James G. Gilmore

Ideologue. Polemicist. Episcopalian. Curmudgeon.

An Open Memo to Rick Santorum

Dear Mr. Frothy Mix:

Since you consider me “gone from the world of Christianity,” then I’m sure you won’t consider the following statement to be a violation of Christian brotherhood:

Bite me.

Sincerely,

Me.

Voter ID Laws and “Voter Fraud”

Here’s what I don’t get about the right-wing/ALEC push to enact voter ID laws as the solution to the mythical “voter fraud” problem—that is, aside from the fact that, with the exception of Indiana Republican elected officials, the problem doesn’t exist.

The right-wingers, in their ongoing attempts to paint President Obama and virtually every other elected Democrat in the country as illegitimate, have concocted this story about a Massive Voter Fraud Conspiracy™ funded by Big Union And Soros Money™, to register a bunch of nonexistent voters (or use a bunch of dead voters’ names) to stuff the ballot box for Democratic candidates.

Thus, the argument goes, we need laws requiring voters to show some kind of state-issued ID when they vote, so that the election officials can verify that they are who they say they are, because requiring people to show some ID will stop this Massive And Well-Funded Voter Fraud Conspiracy™ right in its tracks.

I want to issue a challenge to any Republican who actually thinks this is the case: Go into any high school in America—rich or poor, public or private, urban or suburban or rural—and ask the first 30 students you see if they know the name of someone who can get you a fake ID. If you don’t come away with at least one name, I’ll send you $10 via PayPal; if you get two or more names, you send me $10.

So why is it that you think this Massive And Union-And-Soros-Funded Voter Fraud Conspiracy™ is incapable of getting something that any pimply-faced 16-year-old with an Olan Mills school picture and $50 can get his hands on so he can go buy cheap, crappy beer when his parents are out of town for the weekend?

If this Conspiracy™ is really as Massive And Devious™ as you claim, couldn’t they just print up a new photo ID for everyone in a given district who died in the past year?

And if voter ID laws aren’t about stopping the Massive Left-Wing Voter Fraud Conspiracy™, could it be that they’re really about stopping ordinary people like this from voting?

Just a thought…

Groundhog Day

You know, maybe the reason Punxutawney Phil went back into his hole is because when he came out, there was a huge crowd of people staring at him. If I opened my front door to find hundreds of people, many with cameras, standing there staring right at me, I think I’d go back inside too—and whether or not I saw my shadow would likely be among the least of my concerns.

I never thought I’d be writing this…

…but Sarah Palin is right.

“Vote for Newt. Annoy a liberal. Vote Newt. Keep this vetting process going, keep the debate going.”

I, along with each and every liberal I know, will be consumed with annoyance and fury if people vote for Newt Gingrich and keep the Republican primary campaign going. Republicans, whatever you do, please don’t vote for Newt Gingrich. It would really frustrate all liberals to the point where we couldn’t even see straight if you vote for Newt Gingrich, and we know that the last thing you’d want to do is frustrate liberals.

An Open Letter to Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, Kohl’s, and the Gap

Out of disgust at their opening for “Black Friday” either before Thanksgiving Day was over, or at midnight on November 25 (thus requiring their employees to come in before midnight), I’ve drafted this letter to five companies I’ve patronized in the past.*

November 25, 2011

To Whom it May Concern:

I am writing this letter to you because you opened for your “Black Friday” sales on Thanksgiving, thus depriving your employees of an opportunity to gather with their loved ones for a Thanksgiving meal in peace.

It is an act of utter disrespect for your employees to demand that they come into work on the Thanksgiving holiday—a day which should be reserved for gathering with those one loves and giving thanks for the blessings of life—simply so that you can make more money.

Injustice demands reparative action; therefore, I ask that you do the following things:

(a) Issue a letter of apology to each employee who was expected to be at work at any time on Thanksgiving Day 2011, and a press release indicating that you have apologized to those employees;


(b) Give every employee who worked at any time on Thanksgiving Day 2011 one full, paid eight-hour day off during the 2011 holiday season, in reparation for your denying them time with their family and loved ones; and


(c) Pledge that 2011 will be the last year your store will be open at all on Thanksgiving Day or anytime before 5AM the morning after Thanksgiving.

