By Matt Kaufman*
August 2005 – Once in a while I’ll get a letter that can’t be answered without writing a whole new column. And once in a while I decide it’s worth doing just that – especially if I think the writer’s views are shared by a lot of other people. Which brings me to Erin.
Erin wrote in response to my column “Stealing Black History,” in which I criticized liberals for editing Scripture – selecting passages and values that seem to affirm their agenda while ignoring or explaining away others (such as those dealing with sexual morality) they find inconvenient or just plain disagreeable. You can’t do that and call it Christian, I argued, because: “God insists that His Word is indivisible and non-negotiable; there’s no room for picking and choosing the most desirable parts, while insisting that others can be rejected on the grounds of some right to choose rooted in an individual’s preferences.”
I do not disagree with Mr. Kaufman on this point. However, I am appalled by his apparent inability to see the hypocrisy in his own beliefs, and in the beliefs of evangelical Christianity as a whole. For example, while evangelicals wring their hands about gays being allowed to marry, the number of Americans (including children) without medical insurance balloons. As housing prices soar throughout the country, there are few calls from Christians for fair wages or affordable housing. (As a caseworker, I can certainly testify to this need.) It is easy to find plenty of useless drivel from conservative Christians about social issues dealing with personal morality, but the need for criticism of capitalism and economic injustice remains unmet.
(I also would like to distinguish between charity and social justice at this point. Although there are plenty of ministries run by evangelicals that, for example, give donated food and clothing to the poor, what I am calling for is a dramatic change in behavior by Christians to eliminate injustice – for example, refusing to buy clothing made in sweatshops or pushing for a national health-care plan.)
Any halfway-decent evangelical can cite from memory the verses in the Bible dealing with sexual morality or personal piety. However, the powerful words of prophets like Jeremiah or Isaiah, dealing with the plight of the poor, are almost never heard from pulpits. It remains safer and more comfortable for evangelicals to yammer on about the evils of the world, while taking no time to examine their own complicity in the injustice of the world.
I urge Mr. Kaufman to take his own criticisms to heart, examine what the Bible has to say about poverty and injustice, and to start following some of “the hard teachings” himself.
To which I reply:
If you were charging me with failing to care enough for the sufferings of others, I’d have to plead guilty. In the regular confession of sins we say at my church, we say to God, “we have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Only a Pharisee would imagine that he needn’t make that same confession all the days of his life.
But as you carefully and forthrightly stress, that’s not your point. Your complaint is not that I or other Christians don’t donate enough to charities. It is that we don’t devote energy to criticizing “capitalism and economic injustice” – and fail to demand policy changes that include government expansions like a national health-care plan. You consider this a Biblical mandate, and you can’t see how any Christian might honestly disagree; the only explanation you can see is “hypocrisy.”
Yet surely there are other explanations for why a Christian might not share your views.
He might have a fundamental moral objection to the welfare state per se. Compassion, after all, is voluntary by definition; coerced compassion is a contradiction in terms. He might believe it’s an injustice for the state to seize money from some people against their will so that others can use it – a violation, in fact, of the Commandment against theft. He might believe it’s even worse when an elected government does this because that just corrupts the people, drawing an ever larger number into complicity with what 19th-century writer Fredric Bastiat called “legal plunder.” (In his book The Law, Bastiat offers tips on how to spot legal plunder: “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”)
Or he might object to your views on purely practical grounds. While granting many problems with American health care he might be put off by the experience of countries that practice national health care, which are famous for long waits and poor quality. (People in Canada who need expert treatment come to the U.S., not vice versa.) Moreover, being well aware of original sin, he might predict that any new government program is bound to grow far too vast to support, as more and more people demand more and more subsidies. Experience gives ample support for his concerns: After all, Social Security and Medicare started off small, and we all know how they’ve ballooned since.
Indeed, he might object to any number of things you’ve written. To your negative comments about capitalism, he might argue that capitalism is by far the best way to produce the material wealth needed to provide good wages, good housing and good medical care. To your call for a boycott of clothes made in Third World sweatshops, he might reasonably ask: Will that particular tactic make things any better for people who work in those sweatshops? Or could it make things even worse for them? He might not be wedded to either conclusion, but he’d at least like to think about it.
