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Reading Political Theory into Scripture

A common temptation when drawing on the Scriptures to inform one’s political theory is to read one’s political theory into the Scriptures rather than reading political theory out of the Scriptures. Conservatives are no more immune to this temptation than leftists. Yoram Hazony, for example, studiously ignores the universalistic religious vision in the Scriptures in making his biblical case for The Virtue of Nationalism. Yet it is difficult to surpass the smug nonchalance with which some of the folk at Sojourners read their preferred political theories into the Scriptures.

Take Randall Balmers’ recent post at Sojourners on “The Evangelical Critique of Capitalism.” Here the Church after Pentecost practiced “socialism . . . if not communism.” Jesus’s teaching on rich people and the eye of the needle is a socialist retort to the one percent. And 19th century Evangelicals such as Charles Finney taught that the “tenets of capitalism—selfishness, greed, ‘the desire to possess’—[run] counter to the mandates of the gospel and the words of Jesus to care for the ‘least of these.’”

Before getting to these, it’s worth noting that Balmers ignores the one story in the Bible in which the government ends up owning the means of production—real socialism. The story is that of Joseph and his actions as a leading government official in light of a pressing national emergency in Egypt. The problem is that the ultimate outcome of this event and Joseph’s actions do not unequivocally support the socialist cause.

Joseph’s divinely inspired wisdom in the story saves both Egypt and Israel from terrible famine. Yet in saving Egypt, Joseph ends up buying for Pharaoh all of the privately-owned livestock (Genesis 47.16-17), all of the privately-owned land but that owned by the priestly caste (Genesis 47.20, 22), and buys even the people themselves, making them Pharaoh’s slaves (Genesis 47.25).

On the one hand, Joseph’s actions save Egypt and Israel from the famine. On the other hand, the consequences of Joseph’s actions turn dark after Joseph dies and a “new King arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1.8). Pharaoh’s economic power turns despotic. It is this ambiguity, I dare say, that deters left-wing evangelicals from appealing to the one clear example in the Scriptures in which the government ends up owning the means of production.

In contrast to Joseph’s socializing policies as leader of the Egyptian government, the actions of the Church immediately after its creation at Pentecost, cannot, contrary to Balmers, be styled as any form of real socialism, let alone communism.

The Scriptures make it expressly clear that there was no coercive element, even as a condition of membership, in the Church’s practice after Pentecost. The Church faced dire emergency conditions due to its very success at Pentecost. The small band of disciples immediately grew by 3,000 on that day alone (Acts 2.41), and grew by thousands more in the days to come (Acts 4.4).

Pentecost was a Jewish festival in which large numbers of the faithful returned to Jerusalem from different nations (Acts 2.9-11). With the conversion in response to Peter’s sermon, there existed just a single Christian church. These converts could not return to their home country and join, say, the Second Presbyterian Church of Ephesus. For many, their brief trip to Jerusalem became unanticipatedly longer. Many would not have come financially prepared for a longer stay in Jerusalem.

As a result of this pressing need, the disciples “had all things in common and began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone one might have need” (Acts 2.44-45, cf., 4.34-35). This activity exemplifies the underlying ontological unity of the Church in Jesus Christ (Romans 12.5, Eph 4.25, Mark 10.29-30, etc.), a lesson that is often lost in modern churches in which the Church is conceived, even by Christians themselves, as little more than voluntary organizations, religious clubs for like-minded people.

So the practice of the church at Pentecost still holds today. But it held neither then nor now as an example of socialism. The Scriptures could hardly be clearer about that. Luke records the sad story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. This couple sold some of their property yet “kept back” some of what they sold while falsely representing to the apostles they were giving the full amount (Acts 5.8).

Peter’s rebuke to Ananias, however, rules out even the possibility that the Church’s practice models the coercive practice at the foundation of any truly socialist system: “While [the property] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your authority?”

To be sure, if the folks at Sojourners really want to offer this as socialism—where Americans may choose voluntarily to donate to a common pool to be shared with all—I dare say few non-socialists will object. That system of voluntary donations already exists. But if we’re talking about real political and economic socialism, the example of the Church at Pentecost utterly fails to meet the definition.

Balmers next suggests that Jesus commends socialism in his well-known statement that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19.24).

As with the Church’s practice as Pentecost, it is important when responding to Balmers’ tendentious reading of this passage, that we not throw the baby out with the bath water. To wit, the Scriptures repeatedly and frequently caution that wealthy people face unique and daunting temptations because of their wealth (Deuteronomy 8.12-13, Revelation 3.17-18, etc). Relatedly, in early recognition of rent seeking, the Scriptures also caution judges and government officials against being partial to the wealthy. Of note, although less frequently, the Scriptures also caution judges and government officials against being partial to poor people (Exodus 23.3, Leviticus 19.15).

That said, the problem with Balmers’ reading his policy preferences into this text, is that he misses the puzzle, and so misses how Jesus’s concluding comment in the exchange actually subverts the conclusion Balmers (and Sojourners) want to draw from the passage.