I am writing to you specifically because I have patronized your business in the past—but in honor of the employees you forced to work on a day that should be reserved for gathering with loved ones, I will be making it a point not to patronize your business during this holiday season, and to spend my money at establishments that have enough respect for their employees and their loved ones to remain closed until the morning of the day after Thanksgiving.

I will not spend one penny at your store until January 1, 2012 at the very earliest.

Further, I am publishing this letter on my website and on the social networks I use, in hopes that it will be shared with others and hopefully become a movement to deny our hard-earned money to companies that deny their employees a Thanksgiving Day with their families and loved ones.

Sincerely,
James G. Gilmore

Please feel free to copy this letter and send it to companies that you patronize that made their employees come in on Thanksgiving for “Black Friday” sales.

* I’m not including places like gas stations or fast-food joints on this list, since I count them as a sort of “essential business” for people who have to travel on Thanksgiving. People need to gas up their cars to get to Grandma’s house, but they could have waited another day for a 42″ HDTV.

God’s Economics, Part III: It’s All Temporary

(Cross-posted, as usual, to my church’s blog.)

In this series, I’m going to discuss some of what I see as the central economic principles found in Scripture, and what they mean for us not only as individuals but also as a Church and as a society. If we accept, as any Christian should, that God has something to say to us about the way we deal with wealth and resources, what is God saying? What is God calling us to do? This series will address some basic principles of what I’m calling “God’s Economics,” and then expand a bit to discuss what those principles should tell us about our personal economic behavior, our Church’s prophetic role in talking about wealth and resources, and our roles as voters and citizens in a democratic republic that is also the richest nation in the history of the human race.

Previously in this series:

Principle #1: All wealth belongs to God.
Principle #2: God is generous, not stingy.

And now…

Principle #3: Property, and the lack thereof, is contingent.

Okay, brass tacks time. The first principle was relatively straightforward, even if it offered a conclusion that required so much faith that it is almost unsustainably radical. The second principle, though, takes a bit more unpacking: Property is contingent. The “ownership” of wealth, or of the means of producing wealth, is neither permanent nor immutable; similarly, the condition of the lack of property is also contingent and temporary.

To explore this, let’s take a look at what I think is many Episcopalians’ least-favorite part of the Bible: The Books of the Law. Now, I’m of the opinion, as I’d imagine most readers of this piece are, that the specifics of the Torah aren’t exactly the point; many of us in the Episcopal Church are quite fond of shrimp cocktails, we wear clothes with more than one fabric, more of us watch men throwing and carrying pigs’ skin on fall weekends than will probably admit it in polite company, and, most importantly, our LGBT brothers and sisters are accepted and welcomed in the Episcopal Church and at St. Stephen’s—all of which aren’t exactly in line with the ceremonial laws of ancient Israel.

But what these books do give us are some general principles about God’s character and the character of the community God sets out for God’s people: those in God’s community are to be purely devoted to God, and they are to treat one another and those outside the community with justice and respect, acknowledging that we and the world around us all belong to God (see part I).

“[God said to Moses:] ‘The land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.’” —Leviticus 25:23

In ancient Israel, the land was the chief source of wealth; riches would come to those who could successfully grow crops or mine materials that they could then sell to craftsmen or traders in the cities. The land was the source of wealth, and because of this was itself wealth. And God made it clear: the land does not belong to the Israelites, but to God; the Israelites are “foreigners and strangers” God is allowing to work God’s land.

This makes the Israelites’ use of the land contingent on following the owner’s rules; like any landlord, God reserves for God’s-self the right to decide what’s going to happen on God’s land, and how God’s tenants are going to behave. So what are the owner’s rules about how the tenants are supposed to behave on the owner’s land? There are quite a few principles to be found in the Law about this, but here are two pretty radical ones, particularly for our contemporary economic system:

A. Debt is temporary and strictly regulated.

If an Israelite man got into too much financial trouble, he could borrow money and go into debt—but unlike in our society, where your debts will travel with you for the rest of your life (and possibly into your descendants’ lives), debt under the Law couldn’t last longer than six years.

