While I have a bone or two to pick with the God of the Old Testament, I've always found it interesting that threads of startlingly progressive ideas weave their way through the otherwise harsh world of ancient monotheism. Yes, Yahweh told His followers to slaughter the men, women, and children of cities standing in their way. Yes, kids were eaten by bears for making fun of His prophet's hairstyle. Yes, He winked and nudged His way to condoning mass rape and sexual slavery, as long as the victims were pagans.
On the other hand, there was one group that Yahweh really, really seemed to look out for: poor people. Time and time again in the Old Testament, Israel got smacked down for ignoring the plight of its poor and disenfranchised. Even back in the time of Abraham, the theme of smiting proud, rich people for their callousness was well established. Witness the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, traditionally remembered as a cautionary tale about gay rights:
Now this was the sin of Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. —Ezekiel 16:49-50
An intriguing chunk of ancient Israel's holiness laws (passed down straight from God to the nation's leaders, remember) also revolved around what we'd now call economics. Charging interest on loans, for example, was illegal: the modern economy system we know and love would be utterly impossible. Even crazier, every 49th year was a "Jubliee" — all debts were forgiven, all land was returned to its original ancestral owners, and all slaves were permanently set free. If "no interest" is a speed bump to our modern approach, Jubilee is a financial apocalypse. Want to talk about market efficiency? Farmers at harvest time were morally and legally required to let a goodly percentage of their crops go unharvested, allowing the poor and destitute to "glean" fields for remaining crops after the field hands had taken a first pass.
This isn't just a matter of "encouraging charity," either. The tithe was a tri-annual process in which a tenth of the harvest, the livestock, the crops, and other earnings were collected at the temple. There it was stored, and used to feed the priests, the poor, the orphans, and the widows of the nation. Centralized taxation and redistribution of wealth, handed down by the One True God.
These aren't just isolated bits, either: the theme of Yaweh watching out for the poor and disenfranchised comes through books from Proverbs to the prophets.
If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered. —Proverbs 21:13
Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.... The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done." —Amos 8:4,7
I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,' says the LORD Almighty. —Malachi 3:5
Why do I bring this up on a blog that's basically my reflections about ex-Christianity? Because to this day, I can't properly explain how the "old me" was able to compartmentalize the intense themes of social justice in the Bible. As a passionate young Christian, I nodding vigorously when discussing private charity and compassion. As a passionate young conservative, I would rail against the injustice of giving money to the poor when discussing "secular" topics like economics and taxation. I came of age in the thick of the culture wars, with fuzzy images of Reagan in my memory and the words of Pat Robertson and James Dobson spurring me on. I didn't realize that I was in the middle of an ongoing tug-of-war. Sadly, the winner of that memetic tug-of-war was easy to summarize: "My Money Is Mine, And The Poor Can't Have It Unless I Want Them To."
Today, politicians like Herman Cain publicly announce, "If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself." Conservative Christians cheer. Congress can announce that benefits for the unemployed are being cut, and conservative Christians cheer. Tax plans that shift the burden off of the rich and onto the poor are announced, and again -- conservative Christians cheer.
When asked flat-out what they think money should be spent on? Evangelicals in particular say that we should cut help for the poor and the unemployed and pay for more military troops and police. Christian hipster-conservatives flash copies of Atlas Shrugged, apparently fine with the fact that its author considered the very concept of charity to be repugnant.
I'd never suggest that the Bible demands a particular political ideology or a particular economic policy. I'll leave that to the fundamentalists and the dominionists who favor "Old Testament Law" as a template for the nation and claim that their "literal interpretation" is the only acceptable view of Scripture. What fascinates me, though, is how rabidly those same Christians oppose the idea that virtue and success aren't synonymous; how quickly they bridle at the idea that their property might be taken away to prevent someone else from suffering.
I can think of plenty of secular arguments against taxation, against a welfare state, against a social safety net... And I can even understand the belief that private charity would accomplish the same task more efficiently. I disagree — if private charity were capable of it, the problems of exploitation, elderly and childhood poverty, and yawning income disparities wouldn't have prompted the creation of our modern "welfare state." But I understand that people can in good faith disagree on that point.
What baffles me is the new smug eagerness to mock and even demonize the poor among politically active conservative Christians. I suppose it's not new, really; it's been around in different forms for as long as we can remember. But if they really believe Scripture, shouldn't that kind of attitude give them, well... a bit of a pause?
It still leaves me scratching my head.