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Wednesday, February 29, 2012  

The Old Testament, Left and Right


Instead of using political power to direct the lives of others through law, Christians should embrace true secularism as a neutral stage on which to explore and explain and witness to their actual faith. No law Rick Santorum will ever pass will be as powerful in people's hearts and minds than his and his wife's decision to have little Bella and take care of her, with love and discretion and privacy. In this act, he has shown Christianity. In his politics, he has shown how the freedom of Jesus and the coercion of the government are in contradiction. (Sullivan, "Online Lent." See also.)

Item (via, of course, Sullivan):

Conservative evangelicals no longer merely oppose the social justice perversion of the basic gospel message. Many now go further; they believe that capitalism and the free market are part of God's blueprint for human society. And so, even if politicians are inclined to limit economic liberty for reasons that have nothing to do with the Social Gospel, they are, in effect, violating not just the gospels, but all of scripture.

(If you think I exaggerate, watch this video series on "Christian Economics" by Summit Ministries.) (Scott Galupo, "The Roots of the Tea Party War on Social Justice")

This reminds me of an argument I was having recently with a devout Christian who was also a self-professed disciple of Austrian-style libertarian economics. I didn't ask, but should have, "If economic intervention is so evil, why did God command so much intervention in the only economic system he established?" I really, honestly want to hear an answer to that question. God commands all kinds of details of economic life, from how you compensate your laborers (you can't hold their wages overnight) to how you deal with debtors (no garments taken from a widow in pledge) to how you treat your animals (you may not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain). These laws are all right there, in the Bible that conservative evangelicals claim to revere so profoundly.

And the irony is that the same question, more or less, must be posed to Sullivan's point. The social ethic of the Old Testament can fairly be called coercive. The Torah does not recommend that immigrants be treated equally to citizens, it commands this. A day of rest, for slaves and beasts no less than for social and religious insiders, is mandatory. The landowners are not praised for leaving the verge of their fields unharvested and the windfall grapes ungathered, in exercise of the virtue of solidarity with the poor and the widow; they are simply told that they must do this.

How have we erased this considerable portion of the religious tradition both liberals and conservatives claim to be contesting? The modern right objects to the Old Testament--let's just be honest about this, idols of the KJV Ten Commandments notwithstanding--because so many of its laws address economic justice. The modern left objects to the Old Testament because its religion has laws rather than encouragements. It's the same argument dressed up two different ways: one side objects to the ends (social justice) but not the means (coercive legislation) and the other objects to the means, at least as a religious matter, but not to the ends.

I would go farther than Galupo and suggest that the economic-cum-cultural conflict has to do not with the legacy of debates over the social gospel but with the increasingly diminished role of the Old Testament in American Christianity. I find myself getting irritable, in a Marilynne Robinson-esque way, on this point. I hear Christians identify the Old Testament with God's wrath and judgment and I want to say, "If you're looking for a portrait of an angry God, look at the guy who cursed the fig tree and drove a herd of swine into the sea. If you want to find a patient God who looks humanely on us, consider the deity who gave warm clothing to Adam and Eve."

That's an appalling oversimplification, of course, which I suppose is why I don't ever say it. But the truth of the matter is that the two Testaments are much more deeply entwined, in terms of narrative, theology, and social ethics, than most of us seem to think. On the right, a relentless insistence that substitutionary atonement by Jesus for human sins must be appropriated through a subjective "faith" in order to become the gateway to a disembodied post-mortem "heaven" has rendered all that tedious stuff about days of rest and laborers' wages a dead letter. On the left, we've tended to go so far toward embracing the Jesus Seminar and its oddly modern mystic-poet Nazarene that we can scarcely grant any legitimacy to the Old Testament and its busybody God (the "Red Letter Christian" movement has given the world an evangelical variation on this). And that's just among the Protestants. The notion that the Old Testament could represent a pattern of an actual Godly society has been absent from Roman Catholicism, as far as I know, for at least a thousand years. We seem to have retrogressed to the idea that the Old Testament represents a bodily righteousness that merely foreshadowed the spiritual righteousness of the New Testament (an idea that Luther and Calvin among others did a lot, though apparently not enough, to demolish).

So what do we make of the Old Testament? I don't know. I certainly don't believe that it represents a legal code we should adopt and enforce in a first-millennium-B.C. manner. But I would at least suggest that we all, conservative and liberal alike, be a little more modest in the ways we describe disagreement over how our putatively shared religion finds its expression in politics. It is very tempting to preempt the other side by saying that they're fundamentally wrong about whether "social justice" is a legitimate Christian concern or whether "legislating morality" is admitted by the Gospel. The reality, whether we like it or not, is that any Christianity that embraces the religion of Jesus has to grapple with that inheritance--a difficult, demanding, worldly, passionate, coercive legal and moral inheritance that is the source of most of what we love and admire in our faith, whether we know it or not.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:20 AM
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