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. —Deuteronomy 15:1-2

God’s other major rule about debt was that its purpose wasn’t to enrich the lender, but to help the borrower; lenders were specifically enjoined not to take any profit from lending.

If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit. —Leviticus 25:35-37

B. Ownership of the means of producing wealth is temporary, not permanent.

The other major economic principle set out in the Law is the Year of Jubilee—when (among other things) most of the land, with the exception of the cities, was returned to the tribe who originally occupied it.

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. […] In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. —Leviticus 25:10,13

According to the Law, you can’t actually buy or sell land; rather, as Leviticus 25:16 says, “what is really being sold to you is the number of crops” that can be grown from the land. (That’s why that part of Leviticus 25 says that land sales should be pro-rated according to the number of years before the next Jubilee.) The land remains God’s, bequeathed to each of the twelve tribes; at the end of the fiftieth year, everyone would go back to their tribe’s land, and the land would be completely redistributed.Since land is wealth (as verse 16 makes clear, you’re selling the wealth that comes from the land), then the principle is this: Every second generation—every 50 years—the sources of the nation’s wealth are redistributed, and every Israelite gets a piece.

So where do we go from here?

First, it’s important to note that because the Law was all about differentiating the Israelites—God’s chosen people, for whom God was setting aside the land of Israel—from the other peoples in the area, these rules were only for Israelites lending to each other. They were, according to the Law, free to charge interest to non-Israelites to their hearts’ content, and didn’t have to forgive their debts. Some would use this to suggestthat these aren’t intended to be universal values, but are contingent to the people of ancient Israel alone.

However, in setting out the principles for how God wanted God’s people to live with one another, God was setting out the principles for community—for people who would live with each other not just as fellow-citizens, but as neighbors. These are principles not for atomized individuals forming business relationships with one another, but for neighbors whose relationships with one another are personal and spiritual as well as financial. They seem almost specifically designed not to allow for the formation of grudges or resentments.

So these principles were, at their heart, about being neighbors to one another—and Christ expanded the question of “who is my neighbor” in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he set out neighborliness as a condition not of being helped, but of helping:

[Jesus asked:] “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” —Luke 10:36-37

We’re enjoined by Christ, a tradition we’re getting a lot better at in the Episcopal Church and continually working on within St. Stephen’s (particularly in our Widening The Circle/Agrandando El Circulo campaign), to be a neighbor to everyone, to love one another as Christ loved us.

And Jesus made it clear that the economic principles of the Law were on His mind in His ministry. In Luke 4, Jesus returns from his wilderness sojourn to Nazareth—his hometown—and in the Synagogue stands to read the scroll of Isaiah. Jesus proclaims that “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61) is fulfilled in their sight. What’s “the year of the Lord’s favor”? Many Biblical scholars believe this to be a reference to the year of Jubilee. That, I think, is one of the many things about Jesus that scared the powers of the time—not only was He proclaiming His sovereignty over against the imperial and religious powers, but he was also telling the economically powerful that they were going to be held to account and called to give the land back to the people.

So where does this principle lead us? I’d love to discuss in the comments where you all think this is going… but I also have some thoughts about this that I’m going to share in next week’s installment.

A Disturbing GOP Debate Moment

This was a really disturbing moment at last night’s GOP debate, when the audience applauded the state killing its prisoners:

“Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times,” NBC’s Brian Williams told Perry as the conservative audience cheered and applauded. “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”

“No, sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry stated. “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.”

Perry’s response, of course, is boilerplate GOP pablum, presenting execution as a foregone conclusion if you commit murder in Texas—which, of course, it isn’t. That’s the first disturbing thing about the applause; the people in the audience were, simply by virtue of their dragging their butts out to the Reagan Presidential Library, obviously a bit more politically aware than the average citizen. Thus, it would be even more negligently ignorant if those in the audience weren’t aware of the massive racial and class disparities in the application of the death penalty; I think that it’s all but impossible that at least some of them didn’t know that they were applauding the killing of primarily African-American and Latino prisoners, and primarily prisoners who couldn’t afford good counsel.

