Sunday, April 02, 2006

'Serious Christians', Politics & History

Last Thursday, fellow Illinoize blogger Dan Johnson-Weinberger, took a gentle swipe at religious conservative voters in his post, "Meeks, Blagovich, Topinka...".

(Meeks reminds me that those Christians who take the teachings of Jesus seriously are economically liberal — chasing the money-changers out of the Temple and all that).

My first response is that only those who don't know much about economics are economically liberal. Not only do socialism and communism don't work, they also deny the existence of the individual, his needs, desires, work and responsibility. Capitalism works not because it was ordained by God, but because so far it's the best system that caters to the individual.

Now for the spiritual response. I had actually been thinking for the past few weeks about the misconception you have, because a surface reading of the scriptures would back up your position.

New Testament Christianity is all about the personal responsbility of the believer. Only I can make a decision about accepting Jesus. My parents couldn't do it for me, and I in turn won't be able to make that decision for my children. I can dedicate them to God in a church ceremony after their birth, as my parents did with me (a first for our Southern Baptist church).

Parents can set their children on the right paths, but there will come a time when each and every child will mature and have to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them.

The money changers in the Temple bit has nothing do to with economics. It's about respect for God. The money changers had turned a place of faith into a commercial bazaar that profited from those with faith.

Your belief that "serious Christians" must be economically liberal is actually from the Luke's Book of Acts which tells the early history of the church following Jesus' ascension.

Before that, Jesus had told the diciples, "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John was baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 1:4-5 NIV)

Ten days later during the Jewish Feast of Weeks, also known as the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled the group of believers giving each the power to speak in every tongue so that no matter where the Jewish pilgrims to the Temple came from in the Roman Empire and beyond, each heard them speaking in their own language.

"Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs - we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "what does this mean?" (Acts 2:7-12 NIV)

Keep this in mind. At the crucifixion, among his believers only John, likely the youngest of the Apostles, and the women in his ministry remained to witness his death.

By the time of Jesus' ascension into Heaven 40 days later, many of those who had previously fled in fear had returned and the church of believes numbered 120 according to Luke (Acts 1:15).

On the Day of Pentecost following the gift of the Holy Spirit that morning Peter preached what may have been the greatest sermon ever delivered by man. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins," summed up the message.

"Those who accepted his messaged were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day." (Acts: 2:41)

I mention this only to set the stage for the verses that come next, the verses that you originally sought dealing with the first Christians in Jerusalem.

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:42-47)

So why don't Christians today do the same? It's a good question.

The first thing to remember is that Luke was writing a history of the church. He wrote two books later compiled into the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

In the latter book he begins by writing, "In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen." (Acts 1:1-3).

In the former he began as follows:

"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke wrote the Book of Acts no earlier than late 61 or 62 A.D., or about three decades after Pentecost and the church of his description. It's very likely that the early church in Jerusalem was unique.

At this point all of the Christians were Jews. The apostles went to the Temple in Jerusalem every day to pray and preach. This didn't sit well with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish elders, of whom only one or two openly professed themselves as believers. They fought and plotted against the believers, and even jailed the leaders, but to no avail.

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

More persecution followed as did continued growth. Eventually, the apostles found it necessary to find assistants for the distribution of food. From this crisis they appointed the first seven deacons to the task.

"So the word of God spread. the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." (Acts 6:7)

Stephen, "a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and mirarculous signs among the people." He also generated opposition from the Synagogue of the Freedman, who found witnesses to testify falsely against him before the Sanhedrin. Stephen didn't defend himself, but instead proclaimed his faith and pointedly accused his accusers of their failings.

"You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him — you who have received the law that was put into effect through angles but have not obeyed it." (Acts 7:51-53)

The speech infuriated those present. Without a ruling, the crowd dragged him out and stoned him to death making him the first Christian martyr for his faith. With their taste of blood unquinched, the mob then attempted to destroy the church.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godley men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them into prison. (Acts 8:1-3).

That's what happened to the church, all in a matter of months, no more than a year or two following the resurrection.

Obviously, persecution didn't stop the church. It was just dispersed. It's also the last time the church was described in such a way, and probably the reason why Luke emphasized it so as it represented something different than the gatherings of believers three decades later.

So what about economic systems? Does the Bible say anything to Christians about economic policy? It actually does in two places in the New Testament. Both Matthew and Luke in their Gospels related Jesus' parables on the talents, a unit of currency worth about $1,000.

The two parables are different account, but similar in theme. In both cases someone with money entrusts various portions of it to others to invest and protect for a length of time. In both cases, those who grew their amounts were rewarded proportionally. Those who did nothing with it, but didn't lose any, were punished for their inaction.

