Jesus, the Bible, and Foodstamps: Can a Christian be against the Welfare State?

Conservative and liberal Christians disagree about a lot of things, but I think the two camps are basically in agreement when it comes to the morality of social safety net programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and the SNAP program (food stamps). These taxpayer-funded social programs are, depending on which subgroup you ask, either a faithful extension of Jesus’ commandment to care “for the least of these” or a form of legalized theft meant to prop up society’s most immoral moochers at the expense of the righteous. Surely the difference of opinion will be resolved shortly.

Right, so, actually no. This is one of those intra-Christianity feuds that make you wonder how two groups of such differently minded people could possibly claim to follow the same Messiah or read the same scriptures.

Stop me if you’ve ever heard an argument that went something like this:

Liberally-inclined Christian: Any budget that is balanced on the backs of society’s most unfortunate is immoral. Jesus was very clear in his commandment to care for the sick and poor among us.

Conservatively-inclined Christian: Of course we should provide poor and sick people with charitable assistance, but Jesus gave those commands to individuals. You’ll destroy the possibility of charity if the government starts supplying everyone’s needs through coerced extraction.

End scene.

This argument is all over the place. It even happens in the halls of Congress, because apparently the memo about separation of church and state never reached most of our elected officials. A few months ago, Politico reported on a telling exchange between two congressmen.

As a young father, Rep. Joe Baca had himself relied on food stamps, and during the House Agriculture Committee debate, the California Democrat emotionally invoked the Gospel of Jesus feeding hundreds from a few fish and loaves of bread. Rather than sympathy, this brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.). “Nowhere in Scripture did God give instruction to government over us as the individual,” said the Christian conservative. “Read it, sir. He was speaking to individuals not governments.”

Wait, why are two members of the House Agricultural Committee bickering about Jesus?

They aren’t. This is an argument about the way in which a modern democratic republic ought to arrange part of its political economy. Is it moral for the federal government of the United States of America to provide its citizens with a social safety net? Strangely enough, Jesus never answered that question in much detail. But He is God incarnate, so it’s generally a plus if He’s on your side. So Representatives Baca and Southerland invoke Jesus in the hopes of tying their positions into America’s common religio-cultural consciousness. The perception of divine sanction never hurt anyone’s political program.

Truthfully, I wish these sorts of arguments would go away. The Bible shouldn’t be treated as an oracle that reveals to us the ideal social and economic policies for current-day American society. Attempting to do so usually results in bad policy and worse religion. That’s how we got slavemasters waving Bibles over their heads in defense of the moral appropriateness of an evil institution. It would be good if we could stop doing that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, these sorts of arguments tend to not go away. What happens, instead, is that people find new ways of thinking about the Bible. We recognize the limitations placed on the Bible’s authors by their cultural and political context, or the ways in which we’ve read our own interests into the text. Better religion yields better policy.

I think we need some more incisive religious thinking as relates to the Bible and economy. My argument here is not “we should arrange our government in this or that way because the Bible says so.” What I’m saying is that there are certain ways of thinking about politics and economics that cannot be supported very easily by the Bible. The economic libertarianism of Christian conservatives that claims all taxation is theft does not hold up terribly well to the scrutiny of biblical perspectives on money and governance. On the other hand, the redistributive policies favored by liberal Christians find themselves right at home in the world of the Bible.

Representative Steve Southerland is right in saying that Jesus spoke to individuals, not governments. Considering the historical situation in which Jesus lived, that shouldn’t be surprising. Jews were second-class citizens under Roman imperial rule. Their opinions on governance would have counted for nothing. Most of us, of course, as citizens of a democratic republic, have a (very small) direct say in the way in which we are governed. In that sense, conservatives are probably correct in saying that Jesus’ words should not be taken as public policy directives in modern America.