Second, of course, is the fact that not every person executed in the state of Texas has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; in fact, one of them, Cameron Todd Willingham, was likely innocent of the crime for which the state killed him. This isn’t just in Texas, of course; my friend Laura Moye, in her work for Amnesty International, is heavily involved in the case of Troy Davis, a Georgia man set to be executed on September 21, in whose case all but two of the prosecution’s witnesses have since recanted their testimony, creating considerable doubt about his guilt. So these people cheered not only the state of Texas killing guilty prisoners—which is disturbing enough—but also the very good chance that they’ve caught up a few innocent ones in the dragnet as well.

One wonders how enthusiastic the Simi Valley crowd would be about the possibility of the death penalty killing innocent people if it was their husband or father or brother getting the lethal injection. But that goes back to the first point: The Simi Valley crowd is middle-to-upper-class and white, and the people who are executed tend to be poor and people of color. The people on Death Row aren’t the husbands, fathers, or brothers of the audience in Simi Valley—they’re the husbands, fathers, and brothers of people of color or people without money, and their family members obviously don’t matter as much as “our” family members.

Which brings me to the third thing that disturbed me about this moment—that given the two points above, the applause was wrapped up in this entire discourse among the American Right in which some people’s lives and livelihoods inherently matter more than others. This is related to the right-wing’s embrace of the satanic and immoral philosophy of Ayn Rand and the very worst aspects of the Puritan work ethic. The right-wing ideology, at its heart, is that if a person is poor, they’re morally deficient—and their life doesn’t matter as much as that of a middle-class or rich person.

This moral judgment extends in a really disturbing way throughout the discourse of the Republican Party. I’m not the only person who’s noticed the increasing volume and prevalence of an idea among even the mainstream of the right-wing (and particularly out of the Christian Right) that those who are anywhere left of the extreme-right fringe suffer from a similar moral deficiency as the poor. Note, for example, the contempt with which the hate-radio jackasses spit out words like “socialist” or “liberal,” as if these are labels of moral condemnation—or the comments from average right-wingers that flood any unmoderated political message board, suggesting that “liberals” (whose definition for them would, from a pure policy standpoint, include Ronald Reagan) should be jailed or executed for their political beliefs.

Given the moral condemnation of “liberals” coming out of the right-wing of late, and the mirroring of that moral condemnation in their condemnation of the poor and anyone (guilty or innocent) who finds themselves on Death Row, I’m forced to wonder: If Rick Perry had bragged about presiding over the state-sponsored killing of 243 socialists, 243 peace activists, 243 environmentalists, or 243 Democrats—would the people in Simi Valley have applauded just as enthusiastically?

When I think about the good and honest people I know, people of integrity and character, who identify with the right-wing, I’d like to think that they wouldn’t have cheered. I’d like to think that the room would have been suddenly filled with a stunned silence as people realized that their sister or brother, their aunt or uncle, their co-worker or dear friend, their niece or nephew might have been one of the 243 people killed in this hypothetical situation. But the fact that I, who study right-wing discourse for a living, still have a tiny bit of wriggling doubt, a whisper of a suspicion that the silence I’m picturing would have been broken with a spontaneous outpouring of cheers from the crowd in Simi Valley is extraordinarily troubling.

Regardless of the latter point, there’s no doubt that the audience in Simi Valley was full of people who cheered the state killing more of its prisoners—despite the fact that most would claim to worship and try to live by the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. Can any of them, with a straight face, say that they honestly think Jesus would have applauded with them? Is this what the GOP has become?

God’s Economics, Part II: A Generous God

(This is part 2 of a series I’m cross-posting from my church’s blog.)

