Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Does the Government Have an Obligation to "The Least of These"?: a response to Rush Limbaugh

A few days ago, during the visit of the Pope to the US, Rush Limbaugh asked a question on his show.  He said that he wasn't asking it rhetorically, that he really was curious and wanted to know.  I assume that the people who read through what must be a tremendous volume of correspondence will never pass this on to him, yet I'll send it to him nonetheless.  I thought I'd post my musing here, too.

Limbaugh's question was this, "Is there anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says that the government should help people?  Or does he say that individuals should help one another?"  I've heard other conservative pundits ask this same question and, obviously, their implication is the same -- that the moral argument of the government doing anything to address income inequality (and its related social consequences) is fundamentally misguided.  Jesus told people to help one another.  He didn't tell people to ask the government to do it.

I've heard this assertion put forward enough times that when Rush recently did as well I found myself really musing over it.  He's right, of course, as far as it goes and as far as I know.  I do not believe that Jesus is remember as every saying that it was the job of government to take care of the people.  But here's what else I know:

First, it seems obvious to me that we don't really know what Jesus said.  He didn't have a stenographer following him around.  Instead, people told one another what they remembered him as saying.  Those people told other people and the telling of the stories continued for a hundred years or so until people began to write them down.  Those writings, then, went through a myriad of translations -- not just among various languages but also through the eyes of people with different understandings and purposes.  What we have to look at today, then, is the heavily interpreted memory of people's memories of earlier people's remembrances of what Jesus said.  While I know that this is generally identified as liberal interpretation of Scripture, I also don't believe that Rush and the others are among those who believe the alternative theory that the New Testament texts were originally dictated by God for inerrant word, and that God has since guided the efforts of all of the many translators.

Second, even if you do subscribe to the idea that the Christian scriptures are not just "God-inspired" texts but "God-written" texts, you still can't claim to know everything that Jesus said.  After all, in the Gospel of John (21:25) it is written, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."  So ... did Jesus ever say that the government had a responsibility to care for its citizens?  We don't know, and never will, because, "Jesus did many other things as well."

Third, the question itself is flawed.  The government of Jesus' time was the local branch, if you will, of the occupying Roman government.  It was not the government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."  It was an occupying force that obliterated the governing structures of the Jewish people themselves.  When the Jews did have their own independent nation the Prophets did call the government to task for not taking care of the people -- especially the poor and the strangers among them.  And Jesus is remembered as revering the Prophets, and is remembered as chastising the closest thing the Jews had to their own government -- the Temple structure.  Remember his condemnation of the money changers, and the entire system that upheld the Temple hierarchy?  (If not, re-read Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:12-25)  Think of the many times he called the Pharisees and Scribes to account for not caring for the poor and the suffering -- these stories are not remembrances of his just talking to and about individuals, but of his critique of those who held power.  So, it is apparently possible to demonstrate that Jesus is remembered as saying that it was the responsibility of "the powers that be" to take care of its people.  But if you want to be strict in your interpretation and limit yourself to whether or not he spoke of the official government, the government of Rome, it is a false parallel to whether or not he would call our own government to account.

Fourth, there is not only the fact that the occupying Roman government is not an appropriate analog to our democratic government today, there is also a difference of scope.  Jesus lived his entire life in an area smaller than the state of Vermont.  It is one thing to expect the poor and the suffering to be cared for by individuals alone in such a small geographic area, but when we're talking about the entire United States?  Our problems are incredibly larger, more complex, and more intimately intertwined than could possibly be handled on a local lever alone.  The reasons people are hungry, and homeless, and in a myriad of other ways in need are national in scope.  Whatever Jesus is remembered as having said he said in and to his own people in his own time and place.  A community the size of the United States was never, could never have been, imagined.

Fifth, the closet followers of Jesus, those whose stories are told in the Book of Acts, organized their communities with care for one another a foundational principle.  It is written of them that,
  "all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need." (Acts 2:45).  Further, it is remembered that, "[T]he congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. ... there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.…" (Acts 4:32 & 34)  Apparently this egalitarian, some might even say "socialist," approach so seriously that we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) in which two of the community who decided to hold back some of their wealth for themselves were struck dead as a result.  If Rush and the others are really suggesting that we look to the teachings of Jesus to inform our social structures, this is the way those who are remembered as knowing him best organized themselves.  

Finally, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 C.E., and the formation of what, by the 13th century would come to be called "the Holy Roman Empire," we did see a government that at least in name was rooted in Christian principles.  In a book called Germany and the Holy Roman Empire the author notes that there was imperial legislation in 1530, 1548, and 1577 that, "obliged all rulers to take care of their poor," and that, "even in times of crisis, measures that almost all governments had in place undoubtedly brought relief to many.  The deserving poor were neither demonized nor criminalized."  Did Jesus say, specifically, that governments should take care of the poor?  Not that I can tell if we're being strictly precise, but it does seem that those governments that claimed to be following his teachings and example felt that they should do so.

And that, I suppose, is the ultimate response I have to Limbaugh's question:  even if Jesus did not specifically say that governments had to take care of the poor; even if he did intend to limit his overwhelmingly undeniable and inescapable emphasis on mercy, compassion, and "the least of these;" even if we capitulate to all of that ... why not do it anyway?  What is the government?  Representatives of the people, and, for that matter, a just a group of people.  Why should they not feel the same obligations that individual people are supposed to have just because they have come together as "government."  (Specifically, to quote Lincoln again, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people.)  Some may wonder if Jesus ever said that the government should be obliged to take care of its own poor and needy.  I'll just ask in return, "Did he ever say it shouldn't"?

Pax tecum,


Print this post

No comments: