Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Jesus is not a Liberal: Correcting the Christian Left

          I have taken Becky Riley’s article below from The Christian Left’s website (thechristianleft.org)  I chose this article not because it is particularly good or particularly bad.  I chose it simply because it was the first to appear when I opened their site.  Had some other essay appeared, I would have chosen to refute it instead.  Her words are in boldface type and in quotation marks.  Mine are not.

“Biblical Quotes Supporting the Belief that Jesus Is A Liberal” -- By Becky Riley”
         Riley does not tell us what she means by the word “liberal,” but if she is a conventional leftist, it means she thinks that Jesus was a big-government, collectivist, egalitarian, redistributionist, pacifist, or something very close, which is exactly what emerges from her text subsequently.

“Peacemaking, not War Making: Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9] Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right... cheek, turn to him the other also. [Matthew 5:39] I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despite-fully use you, and persecute you; [Matthew 5:44]”
         Although the Biblical text Riley quotes does not mention anything about war making, she herself includes it.  By including it on her own authority, she has transgressed the important difference between peacemaking and pacifism.  One can make peace without being a pacifist.  Thus, Jesus commends the peacemakers here, not the pacifists.  He commends those who proceed to peace, not those who proceed by peace.  By reading as she does, Riley overlooks several important points:
         (1) Peacemaking can be accomplished in many ways, one of them by ending war quickly.  If you want to make peace, then you must learn how to end war quickly.  In that sense, we have three peace academies in the US:  West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs, where they produce military folks who are the best the world has ever seen at ending war swiftly and thereby making peace.  But, conversely, if you proceed by means of pacifism toward peace, you will not end war quickly. Rather, you will invite more war because tyrants will move upon you with all speed and purpose.  From you they fear nothing.  No nation was ever attacked because it was too strong and could defend itself and its neighbors.  But many nations, whether weak or pacifistic, have been attacked because they were unwilling or unprepared to deal strongly and swiftly with tyrannical opponents.  Military weakness invites war.  Pacifism invites war.  If you cannot fight, or if you will not fight, you eventually will have peace, but it will be the peace of surrender, of slavery, and of death, which is not the peace of justice, which alone is the peace of God.  Pacifists need to consider not only the qualities of a just war, but of a just peace.  Not all peace is just, not remotely.
         (2) Jesus Himself is not a pacifist, and neither is His Father.  Jesus, we recall, is the One in charge of Armageddon, and Armageddon is no peace march -- far from it.  Armageddon is so enormous a battle that it brings the entire world to heel.  War of this sort wasn’t something Jesus Himself cooked up.  He got it from His Father.  Jesus said that He did what He saw His Father do and He said what He heard His Father say.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, He saw his Father tell the Israelites to go into battle frequently.  He heard his Father command total war of His people and punish them if they did not do it.  Jesus saw, in short, what is obvious to any careful student of Scripture:  Yahweh is a warrior.
         (3) Peace is by no means the bottom line for Jesus.  That is not why He came.  Nor is it the means by which He proceeds:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10: 34), He said.
         (4) The context of the verse Riley quotes is the Sermon on the Mount.  That sermon was directed to the disciples of Jesus (Matt. 5: 2), not to congresses, politburos, or parliaments.  It deals with personal Christian ethics, not with national defense policy.  What is required of government by God and what is required of Christians by God are not the same.   While it might be required of Christians to turn the other cheek, governments cannot and must not work that way.  If someone hits you, you might do well not to retaliate, and to practice self-sacrifice instead.  But the government must not and cannot do that.  If your enemy flies jetliners into your skyscrapers in New York, you must not say to them that we have skyscrapers in Chicago too, and that they are free to attack them as well and to do so without fear of retaliation because we are turning the other cheek.  That’s because while individuals can practice self-sacrifice, governments cannot.  What is being sacrificed when governments turn the other cheek is not themselves but others, perhaps many thousands of others.  You cannot self-sacrifice others.  Jesus’ teaching here is not about national defense, but about his disciples’ personal lives and personal obligations.
         As before, the command not to resist evil and to love your enemies is directed not at governments but at Christian disciples.  Governments cannot love, nor are they directed here to do so.  But Christians are.  They are the ones whom Jesus addresses in this famous sermon.  Further, governments exist precisely in order to resist and restrain evil (Romans 13: 3).  Unless Riley wants to pit Jesus against both His Father and His apostles, her reading of these verses is sadly inadequate and distortively imprecise.  This is a matter of individual self-sacrifice, not public policy.
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.          
“The Death Penalty: Thou shalt not kill [Matthew 5:21]”
         Matthew 5:21 does not say “Thou shalt not kill,” but “Thou shalt not murder.”  While all murder is killing, not all killing is murder.  Murder is unjustified killing.  Some killing is justified.  Some is not.  For Jesus to command what Riley asserts that He commands is again to pit the Son against the Father, which the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, as well as the example and explicit teachings of Christ Himself, prohibit.  The Son and the Father are not divided on the point.  God the Father permits capital punishment and has done so almost from the very beginning (Gen. 9:6), something He reiterated multiple times in the Mosaic law.
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.