In this series, I’m going to discuss some of what I see as the central economic principles found in Scripture, and what they mean for us not only as individuals but also as a Church and as a society. If we accept, as any Christian should, that God has something to say to us about the way we deal with wealth and resources, what is God saying? What is God calling us to do? This series will address some basic principles of what I’m calling “God’s Economics,” and then expand a bit to discuss what those principles should tell us about our personal economic behavior, our Church’s prophetic role in talking about wealth and resources, and our roles as voters and citizens in a democratic republic that is also the richest nation in the history of the human race.

Previously in the series:
Principle #1: All wealth belongs to God.

And now…

Principle #2: God is generous, not stingy.

Dr. Richard Mouw, the president of my alma mater Fuller Theological Seminary, is fond of a distinction between theological positions made by the late theologian Kosuke Koyama. Dr. Mouw often asks, not only in his columns but also in commencement addresses and other sermons: Do we believe in a generous God, or a stingy God?

Dr. Mouw generally uses this distinction to talk about salvation, suggesting that this basic question about God’s character impacts the way we think about everything related to the Christian life—and, particularly, to God’s stance toward us and our fellow human beings. Do we believe in a God who wants everyone to dwell with God in the Kingdom, or in a God who’s looking for reasons to keep people out?

There are quite a few places in theology, practice, and politics where I respectfully differ with Dr. Mouw, but in the years since I’ve graduated from Fuller—and particularly since I’ve started studying the Christian Right for my dissertation—I’ve found this distinction more and more useful, not just in terms of my thinking about salvation, but in terms of my general perspective when I try to imagine what God sees when God looks at the world.

Is God rooting for us to succeed, or waiting for us to trip up? Does God beg us not to leave the Kingdom, or look for reasons to kick us out? In short—is God looking for ways to bless us, or for reasons to condemn us?

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

—Matthew 7:9-11

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most, if not all, of us at St. Stephen’s probably believe in a generous God—a God who is eager to bless, who delights in the creation, who is just waiting for the opportunity to give good gifts to God’s children.

But a generous God is not characterized just by spiritual gifts; such a God could also be characterized as a “God of abundance,” as one of the post-Eucharist prayers in the Book of Common Prayer proclaims God to be.

One of the more significant economic ideas of the past several centuries has been Malthusianism, the idea that because the world can’t produce enough to feed everyone, the human population will naturally be controlled—if not by starvation, then by disease. Malthusianism was based in the fundamental idea that there are too many people—and, specifically, too many poor people—in the world, and that trying to feed every mouth was not only impossible, but ill-advised, because children who reproduced instead of starving to death would only create more hungry mouths. At its core, it’s an economics of scarcity.

And while Malthusianism by name has been debunked as a fundamentally anti-human ideology, its celebration of scarcity lives on; we can see echoes of Malthus’s ideas, and the notion that there are more mouths to feed than there is food for them, everywhere we go. I see a lot of Malthus in Ayn Rand—and particularly in Rand’s argument that anyone who’s not a rich capitalist is a “parasite” who’s living off of the moral virtue of the wealthy.

It’s probably not news to anyone reading this blog that Ayn Rand’s ideas have been enjoying new life in recent years as one major ideological group in this country adapts them whole-cloth. Rand’s ideas are based in this same sort of Malthusian scarcity, the idea that there’s “only so much to go around”—and that the poor are less worthy than the rich of receiving it.

But we don’t believe in a stingy God, a God of scarcity—we believe in a generous God, a God of abundance! And this God has put us in a world of abundance, where God has blessed us with more than enough to live and thrive on!

To take just one example, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that not only does the world already produce enough food to feed each of the 6 billion people on the planet, but that it could produce enough to double that! This is an abundant world, full of good things.

Does that mean that we have license to waste it? Of course not! As I wrote in Part I, the true owner of everything is—and remains—God. If someone entrusted something valuable to us, we wouldn’t waste it—we’d treasure and protect it.

But it does mean that whenever it appears that there isn’t enough to go around—when we see people starving, homeless, out of work, unable to afford medical care, unable to afford education—the problem isn’t the supply but the distribution. It isn’t that there isn’t enough; God is a God of abundance, providing for all of our needs. It’s that what we’ve been given isn’t getting where it needs to go.