First, it should be noted that most commentators view these passages as warnings to believers not to waste the spiritual gifts they have been given. Still, there are lessons of a monetary nature that Christians should overlooked.

If you're not a Christian this may not apply to you, but as a Christian who believes my political beliefs - actually all of my public actions - should reflect on my spiritual beliefs, then I take this seriously. I don't like being called a hypocrite.

The last thing to explain is why I see no moral authority in progressive tax rates as economic liberals do. The tax of the Old Testament (and carried into the present through the New Testament) is the "tithe". I'm oversimplifying it a bit, but that was just a 10 percent flat tax payable by everyone (or at least every producer).

If Illinois needs a higher flat tax rate than the current 3 percent, then that's a legitimate political argument for society to decide. I personally think raising taxes will hurt our economy. For the most part that's what general tax increases do.

To call for a more progressive(ly worse) tax rate structure as a moral need, I will strongly oppose because I see no scriptural reason for doing so.

It's the responsibility of society to take care of those most vunerable. That's not liberal or conservative, Christian or whatever. What we are debating over is how we accomplish our collect responsibility.

That's what so many are finding fascinating about a possible candidacy by Senator Meeks. He skews across the ideological divide that defines the modern Democratic and Republican parties. I'm not in his camp — yet; but if he decides to seriously enter the race, his candidacy will challenge me to review how I weigh my vote.


Anonymous said...

Tell me, how do you square your 10% flat tax "tithe" with the beginning of Luke 21?

Jon Musgrave said...

The gift of the two copper coins by the widow wasn't a tithe. It was an offering of all she had.

I keep track of what I make as a writer and in my real estate business. I tithe 10 percent of that to my church. That's my duty. I don't think the Bible considers that an offering.

Anything I give above that is an offering.

In my own practice I now tithe first, then for the regular mission drives (Southern Baptists do two a year), special disaster relief donations (Katrina last year), and special love offerings for visiting missionaries and evangelists I give an offering.

The churches of Marion (and local one Jewish businessman) are in the process of opening the city's first homeless shelter in a former nursing home, a process they are doing without public funding.

The Ministerial Alliance has provided a soup kitchen for years. Our church, as well as probably most of the other larger churches, also run their own food pantries.

We help the crisis pregnancy center as well as provide funding each month for the regional home for unwed mothers, and a separate children's home.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union our church has been sending mission teams over to Chernivtsi, Ukraine, every other year for both evangelization, but also usually with some type of health clinic component. I've gone the last two trips and plan to return this summer.

Individual members of the congregation have traveled to Africa numerous times for various mission projects.

We've come a long way since the First Century when that Jewish sect called Christianity had to help feed and clothe its own poor members.

Although there are poor members in our church, few, if any go hungry. If they do it is only because they do not let anyone know they need help.

Our church isn't perfect. Only weak and sometimes faulty humans are able to join. The Bible calls us sinners, but we know through faith if we repent of our sins and accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we will be forgiven.

Dan Johnson said...

Jon -- thanks for the thoughtful post. My central question remains: if the call of the New Testament is largely to care for the poor, and you believe that taxes are generally bad for those who are getting taxed, should't the pious vote to tax the poor less (or not at all)? I think it's clear that cutting marginal tax rates on the highest incomes creates larger incomes for the wealthiest among us, but does not do so for the poorest among us. I'd be curious to hear how you square putting our tax burden on the poorest and most needy while lessening it on the most comfortable and affluent (assuming that you are a Bush/GOP voter). And to make the argument clearer, assume that the question of the overall size of government is off the table for the moment. The only question is what income group will pay more for the cost of the government -- the poor or the wealthy? (And finally, because you are such a good textualist, I'd like to know how you interpret the passages on the likelihood of a rich man getting to heaven as less than finding a needle in a haystack, or something to that effect). Oh, one more thing: I was careful not to call anyone a hypocrite, especially regarding their religious beliefs, as that's a different and more personal conversation than forcefully challenging people to justify their choices as a citizen to vote for economic policies that primarily benefit the wealthy. Whether anyone may or may not be a hypocrite as it relates to their religious beliefs is not for me to determine or discuss.

Rum said...

I need history info on southern IL, not a sounding board for religion. We all have our different views, so let's stick to what we are coming here for, a Southern IL history and genealogy site. If we can't handle that then I gotta go somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Hey rum -Chill out... My Grandfather and Grandmother lived in The Old Slave house at one time, paying rent to the Sisks. My Grandfather ALSO became a Methodist Preacher.He paid and talked about taxes.He lived and talked about Christians. If you're a true Southern Illinois info seeker, you gotta know that you can't have one without the other!!!!! That tithe of 10 percent bit they're talking about, and doing more for the poor, simply created the term "Southern Hospitality", I think.