I live in the Bible Belt in the same town as Liberty University, and while I’m of a different religious tradition than Jerry Falwell, a lot of broad-brushing goes on by my friends on the left in matters of faith and the city. In the last election cycle the Democratic challenger for our local congressional district was an educated Harvard grad, well-published and credentialed. He lost the election, but stays vocal in our local political scene. Recently he went after those rascally religious tea party types who stand in the way of all progress. I don’t carry a brief for any political party, but I am interested any time pistis and polis, faith and the city, make contact.
It’s nice to see that Andy Schmookler and Art Costan are appealing to the Bible in support of their political agenda. When Christians like me do that, we’re routinely shouted down and told that the Bible is a hide-bound collection of condemnations of our culture’s cherished sins.
Except when it comes to caring for the poor. Political liberals love Jesus, not because he saves them from their sins, but because his message is so easily hijacked into fitting their narrative of compassion. Indeed, Jesus indicted the political powers of his own day for their oppression of the poor. He taught that in his kingdom they would find compassion, justice and mercy because people in his kingdom, when they are shaped by the Gospel, tend to behave justly and compassionately. Thus, Mr. Costan points out rightly that the early Christians were sharing communities. He overlooks the fact, however, that St. Peter himself declared that Ananias and Sapphira were free to do with their own goods as they pleased – voluntarily. They were not coerced by either the church or by Caesar. Nor were they struck dead for lack of generosity. Check your text; they were punished because they pretended to be more generous than they were and lied about it.
I don’t know any Jesus’ followers today who are against helping the poor. I do know a bunch who resent a government that coerces compassion and pretends that it’s mercy. These are the same people who are least likely to vote for those who would perpetuate the charade and raise our taxes further. The moral demands of Christian faith become terribly twisted when they flow from the barrel of a gun. As my friend Doug Wilson points out, when Representative Jones extorts money from Citizen Smith so that Bureaucrat Bobby can give it to Smith’s neighbor – that’s not compassion; that’s not how mercy works. It buys food stamps, of course, and it buys Section 8 housing, and did I mention? It buys votes.
Come with me to downtown Lynchburg and I’ll show you what else it buys. It buys the American nightmare of multi-generational poverty, disconnected from successful education and meaningful work, and it locks in a permanent underclass which is contained in its own zip code nice and tidy. When the state takes our tax money and sends it down there, it doesn’t fix a problem, it just segregates it. It grants me the illusion that I can help the poor, and thankfully, makes it possible for me to avoid meeting poor people, to be offended by their dirty clothes, or to put up with how they talk. I don’t actually have to personally give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. The state gives it in my name. In short, the whole arrangement is rigged so that I don’t have to have a relationship with them.
This is the tender mercy of state enforced compassion. I don’t object primarily because it increases my tax burden. I object because it is an obvious failure and it overlooks the core of Jesus teaching to love your neighbor, which means compassionate relationships. Helping the poor requires far more than the kind of giving that the state and its shiny coercion gun creates. But if you insist upon measuring compassion by money, who cares most? We can paint by the numbers here. When it comes to private philanthropy, private generosity, Americans are far more generous than Europeans. Inside America, the red states are far more giving than the blue states. Christians of every stripe are far more generous than secularists. Protestants are more generous than Catholics. And the Evangelicals that Mr. Schmookler despises are way more generous than the Protestant mainliners. That’s a fact.