That is, fundamentally, the problem “economies” are designed to solve: properly distributing the things the people within a society need to survive in such a way that everyone can specialize. I don’t have to raise my own chickens if I want eggs for breakfast, or grow a pine tree from a sapling if I want to build myself a house; it is “the economy” that permits me to specialize at doing my job and get really good at it, in exchange for being provided with the means to purchase eggs at the store or a house.

If I may be forgiven for getting a little topical, one of the major political affiliations in this country is fond of telling us that we’re “broke”—that we don’t want to cut teachers’ and firefighters’ jobs, kick poor people off of welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid, and find ways to deny health care and pensions to the elderly, but we have to because we just can’t pay for it.

That isn’t the kind of talk that we see from people who believe in a God of abundance. We can ensure that everyone in our society, in our world, has everything they need: enough to eat, a roof over their head, health care, some useful task to set themselves to, and security for when they get old and can’t work anymore.

This is the bottom line: If people are starving, freezing, unable to get jobs or health care, if our elderly have to choose between medicine and food, it’s because we have chosen a system where those things happen. We could choose a different way if we want; economies are mere vessels for distributing the gifts from this God of abundance with the ideal that everyone gets what they need.

Next time: Not only can’t you take it with you, but God doesn’t even want you to hang onto it while you’re here.

God’s Economics, Part I: Meet the Landlord

(This is part 1 of a series I’m cross-posting from my church’s blog.)

In this series, I’m going to discuss some of what I see as the central economic principles found in Scripture, and what they mean for us not only as individuals but also as a Church and as a society. If we accept, as any Christian should, that God has something to say to us about the way we deal with wealth and resources, what is God saying? What is God calling us to do? This series will address four principles of what I’m calling “God’s Economics,” and then expand a bit to discuss what those principles should tell us about our personal economic behavior, our Church’s prophetic role in talking about wealth and resources, and our roles as voters and citizens in a democratic republic that is also the richest nation in the history of the human race.

Principle #1: Everything belongs to God.

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.

—Psalm 24:1

This is by far the most significant orienting principle of God’s economics: We don’t own anything. Our houses, our clothes, our cars, our furniture, our fancy computers, our bikes, the money in our bank accounts—none of this is really ours. It all belongs to God, and we are simply stewards. This may seem rather non-controversial—I mean, what Christian wouldn’t acknowledge that everything belongs to God?—but when it comes right down to it, in our heart of hearts, we’re very resistant to this doctrine.

 
For my undergraduate education, I went to Calvin College, a college run by the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination (duh) of mostly Dutch descent. While I have many, many issues with Reformed theology—issues I won’t belabor here—the main specific doctrinal statement of the CRC is titled “Our World Belongs to God.” What would it look like if we took that seriously, if we really thought of each and every atom in this universe as belonging to God, with only the tiniest little fragile corner entrusted to us?

How do we live with this? The guidelines, I think, are indicated by Jesus when He echoes the book of Deuteronomy:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

—Matthew 22:34-40

The priority list is clear: First, God’s glory; then, the benefit of your neighbor. (When you think about it, the two aren’t incompatible in any way.) So what do these mean?

Well, for starters, we wouldn’t use up or throw away something that belongs to someone else, would we? Particularly not if they’re someone we love, and they entrusted it to us for safekeeping or for improvement. If your grandmother gave you a priceless antique watch that she’d had for years, asking you to keep it safe for her, you wouldn’t start etching it. You wouldn’t melt it down for the gold in it. And you sure wouldn’t throw it on the ground and break it.

That plastic bottle you throw in the trash? That’s God’s plastic. The Chesapeake Bay, being poisoned by runoff from fertilizers used on farms and lawns? That’s God’s bay. The mountaintops of West Virginia, being blown up by companies who want to get at the coal inside them? Those are God’s mountaintops they’re blowing up, and the air that the coal poisons when we burn it is God’s air.