“Crime and Punishment: If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone at her. [John 8:7] Do not judge, lest you too be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. [Matthew 7:1 & 2.]”
         Setting aside the textual challenges one might raise to the verse Riley quotes from John, one must challenge her designation of this passage as pertaining to “crime and punishment” rather than to “sin and punishment.”  Not all sins are crimes; nor should they be.  For better or worse, adultery is not a crime now the way it was in Jesus’ day.  If it is not a crime, and Riley thinks it should be, then the punishment prescribed by the law for this crime must hold too, which means death, and which means her comment earlier on killing is out of court.  If she wants the law’s prohibitions against adultery, but not its punishments, then she is unjustifiably arbitrary.  She is picking just half of the package deal and tossing the rest blithely away.  If she wishes adultery not to be a crime, then her designation of it as a crime is false.
         So also is her application of this passage to the allegedly necessary sinlessness of critics and judges.  Paul, you’ll recall, called himself “the chief of sinners”(1 Tim. 1:15).  Yet, despite his self-confessed colossal evil, he often rebuked those who sinned, both Christians and non-Christians.  In so doing, Paul was not transgressing the teachings of Jesus, which, in this case, were directed by Jesus at certain very specific accusers, those who brought this woman to Him.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that every statement of Jesus is meant to be applied literally or to all times and all places.  Sometimes they are; sometimes they are not.  Sometimes Jesus is painfully specific; sometimes He is just as painfully universal.  One way to tell which is which is to see how the apostles themselves understood Christ and applied His teaching.  If your view makes the apostles wrong -- and Riley’s does just that with every apostle because every apostle was a sinner and every apostle was a rebuker as well -- then you have misunderstood Christ’s intention.  You and I are not Christ-chosen and Christ-trained apostles.  They were.  If your view makes them out to be wrong, then likely you are wrong yourself instead.
         The judging here condemned is not to be confused with discernment, with assessing the spiritual condition of someone so that you might better deal with them in a prudent, honest, and more effective manner.  You deal with others best by assessing as carefully as possible whether or not they are converts and whether or not they are converts in rebellion to God and to the fellowship of believers.  If they are unconverted, you must deal with them in one way:  “This is a non-Christian person.  I must share with them the gospel of Christ.”  If they are converts, you deal with them in another way: “This is a fellow believer, but one who has rebelled against God and has injured the church.  I will not evangelize this person; I will counsel repentance, including repair of life and fellowship.”   To discern these different conditions and to deal with others on that basis is not to judge and is not here precluded.  For example, to advise a Christian against homosexual activity is not to judge, but to discern and to counsel wisely.  To judge is to pass final and ultimate judgment upon them, to condemn them to Hell.  Condemning them to Hell, not discerning their actual spiritual condition, is what is here prohibited.
         Even if “to judge” meant here what Riley wrongly thinks it does, then she would need to spend a great deal of time correcting her liberal colleagues, who are quick to “judge” their conservative counterparts as greedy, selfish, racist, and homophobic.  But then again she could not do so, because to do so would be to “judge.”  
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal. 