In response to Jesus’s comment about rich people, camels and needles, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” This is an odd question to ask. On the surface, after all, Jesus’s own statement already answered the question. After all, a statement regarding the difficulty of salvation for rich people carries with it the implication that the great multitudes of people who aren’t rich can be more-easily saved.

So the disciples must have something more in mind that prompts their question that Jesus’s statement about rich people somehow implicates everyone’s salvation.

Here we need to go back to the Old Testament, to the very beginning of Israel. Jesus’s statement implicates everyone’s salvation for the disciples because Abram/Abraham, the first patriarch, was himself fabulously wealthy (Genesis 13.2, 24.35, etc.). The disciples’ universalistic question derives from this: If the faith’s founding patriarch, the one through whom God created his people, was saved only with great difficulty, then what hope can there be for the rest of us ordinary mortals, whether rich or poor?

The disciples’ question universalizes Jesus’s statement about the difficulty of salvation. Jesus actual answer, “with people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19.26) then subverts the Sojourners’ reading of his own words. This does not imply that wealthy people do not face heightened temptations relative to poor people. But the universalizing thrust of the disciples’ response, and Jesus’s equally universalizing answer, leaves no room for Balmers’ political reading of the passage.

Even granting Balmers’ tone-deaf reading of the passage, what would Jesus’s statement have to do with socialism? Balmers is so concerned with saving the souls of rich people that he would have the government expropriate their property to make them poor? (Or to take from the rich and give to the poor . . . to make the poor richer and so open them to the temptations of affluence?)

Finally, Balmers’ reading of 19th century Evangelical Charles Finney as a critic of capitalism seems to be as selective as his reading of the Scriptures. The evidence concerning Finney is much more ambiguous than Balmers suggests. Eugene McCarraher, for example, in his massive study, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (which I discuss here), writes that “The greatest circuit rider for Christian capitalism was Charles Finney, the star revivalist of the Second Great Awakening.” Finney is Balmers’ star witness that 19th century Evangelicals were critical of capitalism. In truth, Finney criticized some elements and implications of market capitalism, yet also recognized important virtues to and benefits of market capitalism. He did not regard it as an inherently evil system as Balmers suggests he did. Beyond Finney in particular, however, Balmer is wrong when suggesting that “selfishness, greed, [and] ‘the desire to possess’” are more intrinsic elements of life in market capitalism than they are in a pre-modern economy or in a socialist economy. These vices long predate the rise of modern market capitalism.

The very fact that biblical figures from Moses to Jesus inveigh against selfishness, greed, and covetousness itself underscores that these sins inhere in the human condition throughout time, and long precede the rise of modern capitalism. This is not to suggest that humans in market systems labor under these temptations any less than people in the distant past. But it does suggest that these are not unique vices of modern capitalism, at least if we listen to the Scriptures themselves rather than read our views into the Scriptures.

Reader Discussion

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on May 20, 2020 at 07:24:35 am

Very good! More in a similar vein here: https://merepensees.com/2019/01/ten-thoughts-on-politics-and-the-bible/

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Roger Clegg
on May 22, 2020 at 19:15:53 pm

Dear Mr. Clegg:
By citing Genesis 47 in his critique, James Rogers is disingenuously engaging in a equal but opposite politically-driven abuse and distortion of the Bible. There is a distinction to between a general statism and socialism, which may be reasonably deemed a subset of statism. Socialism has a specific telos and set of principles which cannot be found in the Egyptian example, either within the biblical narrative or his non-biblical extant records.

Likewise, James Rogers conflates free market economy with capitalism. The latter might be deemed a subset of free market economy, but at both a theoretical and pragmatic level, they are quite different.

The Mosaic Covenant, to which the first stated purpose in Scriptures, was to create the "Good Society" upon the earth, of sufficient merit that it is recognized by pagan foreigners, explicitly pursued policies with an aim that each person own their own means of production, an understanding that George Washington esteemed ("every man under his own vine and fig tree"). Capitalism is an efficient facilitator of the few owning the means of production. This latter arrangement was decried by the Hebrew prophets (Isaiah 5:8 - 10, Amos) and invariably abets the decline and fall of nations.

Be your more happy to see more Bible. However, I would suggest that you scrupulously search the Scriptures, rather than believe christian conservatism or christian progressivism. A pox on both their houses.

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John Hutchinson
on May 20, 2020 at 08:45:43 am

I know that there is not enough room in an essay for a wide treatment of this subject, but I'd like to add to this essay. The story of the rich man appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Interestingly, in Luke the Apostles' question is partially answered in the story of Zacchaeus, who pledges to give, "the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold." Jesus response was, "This day salvation has come to this house..." Also, how can the description of Joseph of Arimithea be ignored? He was called a rich man, Jesus' disciple, an honorable counsellor who waited for the kingdom of God, a good man (one of only 2 in the New Testament so described), and just.