God is not glorified by wastefulness. God is not glorified when something useful is turned into something useless. God is not glorified by landfills. God is not glorified when we break the Creation God has given us.

That’s priority one; what about priority two? What does it mean when we start from the principle that everything belongs to God, and use those of God’s things that have been entrusted to us to love our neighbors as ourselves?

For the ease of a linguistic shorthand, of course, we still talk about property belonging to a person rather than simply being entrusted to them by God—and people throughout the Bible, including Jesus, do this as well, even as we know that they wouldn’t disagree with the Psalmist’s assertion that “the earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it.”

But this tenet of God’s economics, to love your neighbor as yourself, means that there is nothing that is “mine” or “yours”—there are only things that are ours. If I love someone else as much as I do myself, I will have absolutely no qualms with the idea of sharing the things that we’ve both been entrusted with.

Even a few seconds’ thought about this reveals that it’s a very challenging doctrine in practice. My house isn’t mine; it’s ours, for the benefit of everyone. The money in my bank account isn’t mine; it’s ours, for the benefit of everyone. My car isn’t mine; it’s ours, for the benefit of everyone. So is the food in my fridge, the shirt on my back, the phone in my pocket. If I love my neighbor as myself, I’ll make all of “my” things available to my neighbor too. 

In fact, Jesus explicitly makes that link:

“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

—Luke 6:30-31

“Give to everyone who asks you.” That’s relatively easy and painless when it’s a homeless guy on the street asking for some change—but what happens if he asks to sleep on your couch for the night, or asks you for your coat on a cold day? Even more cuttingly—would you even wait for him to ask to crash on your couch or borrow your coat if he were a close friend of yours who was facing the prospect of sleeping in the street on a winter night?

But my first thought—and, I suspect, yours as well—is something along the lines of “But I know my friends; I don’t know the guy on the street! Who’s to say that if he crashes on my couch tonight, I won’t wake up tomorrow to find my TV and stereo gone with him?”

“…and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” It wasn’t mine anyway, so why do I care? Maybe selling my TV will get him enough money to eat for the next week.

I’m not saying that you should invite the next person you see on the street to come sleep on your couch tonight—though if that’s what God is calling you to do, by all means do it. It is a deeply challenging idea, radical and unsettling to the point of being all but unlivable.

I know I’m certainly not strong enough or faithful enough or trusting enough to live in anything even resembling this manner. I like having the possessions I have, and the idea of having a stranger sleeping in my house would give me the willies—not just because I’d be concerned about my possessions, but also because I’d be concerned about my safety.

But this is the logical endpoint of the idea that everything belongs to God—and it can be an aspirational principle even if it isn’t a guide for living. What would it look like if we asked God to mold our hearts to live just a little more like this every day, both individually and as a church, neighborhood, or society? This is God’s ideal—that we treat nothing as if it is ours, that we not be attached to the clothes on our backs, the money in our bank accounts, the things in our homes.

Everything belongs to God—and the reason things are entrusted to us is not for our own happiness, but so that we might use it for God’s glory and the good of our neighbor. That is the foundational principle of God’s economics.

Next time: The key question about God’s character—and what it tells us about our personal and societal economies.

FRC’s Disturbing Economic Rhetoric

I’ve had a browser tab open for a few days now with this press release from the “Faith Family Freedom Fund” (now there’s some Orwellian naming), intending to blog about it—because it’s an indication that the so-called “Christian” Right has allowed the right-wing ideologies of greed to trump even the most basic Christian teachings.

The press release announced a radio ad they were running in several states—including Ohio—in order to counter the Catholic Bishops who were telling John Boehner, a Roman Catholic, that Catholic teaching (to which he is bound) says that government has a direct responsibility to the poor.

Here’s the text that bothered me:

“There’s a group of well-meaning but misguided ministers who believe that the government is responsible for meeting the needs of the poor, calling proposed budget cuts immoral. But Jesus didn’t instruct the government of his day to take the rich young ruler’s property and redistribute it to the poor. He asked the ruler to sell his possessions and help the poor. Charity is an individual choice, not a government mandate.”