“Justice: Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. [Matthew 5:6] Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy [Matthew 5:7] But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [Matthew 6:15]”
         Again, Riley mis-designates the verses she quotes.  To seek after righteousness and to find it is not a matter of justice (whether of the individual or the political variety), as she says it is.  It is a matter of mercy and grace.  To be merciful is to be what Jesus requires of His disciples.  Mercy invites mercy.  This text has nothing to do with individual justice, or with government, or with how governments ought to punish crime.  It is not really about justice at all, even though Riley so designates it.  It is about mercy, though not government mercy.
         Indeed, one must fear the government that does not punish evil, but that merely exercises “mercy.”  Mercy is not the divinely designated function of government, as Paul indicates in Romans 13:1ff.   This text has nothing at all to do with being a liberal, unless liberalism means that the state must be merciful to criminals rather than to be just.  As a nation, we have, and ought to have, a system of justice, not mercy.
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.

“Corporate Greed and the Religion of Wealth: In the temple courts [Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep and doves and other sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. [John 2:14 & 15.] Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. [Luke 12.15.] Truly, I say unto you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 19:23] You cannot serve both God and Money. [Matthew 6:24.]”
         Riley unjustifiably identifies what Jesus opposed here as “corporate greed,” which is both grossly false and naively anachronistic.  Her designation says more about her than about what is happening in this text.  Jesus is not fighting “corporate greed,” here, or even fighting greed at all.  He is fighting against profaning the Temple because He has within Him a burning love for God’s house (John 2:17).  Greed, much less “corporate greed,” is not in view.
         Further, Riley seems not to notice the way in which this passage militates against her notion of peacemaking mentioned above.  In response to the profanation of the Temple (and not to “corporate greed”), Jesus sat down and deliberately wound together a whip with His own hands. With this whip He violently cleared out the Temple, clearing it both of men and of beasts.  In so doing, He was not making peace, and certainly not in the Riley style.  Nor was He being merciful, which Riley also lionizes above; nor did He decide not to resist evil.  He resisted it vigorously.  If Riley reads these texts correctly, Jesus breaks his own rules because He does not do with them what Riley thinks ought to be done.  Either that or Riley misreads them.  Unless Riley thinks that Jesus does not practice what He preaches, then she needs to rethink from the bottom up what she says about Jesus’ words and the way she interprets them.
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.
“Paying Taxes & Separation of Church & State: Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. [Matthew 22:21]”
         First, the separation of church and state is not in view when Jesus says to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  Please recall that neither the ancient Romans nor the ancient Jews believed any such thing.  To the Romans, Caesar was a god, and he required religious sacrifices from his subjects precisely because he was a god.  To the ancient Romans, there was nothing like the modern American notion of the separation of church and state to which Riley alludes.  The same holds for the ancient Jews, including Jesus.  To the ancient Jews, Israel was a theocracy, one over which Yahweh was to be king and in which His laws were to reign supreme.  To the Jews, the notion of the separation of church and state was unthinkable, just as it was to Jesus, a Jew.  For Riley to classify this text as “the separation of church and state” is simply to do great violence to the text itself and to impose upon it alien categories and meanings.
         Second, in light of the fact that the entire earth and all that is in it belongs to God, Riley needs to think more carefully about what Jesus means when He says to give to Caesar, a fake god, and to God what rightly belongs to each.  If she asks herself what is God’s, and answers it correctly, and then if she asks herself what is left, and answers it correctly, then she will know better what is Caesar’s, what is not, and what Jesus means.  Even Rome’s political power itself, and the putting to death of its citizens and inhabitants, including Jesus, belongs to God, not ultimately to Caesar (John 19:11).
         Third, paying taxes is not evil.  No sensible citizen thinks it is or that it God prohibits it.  But paying unjust taxes, or paying taxes for unjust purposes, such as slaughtering the young by abortion, is evil, and enormously so.  When she endorses paying taxes here, the folks Riley seems to have in mind, the rich conservatives, pay far more taxes than anyone else in the nation.  Nearly half of Americans pay no income tax at all.  If paying taxes is required by this text -- and the way she reads the command to give to Caesar what is his seems to demand it -- then Riley needs to address the non-paying 50% who pay no income tax at all, not the ones who do all the paying, the ones she seems to have in mind.  And by what twisted logic are we to assume that our money, the money we for which we ourselves sacrificed and labored, belongs to Caesar?  If I am to give him what is actually his, then how does he have claim over my earnings and my income, as if it were his?  Caesar didn’t make it.
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.

