It is fascinating that the recent debate over poverty, starring Rush Limbaugh and Pope Francis (maybe, translations subject to disagreement) reveals one central dispute: (a) compulsory “charity” by government force, on the left, versus (b) the freedom of each individual to voluntarily donate to charity and make one’s own decisions about his or her life, on the right. Forget what either Rush or Francis said. The raging debates that followed are most revealing.
Liberals have consistently abused Christian teaching to attack free enterprise and spread socialism. These are not just Catholics, of course. In fact, most — or all — of them are not really Christians at all, but rather only leftists hoping to fool enough Christians to tip the balance politically.
How can anyone give anything to the poor without earning money first? Without capitalism, free enterprise, and markets, charity suffers. Capitalism is the engine that makes giving to the poor possible. In other words, liberals who wrap themselves in Christianity concoct a false choice, insisting that charity and capitalism are polar opposites. Initially, should it matter what Jesus thinks about whether the United States should pursue liberal or conservative politics? If citizens want their government to set up safety nets, can’t societies provide government charity for purely pragmatic, non-religious reasons? Well, it depends, of course.
If discussing Christianity favors a liberal philosophy, then it counts. If Christianity contradicts liberals, then it doesn’t count. And how dare you mention it? Jesus should be involved in American politics only if that helps advance a governmental agenda of bigger government, ever-expanding regulation, borrowing $17 trillion of national debt, and redistribution of wealth.
Also, let us get one thing straight: at least Catholic Pope Francis is trying. Bravo. That’s much more than can be said for a lot of Protestant pop-culture celebrities.
But in public debate, it just happened to be Pope Francis who sparked a firestorm in November with an “Apostolic Exhortation” titled Evangelii Gaudium, which translates into “The Joy of the Gospel” or “The Joy of Evangelism.” The Vatican generated further controversy through its translation into English. Rush Limbaugh lit the fuse by sharply disagreeing with it.
Of course, the first Pope, Peter, was a capitalist. Peter and Andrew ran a fishing business. Peter had investment capital — boats, which were expensive, and large nets. They had to catch a lot of fish just to pay back their investment. Peter’s and Andrew’s house was large and in wealthy Capernaum. The Bible suggests that it was Peter’s house where a very large group stayed all together, even though Jesus could slip out unnoticed to pray.
Jesus Christ was a carpenter — a capitalist, in actual practice. Jesus’s father, Joseph, had a carpentry business. As the firstborn, Jesus would have learned his father’s trade. Wood was harder to come by for construction back then. It was often a luxury imported from Lebanon. So Jesus had to master great skill and own valuable tools to run his small but high-end business.
But the controversy reveals a fascinating divide between left and right: Jesus Christ teaches His followers to give to the poor. But liberals see in this a call for forced redistribution of wealth — by government. Christians must support a socialist government, which takes money from Person A by force and gives that money to Person B. Every mention of the poor they portray as demanding government control of a nation’s economy.
And let us be clear: we’re talking violence. We’re talking SWAT teams from time to time storm tax protestors barricaded in their homes. Violence, even death by police, backs up tax collection for the welfare state. So does Jesus Christ endorse violence so that the government can take from Person A to give to Person B?
Conservatives notice what liberals somehow cannot see: that Jesus is addressing the voluntary choices of individuals. Christianity rests upon free will. Capitalism rests upon free will. God Himself does not force anyone to obey Him, follow Him, love Him, or serve Him. When one town rejected Jesus in Luke 9, His followers wanted to punish the disobedient people by “calling down fire” — that is, praying for a repeat of Elijah’s spectacular miracle. Jesus sharply rebuked them.
Conservatives read all the same biblical scriptures and recognize that Jesus speaks to each individual on how to live. Nothing in any teaching of Jesus supports the idea of government taking by force money or property from Person A to give it to Person B.
Yet no matter how many times the individual nature of Jesus’s teachings is pointed out, liberals cannot see it. They regurgitate Bible verses about the poor as if that automatically supports government redistribution. Consider the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. A man asks Jesus what should he do to inherit eternal life. The man describes how he has lived perfectly by the Law of Moses.
“If you wish to be complete,” Jesus responds “follow me” — that is, leave his life behind and join Jesus’s group of traveling evangelists. Jesus tells the rich man to sell all that he has and give everything to the poor.
But Jesus was tapping this man for religious leadership. Jesus wasn’t saying this to everyone. Jesus was on His final trip to Jerusalem to die. Time was short. Jesus was calling this man to an entirely different life, spreading the gospel under the persecution that would soon fall upon Christians after Jesus’s imminent crucifixion.
But most relevant here, the rich young ruler refuses. He says no. So what happened? Did Jesus’s church police attack him or arrest him or take his property by force? No. Did Jesus condemn him? No. Jesus once cursed a tree that withered and died. Jesus told the man, “If you wish to be complete,” and the man did not wish to.
The disciples then debated with Jesus about the dangerous entanglement of wealth and sins of greed. Jesus warns against the trap of wealth. But Jesus ends up suggesting that the rich young ruler will nevertheless be in heaven, concluding, “All things are possible with God.”
Liberal theology — both Protestant and Catholic — ends up being a call for dependence upon government, not God, to solve humanity’s problems. Rather than trusting in evangelism to change the world one heart at a time, liberal Christians — from many denominations — believe that only government can save us. Their trust is in government, not God.
Liberal Christians recognize that society needs an institution calling people to give charity and care for the needy. If only there were some institution that could teach people to care for one another, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to use one’s time, resources, and abilities to benefit others…what institution could that be?
A light bulb goes off: we need the government to do it!
Those lamenting the plight of the poor are describing the job of the church, the church universal. Liberal Christians cry out for someone to do what they are supposed to be doing.
And again, at least Francis is trying. The pope is sending the Vatican guard out into the streets of Rome to reach out to the homeless and poor. That’s light-years ahead of others.