Now returning to the story of the rich man. First, he does not recognize Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. Second, when Jesus mentions the commandments it is conspicuous for what Jesus leaves out. He omits from Exodus 20 that there is only one God, that there shall be no graven images, to not use the name of God in vain, and to keep the Sabbath. Jesus also omits the first and great commandment to love the Lord of with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. The man's problem was not that he was rich, but that he served another master other than God. This is something that rich and poor can do alike. This would include worshiping government over God, which socialists and communists do. Jesus could have called down legions of angels to expropriate this man's rich's but did not. Also, this rich man is the only person of whom Jesus tells to sell all that he had. He never asks the same of his apostles, who never sold the assets of their businesses, (in the context of this story, the term "forsake" means to remit debts). This is demonstrated in Peter, James, and John returning to fishing after the resurrection. Lastly, in Acts 2, Barnabas is a Levite and they were not allowed to own land. At this time the Judean Christians still practiced the Law and that explains Barnabas' behavior.

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Andrew Kohlhofer
on May 20, 2020 at 09:47:04 am

True, socialism and communism are not just economic systems, they are social political systems that deny Christ The King. It is possible in a Capitalist economic system to recognize God as Father, as long as that particular Capitalist system desires to serve for The Common Good, and thus does not deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage. It is not a coincidence that those who desire to render onto Caesar what belongs to God, support abortion, euthanasia, and the reordering of man, according to sexual desire/inclination in order to justify the engaging in of demeaning acts that deny the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter, and are thus physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually abusive.

“To whom much has been given, much will be expected”, is true not just for material goods, but also in regards to sharing our Faith and sharing our talents. There is a difference between “to covet”, and “to share”; that difference, makes all the difference, when one desires to remain in communion with The God Who Is Perfect Love.

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Nancy
on May 20, 2020 at 19:28:22 pm

Excellent exposition Andrew!

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anony
on May 20, 2020 at 11:33:27 am

I am pleased to see more Hebrew Bible, more New Testament and more Judeo- Christianity on this site. That is our heritage, and we must understand it intellectually, whether or not in faith we accept the truth of it. One who is indifferent or hostile and especially one who is ignorant as to his heritage must not be taken seriously.

As for politically-driven abuse and distortion of the Bible to support the destruction of human flourishing, I note that for 60 years Marxist Catholics in South America, especially in Argentina, have politically exploited the religious weapons of the social justice armory (giving the Church the unfortunate Pope Francis as the embodiment of doctrinal self-destruction,) that the morally-deplorable AOC has invoked Christianity and socialism as kinsmen, that the soi-disant Catholic, Nancy Pelosi, finds Biblical support for prenatal homicide and that Protestants throughout the Confederacy on both sides of the pulpit adduced God to bless slavery.

And surely in His Second Coming Jesus will pause to register as a Democrat.

Nothing new there, but it was good of Rogers to call it out again. The camel's nose of socialism is forever getting under the tents of vital institutions and must be pounded hard whenever its foul odor is detected. And, of course, as here, an Episcopal priest may be found among the usual smelly suspects.

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Paladin
on May 20, 2020 at 12:31:02 pm

I am Praying for a new “springtime” in The Catholic Church in the hope that all Faithful Priests, like this one, will have “the courage to be Catholic”, thus separating the counterfeit church from those who desire to be in communion with Jesus The Christ and His Church.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xM6-N0NfjY

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Nancy
on May 22, 2020 at 09:52:14 am

Excellent critique! I agree that the Jerusalem church didn’t practice socialism, but let’s assume it did. It didn’t become a pattern for other churches and the Jerusalem church ended it by the time they chose deacons. At that time they supported only elderly widows. Besides, small communities, such as families and churches must practice a form of socialism. That doesn’t mean family socialism scales to the national level, as Hayek wrote, where people deal with strangers.

 

The only place in the Bible where God gives his political theory is in the Torah when he established the nation of Israel. He provided no human executive or legislature, yet he didn’t manage the nation daily as a human king would, either. He left Israel only courts to enforce his 613 laws, most of which dealt with ceremonial law and morality that the courts didn’t adjudicate. For more, see my book available on Amazon, “God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx.”

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Roger McKinney
on May 23, 2020 at 08:12:40 am

Nice article. At its core it gets down to this:
15 See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; 16 In that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, 17 But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them;18 I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over Jordan to go to possess it. 19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.
And what is the foundation of His commandments: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.
There is only one question: Is the individual superior to the State or is the State superior to the individual? All the rest is commentary.
Capitalism embraces the Judaic/Christian heritage as it places the individual above the State; it is the only economic system that allows Jew and Gentiles, Muslims and Infidels, whites, blacks, browns, yellows to find and use their maximum potential for the good of all. It harnesses rather suppresses the negative attributes of humanity into a powerful force for good.
But Capitalism devoid of community conscious, is worship of the false god of mammon; for it leads to a "love of money" and displaces the love of God.
Corrupt or crony capitalism/Socialism/communism/totalitarianism clearly places the State above the individual and seeks to place itself as god.

It is the balance. Since eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, good and evil are intermingled, leaving it to us too discern the balance essence. he To help us the Tree of Life, whose roots stretch back to Eden, went into the world with us, so that anyone who should eat of its fruit, would have life eternal.

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Pathcoin1

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