“Community: Love your neighbor as yourself. .[Matthew 22:39] So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.[Matthew 7:12.] If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. [Matthew 19:21]”
         Riley seems to think that conservatives do not love, and do not do to others what they want done to them, as if liberals were practicing this and conservatives were not.  On this point, Riley is flatly wrong.  Conservatives are better at it than all others, period.  (Please read that sentence again, and keep reading it again until it sinks in.)  If Riley thinks that conservatives are not merciful or generous, then she simply isn’t paying attention.  I can do no more to enlighten her on this point than to recommend that she read Brooks and Wilson’s book, Who Really Cares, which demonstrates decisively that the religious and the conservatives in America -- not the liberals -- give the most both to the poor and to secular charities, not just religious ones.  In fact, they are the most generous such group in the history of the world, yet Riley feels compelled to lecture them, not her stingy liberal cohorts, on this point.
         When Jesus tells the rich young man in Matt. 19: 21 to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus is giving specific directions to one man, based upon that man’s personal spiritual defects and deficiencies, identifying for that man what he ought to do.  Jesus is not addressing Himself to every person everywhere and at all times.  Nothing is wrong with being wealthy.  Abraham was very wealthy.  David the king was very wealthy, as was his son Solomon.  Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy.  The problem is not having wealth but in wealth having you.  Jesus was pointing out this man’s great moral failing, which was not this wealth but his self-righteousness and selfishness.  He actually told Jesus that he had kept all the commandments (v. 20), which was an impossibility and a lie of self-delusion.  In order to point out the young man’s self-righteous failings, failings he did not recognize in himself, Jesus told him to give up his wealth.   But that commandment was too hard for the young man.  He couldn’t do it.  So he went away sad (v. 22).  From this incident the disciples drew the wrong conclusion.  They wondered:  If the wealthy, with all their resources, can’t succeed, then who can (v. 25)?  Jesus corrects them:  What that rich young man could not do, God could.  God could give him what he and his alleged law keeping and his wealth never could.  God could heal his shortcomings.  Grace makes it possible (v. 26), not human effort or human possession.  The point Jesus makes here about this incident is not about wealth but about God’s grace, a lesson He makes explicit to the disciples, but which liberals like Riley overlook.
         Put differently, Jesus is not a fool.  He does not think that the best way to help the poor is to become poor yourself.  That’s not what He is advising.  To do so would be to place an even greater demand on others, who have more than enough poor to care for already.  To create more poor is not how you help the poor.  Indeed, to Jesus, the poverty issue has no solution, not in this life:  “The poor you will always have with you,” He says (Matt. 26:11).  By saying so, He was not suggesting that more wealthy people become poor.
         Furthermore, Jesus does not command us to help the poor by means of government-sponsored redistributionism -- not once, not ever.  He talks about the good Samaritan in this regard, not the good bureaucrat or the good government giveaway.  These obligations to the poor are your own, and you must not pawn them off onto government, as if government were a suitable agency of Christian love, or as if the obligations of Christian love could be hired out to political or bureaucratic surrogates.  No; you must do it.  You must get out into the trenches of poverty and assist real persons in real ways, and not assign this obligation over to government, as if your tax return were your tithe.

         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.      

“Equality & Social Programs: But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. [Luke 14:13 &14.]”
         As she has done so frequently, Riley mislabels the texts she quotes.  Nothing here is about “equality and social programs.”  That is not what Jesus mentions; that is not what He has in mind, even if Riley does.  Inviting others to your feast is not a matter of “equality” or of “social programs,” but of charity and generosity.  Equality is not mentioned or alluded to anywhere in the text.  Neither are social programs.  We are exhorted here to aid others because they are needy, not because they and we are equal.  Riley herself smuggled in the notion of equality.  Jesus doesn’t mention it at all.  The same goes for social programs, which are utterly absent from the text.
         As for equality and income redistribution, one wonders what Riley would make of Jesus’ instruction to take from the poor and give to the rich (Matt. 25: 28).
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.
“Public Prayer & Displays of Faith: And when thou pray, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou pray, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret… [Matthew 6:6 & 7]”
         Riley seems to think that here Jesus is prohibiting religion and religious practice in public.  He is not.  He is prohibiting the sort of self-aggrandizing showboating to which the Pharisees and others were prone.  If Jesus were doing what Riley seems to think, then He would fall far short of His own teaching, and so would His disciples.  He Himself prayed and preached in public multiple times, even at His crucifixion, where He uttered multiple public prayers.  The disciples prayed and preached in public many times as well, beginning at Pentecost.  Indeed, the entire Jewish tradition to which Jesus and His disciples adhered required praying and other religious practices in public year round.
         Jesus is not renouncing public displays of faith and religion.  He is saying that if you do these things to get recognition from people, you have no reward left to you.  For such persons, it is far better to go off in secret, where no one but God sees.  Someone like Jesus, Who came to fulfill the law, and not to ignore it, or gainsay it, or set it aside, Someone Who belonged to a religion of public prayers and public displays, was not denouncing His own religion or His Father, Who gave these commands to be followed publicly.  He is denouncing the self-centered display that brings glory to you as pious and not glory to God as merciful and powerful.
         Nor is Jesus saying that governments ought to be secular and that government ought not to declare public days of prayer, of remembrance, or of thanksgiving.  Much less is He banning the public mention or invocation of God, for which so many modern liberals seem to yearn.
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal. 

