the Israelites, then they have no basis to make that argument. Unless, of course, they make a second significant assumption that:
2. Economic inequality is intrinsically unjust.
There are obvious problems created by extreme forms of economic inequality. The convergence of corporate power into fewer and fewer hands and the subsequent conglomeration of wealth has made it possible for a small number of people to heavily influence politics and society. This is particularly augmented by the growing inability of many citizens to recognize and resist propaganda from the Right or the Left. This is not a good thing, and is something that we ought to work to mitigate through legitimate means.
However, inequality is not fundamentally unjust according to Scripture. In fact, there is evidence that in some cases God deliberately causes inequality. Inequality is never the major issue in Scripture, but poverty is certainly a problem along with the injustice that often falls against the economically disadvantaged.
There is, however, another side of the story. As some advocates for Free Markets, such as Arthur Brooks, argue, the rise of most of the world’s population out of poverty is a result of Free Markets, not government redistribution. So, it seems, that there might be alternative perspectives on alleviating poverty than simply assuming that an ever-increasing role for the government in people’s lives through the redistribution of wealth may not be biblically mandated.
This is where the crux of the hermeneutical problem of Sojourners resides: They assume that their method of alleviating poverty is the only possible method, therefore everyone who favors a different method is sinning or advocating injustice. In other words, anyone who opposes the perpetual expansion of the welfare state is a big, mean, evil jerkface. Or something like that.
In short, Sojourners has fallen into the same trap that the Religious Right has: reading their political preferences back into the Bible and judging everyone else based on their assumptions. (As a side note, a few months ago I saw a very conservative pastor be accused of rejecting inerrancy on Facebook because he raised questions about the 2nd Amendment. This is one of the most egregious examples of misreading Christianity through a political lens.)
The reality of the issue is that I can read the Sojourners Tweet-storm and affirm the content of all of those verses, but then put them in a context that affirms the dignity of humans as produces and see that changes to various Welfare programs are not, ipso facto, unjust or unbiblical after all. In fact, I can read some of those verses and point to particular programs that should be eliminated because they violate the dignity of the poor and engender long-term, unjust dependence.
When Christian outlets or people cheat arguments by assuming that certain passages support their policies, they subvert legitimate debate. Before we can argue about whether the current American welfare programs are just or unjust according to Scripture, we need to have a deeper discussion about what role for government is authorized and/or mandated by the Bible. If we can’t come to an agreement on that issue from Scripture itself, then it becomes fairly clear that the argument is prudential and not one that Scripture can adjudicate with a handful (or even a couple of thousand) proof texts.
This means that we need to rely upon Scripture, which is the ultimate authority for the Christian life, but that we need to be aware of our presuppositions. We should allow Scripture to speak to our context, not attempt to treat it as a marionette for our chosen cause.
As a result, Christians are right to ask whether proposed policies are, in fact, just. They should also ask whether those policies are likely to engender social conditions that improve the lot of the poor (especially for the long term).
Christians are not, however, authorized to assume that proposed policies are unjust simply because they do not pursue a Scripturally mandated end by one particular means, which happens to be favored by a particular political party. That debate about methods is one that should rely on evidence and arguments based on the best data available. Such methods will often be shaped by Scriptural norms, but rarely can they be directly derived in every detail from Scripture.
Our debate in the public square will continue to be anemic and unhelpful as long as groups on the Right and the Left fail to discuss issues carefully. As Christians, we will continue to be at odds with others as long as we mistreat the common source of our moral norms, namely, Scripture, by reading back our political and economic assumptions into the text.
Perhaps if we spent more time arguing about those justified ends that we can agree upon, such as the alleviation of poverty, we could have meaningful debate and compromise on policies across political party boundaries.
The moral of the story is that we all need to have a hermeneutics of suspicion toward our own interpretations of Scripture.