Crying in the wilderness

December 30th, 2016
by Chris

I fairly recently encountered, in a comment thread, an assertion that the author was suprised that the writer of the original post (a Christian) could have supported Hilary Clinton as no real Christian could support the Democrats, because they were Socialists, i.e. Communists, and everything about Socialism/Communism was contrary to the gospel. I paraphrase there.

There is just so much wrong with that assertion, from my point of view, that it beggars belief. The easy bits are that the Democrats in the US are nothing like even remotely Socialist and Socialism is not equivalent to Communism (for any readers who are unaware of the fact, neither Socialism nor Communism demands a command economy, which is what most people to the right of centre – and that’s “centre” as understood in Europe, not as understood in the States – understand by both “Communist” and “Socialist”).

The more difficult bit is one which I have spent a fair amount of time writing about, for instance in “The System of Satan“, “Freedom with or without property” and “Towards a Christian economics“. I should stress that this is not a perspective which I consider at all radical, liberal or in any way contrary to the general tenor of the churches in the area where I grew up.

I was originally raised a Methodist, and in the UK the Methodists have long been associated with the Labour and Cooperative movements (the bedrock of the UK Labour Party, who were in those days, at least, unashamedly Socialist); our most prominent local Anglican vicar and a couple of our more prominent Catholics served terms as Labour (i.e. Socialist) local Councillors, and in the period during which I was centrally involved in the local Liberal Democrats (an amalgamation of the former Liberal and Social Democratic parties, thus at least somewhat Socialist) three local clergymen all donated to our campaigns and others indicated support, while a prominent URC elder was a fellow LibDem councillor with me. OK, I knew that some Anglicans tended to hold to the old saying that the Anglicans were “the Conservative Party at prayer”, but the clergy at least seemed to me to be significantly more in favour of centre-to-left political positions. The Archbishop of Canterbury has criticised Tory austerity as failing to care for the less privileged members of society, while the current Pope has condemned neoliberal economics. The Catholic Church in South America is well endowed with Liberation Theologians, and some of those are not only avowedly Catholic but also avowedly Communist. Until I started interacting significantly with American Christians about 20 years ago online, I would have said that Socialist-to-Communist was the natural political and economic stance for a committed Christian to adopt – maybe, at a pinch, what used to be called “One Nation” Conservatism, if people had too many qualms about the idea that following Jesus’s commands was actually rather too foolish (despite Paul’s statement about the gospel as he saw it – a foolishness to the Greeks -which you should nonetheless preach and live into, according to him).

Since then I have found that in the States, Christianity tends to be more associated with the Right than with the Left, and the American Right is a long way right of what we call “right wing” in the UK (although some here would very much like to catch up, since Margaret Thatcher managed to turn us from communitarianism to individualism…) It would also seem from Keith Watkins’ account of research done by James Wellman that US evangelicals believe “it is hard to be a political liberal and a Christian” (end of page 3), as well as a number of other beliefs which I would find grave difficulty in connecting with scripture. I’ve spent quite a bit of time arguing about this, most notably with Elgin Hushbeck (an Energion author, who used to co-present a weekly podcast called “Global Christian Perspectives” with me). This is not an universal characterisation – this author says “Christians who used their relationship with Jesus as a justifier to cast a vote for Trump (or engage in other acts contrary to the life model Jesus lived for us while on Earth) misrepresent our Lord and simultaneously complicate an already difficult mission of spreading the Gospel all over the world.” A secular author agrees… In my own case, I would have described myself 40 years ago as a centrist (in UK terms), but since then I’ve done a lot of reading of the gospels, and frankly the more I read them, the more “left wing” I think I should be, if I am actually aiming at following Jesus.

I’ve found that there are, in fact, arguments you can draw from scripture to support some standpoints I’d regard as “right wing”, particularly the more libertarian strand of the right. For instance, if you cast government in the role of either the 1st century Temple hierarchy or the 1st century Roman occupiers of Judaea, respectively the religio-political-social and military-political rulers, the New Testament is antipathetic towards both – scribes and sadducees, along with pharisees, get short shrift and, although there’s little direct criticism of Rome, there’s a lot of implicit resistance going on (for example, “render unto Caesar”, which actually says that Caesar owns nothing apart from his coinage, and “walk the extra mile” referring to the embarrassing of those demanding forced labour). It’s also hard to glean from it a suggestion that the Christian obligations to aid the sick, the imprisoned, the marginalised and (perhaps especially) the poor should be enforced by the ultimate threat of violence, which one must admit is the ultimate sanction of the modern state for failure to pay taxes (even if the violence is limited to that sufficient to imprison someone or to take assets from them). These charitable injunctions, I’m told, are followed more by right-wing Christians than by left-wing ones (though I question elsewhere whether that is actually the case…).

Now, as it happens, I disagree with these interpretations, and particularly with the basis claiming that governments in the West are analagous to the Roman Empire or the Second Temple hierarchy (which was by the first century at least significantly corrupt – the Essenes were just one of a number of groups formed as a reaction to that corruption, and early Christianity may well be viewed as another). Western governments are representative democracies, and therefore they are the community governing itself, at least in theory (in practice, there are many factors which distort the ideal of a representative democracy, and most if not all Western democracies could do with an overhaul – but the principle is still sound). While I would be hard put to find an argument for democratic government in the scriptures, quite a few protestant churches have determined that this is a valid way, in a “priesthood of all believers”, for the community to select its leaders, and I would definitely agree – with the caveat that, in my experience, democracies in churches function even less well than our political democracies  and could also do with some serious checks and balances. I can, however, see the point of them; Jesus nowhere actually condones the use of force to compel charity – though the tale of Ananias and Saphira indicates that the community did and should look extremely unfavourably on anyone who shirked this responsibility, and Jesus definitely thought that failures in this area would imperil people’s standings before him and before God, and the story of Ananias and Saphira indicates at the least that the early Christians wanted to place a huge measure of responsibility and societal opprobrium on those who did not contribute sufficiently (i.e. to the full extent of their abilities) to the common good.

Shunning and exclusion (which I suspect is at the root of that story) is not, as such, a threat of physical violence, but it is its own form of violence – emotional at the least. The equivalents of those, looked at from the perspective of a nation-state community rather than a Christian community among other communities in a wider society would probably look like outlawry (in which the non-compliant is denied any of the normal protections of the law), stripping of citizenship (with similar effect unless the Jewish and Christian injunctions to treat the alien as one of ourselves is followed) or banishment. I am not convinced that the threat of forcible imprisonment is actually a lesser sanction than those.

So, my conservative friends, I think you’re dead wrong in your interpretation of scripture here. Frankly, voting for anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders was voting for the less-Christian option, and the further towards the hardline Republicans you got, the further you got from Jesus.

But I fancy I’m a voice of one calling in the wilderness“… without, of course, wanting to suggest that I’m in any way comparable with the Baptist…

 

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