Conservatives stretch their biblical credibility, however, in staking out the position that taxation or redistribution are not morally acceptable. One of my favorite moments of Messianic sassiness comes when Jesus addresses the question of whether or not Jews should pay taxes to the Roman government. There is no doubt that the Roman government was unfairly oppressing Jesus and his people. The Romans were known to tax their subjects at a rate of up to 80%. Certainly plenty of 1st Century Jews did not feel it was God’s will that they have their earnings extracted by the Roman imperial tax. They would have been justified in raising the Tea Party’s “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. So it is in this context that Jesus is asked whether or not Jews should pay the Roman imperial tax, and I love his response. He has someone  bring him a Roman coin and then he asks, basically, “Who’s face is on this? And who’s inscription?” The answer, of course, is Caesar. Then comes the line that everyone remembers and tries to interpret without reference to the previous exchange: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and Render unto God that things that are God’s.”

At this point everyone wants to ask, “Alright, well, how much legitimately belongs to Caesar/The U.S. government?” Can Caesar take only up to 10%, which is no more than the tithe that God requests? Surely no one should be paying the top marginal tax rate of 35%! I personally like Dorothy Day’s treatment of the question, which went something like, “If we rendered unto God everything that belonged to God, then there wouldn’t be anything left for Caesar.”

But I think all of that completely misses the point of what Jesus was saying. Try framing the scenario in a modern context. A small business owner approaches Jesus and says, “how much of my money should I be paying to the government?” And then Jesus says something like, “Bring me a one dollar bill. Who’s face is on it, and who’s inscription?” The small business owner says, “George Washington and it says ‘Federal Reserve Note.’” Whether it’s one of Caesar’s coins or a dollar bill, the implications are the same. That money isn’t yours. It belongs to the ruling authority. Just look, their name is on it. In our context, the Federal Reserve issues currency on behalf of our government. It’s the government’s money, they just let you use it in order to participate in the economy that they lend a structure to through a system of laws enforceable through the power of the police. If hard-right conservatives wish to claim that all taxation is theft, then they ought to cease interacting with anyone who benefits from the government or uses the government’s currency. (Hint: that’s not possible.)

Jesus, besides being pretty blatantly and virulently anti-wealth, didn’t seem to be terribly interested in the details of Roman public policy. Even disregarding the fact that Jesus was not in a place socially to influence his own governance, we cannot in good faith look to the life or teachings of Jesus as a way of formulating modern economic policies.

The rest of the New Testament—all of the books besides the Gospels, I mean—aren’t likely to bolster the conservative case either. Christianity would eventually come to hold a place of public influence in the Mediterranean world, but that was not until long after early proto-Christians wrote and compiled their scriptures. The New Testament is sometimes concerned with governance in so far as it affected its audience as peripheral members of society, but it does not take up questions of governance from the perspective of those who actually do governance.

Fortunately, the Christian canon is not limited to the writings of the New Testament. Christians also claim the Hebrew Scriptures—texts that very explicitly take up the question of how a people ought to govern themselves. For the people who compiled the Hebrew Scriptures, worship and governance were not separate issues. It appears, in fact, that the priesthood and ruling authorities were very closely intertwined in Ancient Israel. The language of “Thus says the Lord” that gets thrown around in Hebrew Scripture can be thought of as a convention of political dialogue. To invoke the will of God was probably not just a function of religious professionals attending to ritual tasks, but also a part of the way that political conversations happened.

The two major camps in Old Testament political thought were  the prophets and the Deuteronomists. It’s never quite accurate to speak of an ancient text in terms of modern categories, but generally speaking it’s fair to categorize the Deuteronomists as establishment figures whereas the prophets are  more like shrill dissidents. Deuteronomical thinking finds expression in the book of Deuteronomy, and you can look up the prophets in books like Amos and Hosea.

Economic conservatives might at first feel at home in the world of Deuteronomy, as the book  is typically thought to represent the perspective of Israel’s political elites. The most distinctive feature of Deuteronomical thinking is the notion that “God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked,” which is a nice thing to be able to claim if you are living a life of opulence in the midst of  a great deal of poverty. Deuteronomical thinking equates material well-being with morality and assumes that the playing field of life is more or less level. It takes no account of power, privilege, or luck when discussing someone’s station in life. We have all gotten our just deserts and that’s all there is to it.

