January 18, 2012

First World Jesus

I have been thinking a lot about economics lately.  It is very hard for me to see our current economic situation and not think about it in moral terms.  Yet, when I talk to many evangelicals, I don't get the sense that they see it that way.

I had a great conversation with a good friend of mine.  My friend is not one of those Republicans either.  He does a lot to help people in our community.  I respect him a lot and so was very surprised when he told me that the story of the young ruler in the Gospels isn't really about wealth, but about anything that might get in the way of God.  I can see that last part, but it is very hard for me to read any of the NT and not see a world where vast inequality simply doesn't fit.  Where the first shall be last, and where Jesus calls on people with to give their wealth or proceeds to those without.  Yet, I have heard from several evangelicals that God is not that concerned with poverty, per se, but only with the hearts of those involved.

Not only is that what Marx suggested about capitalism and religion, but it is, perhaps, a necessity for American Christians of all stripes.  Capitalism as amoral economic system doesn't care if profits come from kids, or from crack cocaine.  Capitalism doesn't care if the worker loses their arm.  It certainly doesn't care if people lose their homes or livelihoods.

Not only that, but capitalism uses all of our weaknesses to an advantage.  Greed fuels economic growth, because, like sharks, capitalists never have enough.  Capitalism preys on our desires and commands us to covet.  It is the complete opposite of the idea of having enough.  

Capitalism also requires a steady pool of underpaid workers.  When wages grew too high here in the states, we started exporting those jobs to places where minimum wage doesn't even exist.  Same for environmental or safety controls.  We all know that, and we all participate in that.

But if Jesus, like most American Christians, sees all of that as some separate economic system where Christianity doesn't apply, and where their only big concern should be to bring those poor workers Bibles rather than good paying jobs or clean water--we have constructed a First World Jesus.  Here, the main concerns for Christians is quiet prayer and bible reading.  It is to memorize parts of the Bible--simply, as far as I can tell to memorize parts of the Bible.  It is to parse words for their Greek or Aramaic root.  It is where you peruse mega Bible stores where you can purchase just about anything with a Bible verse engraved.

It is a world where that child laborer doesn't exist--nor that environmental and resource exploitation, or dangerous work environment.  Transpose that to the states (where many of those issues also exist, unfortunately) and massive inequality exists, but is not a moral issue.  It just is.  Economics are largely peripheral and theoretical.  The growing number of poor is an economic, not moral issue, and the only question is whether those poor people are right with God.  In that context, tax cuts for the rich are an abstraction, just as are cuts to the poor.

And we won't even talk about where those jeans or shoes or iPads are manufactured.


leighton said...

Reminds me of that Dom Helder Camara quote: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist." He was a Brazilian archbishop, so this sort of thing seems to be more a capitalist thing than a US-specific thing. Though as usual, US Christianity takes a questionable thing and makes thing worse.

steves said...

I think this is just a reflection of an unfortunate aspect of some religious people. They pick and choose what beliefs they want to follow.

Don't like the prohibition against infidelity. Just ignore it. The same holds true for the numerous references to wealth and caring for the poor. Just ignore them or make token donations.

I know that the gov't can do a shitty job when it comes to spending, but there is no way that private entities can do things like provide enough health care services to the people that need it.

Bob said...

Considering the hundreds? of potential contradictions in the Bible, isn't it a necessity to pick and choose? It seems that some pick based on strong morals to help those less fortunate, while others choose to help themselves.

Streak said...

Good point about this not being unique to American Christianity, Leighton. My perspective is often too narrow.

Steve, that is a question I have asked several conservatives who are hell bent on getting rid of the safety net because it is "socialistic." But when I hear from people that God isn't that concerned about poverty, all of that makes more sense.

Bob, that is my concern, and I would like to hear from Monk and Tony on this. I fear that the Bible is so malleable that it can support whatever position you want to see there.

steves said...

I am certainly no Biblical expert, but I realize there are contradictions in the Bible. Personally, I try and work through them to see what are the most important, not what are the easiest. I will readily admit that I probably pick and choose to some degree.