I came across an article today on a site called “Forward Progressives” with the provocative title “Religious Right Politicians Don’t Take Jesus Seriously.” The article describes a theological debate that took place on the floor of the House of Representatives. Putting aside, for the moment, the whole question of whether “what would Jesus do” should be part of our political debate in a country that separates church and state, I would like to speak a bit about the argument itself and the article on “Forward Progressives.” Here is the background:
When the House Agriculture Committee decided that they gradually need to cut costs to the farm bill by $40 billion, they decided that more than half of that should come out of the mouths of poor families. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) would be cut by over twenty billion dollars over the next decade.
In what appears to be a last-ditch effort by some members of the committee to inject some holy humanity into its more conservative members, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) quoted passages from the 25th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew. It’s the part of the Bible where Jesus says that how we treat poor people, sick people, and other marginalized people is how we treat Jesus.
In response, Committeeperson and Christian K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) took umbrage.
“I take umbrage to that. I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”
First let me say that I think the word “umbrage” should be used more often in conversation. Literally it means a shadow “especially as cast by trees.” How it got its figurative sense of offense is not clear to this author. But I am already trying to come up with opportunities to talk about having a picnic in the umbrage on a hot summer day.
Moving on. I’m sympathetic to the argument that budget cuts should not come at the expense of the poorest and least powerful members of society. I am also more sympathetic to the notion that Jesus would not cut food programs for the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, but I can’t know that for a fact.
This is where I take a wee bit of tree shade with the Forward Progessives article. The author of the piece (identified as “jasdye”) writes:
…generally conservative Christians tend to read the Bible literally. You know, like the Earth was created in six days type of literal. The Creation Story of Genesis is treated literally, but not Jesus’ words to his followers?
Conaway – and many others in the Religious Right – do not take these passages literally because they want to believe these words are advice to individual followers when it is obvious it was not spoken or written in that matter… In that very passage Vargas quoted, it is the nations that will be judged for taking care of or not taking care of the poor. Not individuals. Nations. Large communities.
Indeed, the passage does talk about nations. It describes what it will be like when the Kingdom of God arrives. The Son of Man sits on a throne and the nations gather at his feet, he divides the righteous on the right and the unrighteous on the left. Then he explains how he has divided the two groups and he says one of the most marvelous things in the New Testament.
“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me…when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”
Treat every person, no matter how poor and powerless, as though he were the Son of Man.
In the next verse he condemns to hell those who refuse to do these things for “the least of these.”
Now if you are really going to be “the Earth was created in six days literal” about this passage, you have to say that it does not literally speak to Mr. Conway as an individual, nor to the United States nor to the world. It speaks to the people in the Kingdom of God in this envisioned future. Of course, that is not the full story. If the stories contained nothing more than their literal meaning they would not have lasted.
The art is in the interpretation of this story. What does it mean to us here today? Why should I take this to heart? There’s nothing at all wrong with Bible stories being a matter of interpretation. It’s important to acknowledge that this is what you’re doing though because otherwise you get into a foolish argument in which one person says, “It means this.” And the other says, “No it doesn’t. It means this.” Both claim to have the correct interpretation. You can’t get very far with that. That is, unless your goal is to continually argue.
So let’s strip down this story in Matthew. The Son of Man in the story is addressing nations. He is speaking to the world. The story doesn’t actually specify whether the people at this gathering are condemned to hell based on their individual or their collective failure to help “the least of these.”
You could turn to history and say that early Christians were known for their collective works to the poor– acting, as later interpreters will call “the body of Christ.” Jesus worked with his disciples, so there was always a collective, community feeling to his messages. Even this does not specifically address governments. Conway might interpret the “render unto Caesar” parable as meaning that the government is irrelevant and we need to act separately from it.
I can’t entirely discount the idea that Matthew 25 is referring to individual action. Even though the Lord or Son of Man is addressing the people as a group, he may have separated them into the righteous and unrighteous based entirely on what they or failed to do as individuals.
So let’s for a moment say that Conway is completely right and Jesus’s requirement in Matthew to do for the least of these is an individual requirement not that of the government.
The argument here seems to be that the government has no moral obligation to act in accordance with what the Lord says is righteous. This does seem to be a tacit admission by Conway that taking money out of the food stamp program is not the righteous or compassionate course.
Taking money out of the food stamp program is not a problem, he says, not because it is the most moral choice, but because the government is not required to be righteous. (The clear implication is that Conway does not think his favored path is the most moral one, but he thinks he should do it anyway for some reason.) This is, obviously, a departure from how values conservatives talk about the government’s role in things like same sex marriage or funding Planned Parenthood, but I don’t want to dwell on that right now.
What concerns me more is the idea that in a democracy we, as individuals, will not be held accountable for the collective actions of the people we elect to govern on our behalf. If we look the other way when unrighteous actions are carried out for our benefit are we not guilty?
So let’s take this premise as given and say we are not. We, as individuals, will face no moral judgement at the pearly gates for what our government did or did not do for “the least of these.”
Mike Conway, however, is in a slightly different position than most of us. He is in a position of power. He has wealth and privilege. What is his obligation as a Christian and a legislator?
Earlier in Matthew (Chapter 22) Jesus is asked what is the supreme commandment and he says it is “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” The second is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
These are the two things. Devotion to God, and compassion for man. How is that manifest? How do you do that?
This is what the Apostles did. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who 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.” (Acts 2)
When St. Paul met with the Jerusalem Council with his idea to spread the gospel to the gentiles there was only one thing they said the gentiles had to do. Paul wrote, “They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.“
So it seems that loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself means being generous with the poor, sharing all you have with them and specifically feeding them. If this is how you manifest your love of God then you should do it with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind– with everything you are.
If this is an individual requirement then shouldn’t a member of the House of Representatives use all of the tools at his disposal, every power he has, to carry out this mission? Should he ignore the greatest tool he has, his political position?
When the subject of wealth, poverty and Jesus comes up, one of the first stories that comes to mind is the one about Jesus and the rich young man who did everything right, except one thing:
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
Mike Conway’s net worth is between $3,122,115 and $8,283,999. (When you have a certain level of wealth it gets to the point that it’s hard to even count.) He is the 62nd richest House member out of 435.
“I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”
What is his individual responsibility to the least of these? Will he sit on the right or the left hand of the Son of Man in the judgment day of Matthew 25? That is between him and his God.