“Strict Enforcement of Religious Laws: If any of you has a son or a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? [Matthew 12:11] The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. [Mark 2:27.]”
         Jesus here is not forbidding, or even criticizing, Sabbath observance.  He observed it all His life.  Rather, He is restoring the Sabbath to its proper use, which is for human benefit.  The main benefit involved in the Sabbath is rest.  The Sabbath is the day of rest, and is based upon God’s own practice in Genesis after creation was complete.  Human rest and recuperation, which is the purpose of the Sabbath for us, are very important.  Our laws ought to provide for them.  But, sometimes situations emerge or needs arise that are more important than rest, things like the well being of one’s family or property, which Jesus specifically mentions.  In such instances, the Sabbath rest can be suspended.  But that suspension is the exception, not the rule.  For liberals to take this passage to mean that Jesus opposes public Sabbath laws is simply and fully false.
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.
“Individuality & Personal Spiritual Experience: Ye are the light of the world. [Matthew 5:14]”
         That we are the light of world is true.  But it is not a liberal statement.  It means that we have an obligation to let our light shine, something liberals, like Riley above, seem to oppose because they think that we ought not to do such things in public, as if Jesus commanded us to put our light under a bushel and not out in the open (Matt. 5: 15).
         By letting our light shine, we are working to “bring every thought captive to Christ,” as Paul admonished us (2 Cor. 10: 5).  We do so because Christ is Lord.  Indeed, He is Lord of all things, not just some.  If Christ is Lord of all things, then nothing -- nothing -- is properly secular.  If nothing is properly secular, then anything pursued in a secular fashion is at least partly, if not wholly, mispursued.  Yet, liberals like Riley want to make government secular, including public schools and even the Pledge of Allegiance.  Christ is Lord of all things. He is Lord of the marketplace, the academy, the laboratory, the arena, and the public square.  It is in those places, places that are properly His, even if the world and the liberals do not know it, that we are to be the light of the world.  They need light in a dark place, and those places all are now deeply lost in darkness.  We Christian conservatives intend to let the light shine because we know that government without God is your worst nightmare, not your dream come true.  It seems not to strike Riley as odd, foolish, or undesirable that convicts can read the Bible in prison but that students cannot read the Bible in school.  If students were permitted to do so, we might have fewer convicts. 
         Nothing Jesus says here makes Him a liberal.

 “Follow the Truth.....wherever it leads you!?”


Jane said...

Excellent arguments, Michael. :)

Bill Muehlenberg said...

Terrific piece Michael. Well done once again.

Joseph Grasser said...

This is the largest collection of theological garbage ever written

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Joe, Thanks for your exegetically careful, theologically and historically responsible, and highly articulate response.

beyondthedish said...

It is annoying in the extreme to see these yahoos treat Scripture as their own personal plaything. This seems to be a game of - oh let's assume liberalism and then do voodoo exegesis to find it in the Bible. The result is an exegetical mess that bears no semblance to the historical Jesus or the early church, but something from the fertile imagination of Karl Marx.

David Russell said...

Here's an irrefutable equation:

Intellectually bankrupt + vacuous + run-and-hide tactic + moral bankruptcy = Joseph Grasser's comment