Of course, anyone with a shred of self-awareness knows that none of the Deuteronomist’s assumptions about life are true. They certainly were not true in the world of ancient Israel. Archaeological evidence indicates that most Israelites’ lives were probably, to borrow from Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” It is likely that the vast majority of Israelites were subsistence farmers who were dependent upon conditions completely outside of their control for their continued livelihood. The Hebrew Scriptures indicate that debt slavery was a problem in Israelite society, which indicates to scholars that subsistence farmers would sometimes have no choice but to sell themselves to a wealthy landholder in order to secure their continued survival in the event of a poor yield from their crops.

If the scholarly reconstructions of Israelite society are true, then the rage with which the Hebrew prophets spoke on behalf of the poor is more than understandable. The vast majority of people lived meager lives while a handful of elites enjoyed conditions of relative opulence. In prophetic thought, wealth disparities are no coincidence, and they are most definitely not divinely sanctioned. No, for the prophets, there are poor people because there are rich people. The other major facet of prophetic thought is that God is really, really not okay with that. Biblically speaking, rich people are pretty well screwed once divine justice is instituted. Prophetic thought envisions a dramatic upheaval of the social order in which the lowly are elevated and the mighty brought low. The process is typically described with violent symbolism. The prophet Hosea says that God will meet those who do injustice “like a she-bear robbed of her cubs and tear their ribs apart.” No thank you.

Luckily for economic conservatives, the Deuteronomists propose a much less radical program for the redress of injustice. The book of Deuteronomy suggests that after every seven years all debts be canceled. Then, after every 50 years, all of the land is returned to the people. Everyone starts at square one. It’s like the assumptions of Deuteronomical thinking are finally achieved and then we can be sure that only the truly righteous are accumulating wealth. Justice is achieved without any need to bring nasty she-bears into the equation.

And that’s about it. The Bible doesn’t spend much time directly discussing issues of economics and governance. The New Testament isn’t very useful in that regard, and our models of political economy in the Old Testament are basically limited to she-bear violent revolution and Deuteronomical redistrubutions of capital. Christians have spilled a lot of ink writing about the proper role of Church and State, and they’ve come up with perspectives as diverse as socialism, anarchy, fundamentalism, and realism. The question of how Christian individuals and organizations ought to relate to state authority is a rich one. But the question of what we can directly infer from the Bible about economics and governance is a much more simple. From a biblical perspective, redistribution is inevitable. The only question is whether it will be violent or voluntary.

So should the U S of A institute a Deuteronomist-inspired public policy? Probably not. We could never muster the political will, and it’s probably the case that canceling all debt every seven years would have disastrous consequences in credit markets. But we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for failing to live up to the biblical ideal because, near as anyone can tell, ancient Israel never followed the Deuteronomical economic program either. Here’s another intriguing little bit of scholarly speculation. Why would economic elites espouse policies that very clearly ran counter to their own interests? It may be the case that some of the policies outlined in Deuteronomy are little more than propaganda. We know that other ruler’s in the Ancient Near East made similar promises. Would be kings liked to cast themselves as champions of the poor and promise things like debt cancellation in order to garner popular support and secure power. Once they were firmly in a position of power, they would go back on their promise and debt slavery business as usual would win the day. That’s some pretty cynical political posturing, but our current election ought to be evidence that human cynicism knows few limits. And there’s no reason to think that Ancient Israel was fundamentally different than any other human society.

One of the reasons I like the Bible is that it speaks to human conditions that will likely always be with us. The Bible can’t tell us how to govern a society, but it can point to some common problems people face in trying to do politics together.  If we view the issue of a social safety net from a biblical perspective, we’ll come away with a couple of basic insights. The first is that justice requires some sort of redistribution. We can have disagreements about what types of programs are most likely to be effective, but you’ll notice that the prophets don’t spend any time blaming poor people for their situation or trying to help them through stern lectures. Whether we view social spending as an extension of the gospel or simply a requirement of a decent society is a question that’s open to debate. What I can say for sure is that we are in absolutely no danger of social programs making the work of churches irrelevant. Finally, we should all be suspicious of political ideologies that promise justice and freedom without any follow through or results. The myth of the bootstrapping American dreamer may be just as cynical as the ancient Deuteronomical code that was never actually applied.


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