Now, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, I do honestly think that Christians of good conscience and good faith can disagree on whether or not it’s the government’s place to engage in wealth redistribution. I’m of the opinion that it has to be because the government sets up the economy, so it’s the duty of the Christian democratic citizen to work toward the aim of the economy benefitting as many people as possible rather than enriching the few at the expense of the many, but I can see where reasonable people can disagree on that.

No, the problem with this statement is that it presents “charity” as a “choice” for the Christian: something where if he or she chooses to do it, that’s another crown in heaven, but if he or she chooses not to do it that’s fine too.

This ideology is further reinforced in the ad’s discussion of Jesus’s conversation with the rich young ruler (found in Luke 18, among other places in the Synoptics). Please tell me how anyone could possibly interpret this as Jesus “asking” the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give them to the poor:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”Luke 18:22

Where in there do you see that as a request? That is a command, plain and simple: Selling all you have and giving it to the poor is a prerequisite for the rich young ruler to follow Jesus. It is a choice, but only in that the rich young ruler can choose to sell all he has, or he can choose not to follow Jesus. He cannot follow Jesus while still holding to his possessions.

The problem is in calling giving to the poor “charity” to begin with—and my guess as to why they use that word is because they want to avoid the word they should be using: Justice.

Because “charity” is a choice, an optional extra, and when you’ve done it, you get to pat yourself on the back for going above and beyond for other people. “Charity” is a giant cardboard check, a hospital wing named after you, an interview on Oprah’s couch.

“Justice,” on the other hand, isn’t optional; you’re either acting justly or unjustly, and if you aren’t doing justice then you’re complicit in injustice. And you don’t get accolades for doing justice; it’s what you’re supposed to be doing, it is what you owe. You don’t get special recognition for paying your debts or doing what you’re supposed to; the checks are their normal 2″x5″ size, the hospital wing is in the honor of an “anonymous” donor, and Oprah’s couch remains occupied by an actor talking about their latest movie.

Alms are not “charity,” for the Christian. They are “justice,” a mandate. They are demanded of each and every follower of God, and giving them is not an extra act of goodness but simply the fulfillment of God’s demand.

In other words—while we can disagree on whether the government should be in the business of wealth redistribution, there can be absolutely no disagreement on the part of Christians that the people of God should be in the business of wealth redistribution. God demands it of God’s people.

But calling it “justice” would upset the rich. Note the part this so-called “pastor,” this man who claims to be a man of God, is omitting from the passage about the rich young ruler:

When [the ruler] heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

Luke 18:23-27

If you’re rich—hell, even if you’re middle-class in America—that passage is scary. It is “possible” for a rich person to enter the Kingdom because God is great—but if it happens, it’s a miracle, on a par with a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

It is something remarkable, something more difficult and more miraculous and much more unlikely than a person of lesser means entering the Kingdom.

What would happen if the Church took that seriously—and told every rich person in our midst that if they don’t sell everything and give it to the poor, they’re banking on a miracle to enter the Kingdom?

That it’ll be something marvelous and incredible—on a level that’s well beyond the marvel of a normal person’s salvation—if they are actually capable of entering the Kingdom?

What would happen if we told the wealthy in our pews that their riches made it astronomically unlikely that they could possibly have a right relationship with God?

Because that’s what Jesus says.

So why is this supposedly “Christian” group saying exactly the opposite?

Because telling the rich that it’s okay to be rich—and reinforcing the anti-Christ ideology that wealth is a sign of favor, that the accumulation of wealth is the highest good, that those who are wealthy don’t have any responsibility but are simply “asked” very nicely by Jesus to please give a little bit to the poor—is more important than talking about God’s hard demands of the wealthy.

They have allowed the right-wing ideology of the ownership class to trump the clear teaching of Christ. They have allowed the Republican mantra to win out over Christian teaching.

They should stop calling themselves Christian pastors—and start calling themselves Republican pastors.

Because that’s what they are.