No doubt you’ll object to virtually all the views expressed in the last three paragraphs. And I’m less interested in getting you to agree with them than in getting you to see how Christians might disagree with you. Some problems don’t have obvious solutions, if they have solutions at all. That’s especially true with economic issues, which can’t justly be summed up in slogans like “economic injustice.” There are all sorts of reasons why people are poor, including their own choices. (That’s a much bigger factor today than in Biblical times, when nearly everyone was poor through no fault of their own.) There are all sorts of questions about whose job it is to do what, much less who has the right to order other people to do something. There are all sorts of “remedies” – especially government “remedies” – that could make things worse. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing anyone can do to make things better. It just means that some issues aren’t clear-cut.
Then again, some issues are clear-cut. Which brings me to your other complaint: That Christians who don’t devote energy to the causes you favor do devote energy to “issues of personal morality,” like opposition to same-sex “marriage.”
One reason is, simply, that God is so clear on these issues. When it comes to sex, the only legitimate context is monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. God makes no allowance for “committed relationships.” (Protests that “it’s OK because we love each other” don’t cut it with Him.) Ditto for homosexuality, despite strained efforts to claim the Bible really has nothing against the practice.
Mind you, the question of how to deal with people caught up in sexual sin isn’t always clear; just what you should do may depend on many factors, including relationships (how well you know the person; whether you’re a parent, sibling, friend, casual acquaintance, etc.). One thing you clearly don’t do, though, is pretend the sin isn’t a sin, much less that it’s a virtue – something to be respected and honored.
The same principle applies to government. From the fact that homosexuality is sinful, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the behavior should be outlawed. But it clearly follows that homosexuality shouldn’t be officially endorsed. We don’t want the government, which theoretically represents us, to place its seal of approval on sin. And we especially don’t want to pretend the sin is equivalent to marriage – the most fundamental institution God gave for human relationships. What God has defined, let no man seek to redefine. Surely you can see why Christians should – must – care intensely about that.
But I’m afraid you may not see that. Though you profess to accept the whole word of God, your reference to “useless drivel” about “personal morality” leads me to suspect you consider the offense trivial at worst, and may even support what you describe, in seemingly sympathetic terms, as “gays being allowed to marry.” (Emphasis added.) So let’s clear up a couple points. Marriage isn’t something society “allows,” as if it were just another morally neutral hobby, like stamp collecting. It’s something society honors. And to use the state to redefine marriage is anything but “personal;” it’s inherently public. Nobody knows this better than the activists pushing for same-sex marriage. They don’t want to be left alone to live their lives; they want to force everyone else to affirm what they do with their lives.
Having said that, I’ll grant that there is a sense in which things like sex and marriage are “personal” issues – albeit a sense very different than what you have in mind. Sex is an issue that’s relevant to virtually everybody at a deeply personal level, and plays a huge role in our lives. Everybody has a sexual nature, and must deal with it in their daily personal life, either in ways God loves or in ways God hates.
Yet that’s all the more reason Christians should care so much about the broader society’s approach to sex. One of the silliest things people say about offensive sexual material is “if you don’t like it, don’t look at it.” That’s like saying “if you don’t like polluted air, don’t breathe it.” When it’s all around you, you can’t avoid the pollution. That’s why we can’t just dismiss this as a matter of “personal morality.” We must demand that the culture set the moral equivalent of clean-air standards.
In closing, I’ve said a lot in defense of the priorities many Christians hold on public issues, and in opposition to the course you would prefer they take. But I must leave no doubt that this is not a blanket defense. As I said, all of us are liable to the charge of caring too little for our neighbors, and no doubt that’s partly because some of us are simply too comfortable. Nor would I suggest, for example, that Christians should uncritically embrace, say, free-market capitalism. While I think that system has brought great benefits, I also think it’s done some real harm, including the cultural and spiritual damage that often comes with material prosperity. The free market can disrupt families and communities in several ways (like pushing or luring moms into the labor force), and can foster a culture of self-indulgent consumerism (selling a lifestyle of sex, materialism and luxury). Wise and thoughtful people can debate what can and should be done about this, while recognizing that some problems may not have solutions and some solutions (e.g., socialism) can be worse than the problems they’re supposed to solve.
Finally, I hope you won’t think I’m saying that just because some issues are clear-cut and others are complex, we should only deal with the clear-cut ones and despair of doing anything about the complex ones. That’s not my point at all. But ordinary people must set priorities. And in a culture where there’s a fervent attack on the God-given nature of men, women and the relationships of sex and family, I think Christians who place those issues near the top of their public concerns have their priorities in order.
*Matt Kaufman is a contributing writer at www.boundless.org. Reprinted with permission.