So this is one of those YouTube . . . what are the young people calling it these days . . . “mash-up” of some comments by Jim Wallis calling for the redistribution of wealth in the name of social justice. Normally I would be wary of homemade videos of audio that can be taken out of context. However, in this case I’ll risk it in order to get at what I think are important questions about social justice. However I will leave it absolutely open that this video may be doctored or whatever to misconstrue what Jim Wallis thinks.
I think what surprises me the most about the progressive Christian movement exemplified by Wallis’ Sojourners and the Center for Progressive Christianity is the undefended assumption that Jesus would approve of the redistribution of wealth in order to produce justice. As a philosopher, I’m always looking for assumptions behind every piece of furniture and in every dark corner. I am also wary of getting into discussions about what Jesus would or would not have approved of in the modern world as if I were Charlie Rose or Larry King interviewing Him in my mind. I suspect that the Lord would not fit neatly into any of our expectations beyond what is revealed in Scripture. When it comes politics and Jesus, I am reminded of Screwtape’s confession to Wormwood that all this speculation may serve an infernal purpose:
In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a “historical Jesus” on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new “historical Jesus” on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical. (2) The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to begot out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts,in every publisher’s autumn list.
I will be mindful not to engage in any more “guessing” than necessary so as not to fall into Screw-tape’s trap. However, if these statements from Jim Wallis are true, there are some assumptions that are indeed hiding behind the furniture at Sojourners.
I mentioned the first assumption: Jesus would approve of redistributing wealth to create fairness. That seems reasonable doesn’t it? Jesus was certainly into fairness wasn’t he? Jesus approved of taking care of the poor and even redistributing wealth right?
“THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME,
BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR.
HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES,
AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND,
TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,
. . . When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
So it clear that Jesus commanded us care for the poor . What is an undefended assumption is that Jesus would have also called for redistribution of wealth to prevent poverty. And that is exactly what Jim Wallis is calling for. As he says in this video, individual and communal charity falls short of the biblical idea of justice.
Does Jesus give any indication that government shouldn’t be used to create justice? Not really but there is a very good reason. To his audience the government wasn’t interested in justice and no body voted for the emperor. It is only through democracy that we have the capability to call for the government to bring about justice for the poor. In fact, we could infer Jesus statement that “The poor you will always have with you” as implying that a war on poverty is misguided. The poor will always exist. I am not suggesting that this is the best interpretation of Matthew 26:11. Jesus may have been employing on of his favorite rhetorical devices–hyperbole. However, it is one implication of this verse.
My main problem is not that Jim Wallis thinks justice should be secured by taxation or redistribution. Its the undefended assumption that Jesus would agree with him.
The second assumption I find hiding in social conscience of the Evangelical left is that government is a neutral tool for securing social goods. Corrupt governments are evil but benevolent governments made up of democratically elected officials can wage war against poverty, racism, homelessness, etc. The Evangelical left assumes that using government to bring about social change is in fact no different than the church seeking to do the same thing with preaching, teaching, and social action. I should point out that the evangelical right is subject to this same criticism. The only differences are the social goods that the government is to secure. For the left it is justice. For the right it is, as often as not, to secure community standards of moral virtue.
What is almost never discussed is whether or not the use of government to secure social change is simply a way to do more good than individuals, churches, and community volunteers can do themselves. Put it this way. What has been assumed (as I said by the Left and the Right) is that government action is merely a more efficient and widespread way to carry out the Biblical mandate whether justice or virtue.
Assumptions are often like armpits, everyone has some and without careful attention they begin to stink. When we speak of the politically correct Jesus, Don and I are questioning those assumptions about how government fits into the gospel of the kingdom without simply accepting that the Jesus who is Lord of all creation would “be into” whatever legislation well meaning, God-fearing Christians think he would. We owe it to our Savior to bring every single idea captive to him and test all things and hold fast to what is good. Don and I invite you to think out loud with us by leaving your comments on our ideas in the comment section of this blog. Do you think either of these assumptions can be validated?
If you have never commented on our discussion I encourage you to chime in now. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would be “into that.”