Monday, April 15, 2013

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly....

I gotta wonder what people think "Christian" really is....
"IT IS hard to imagine a prime minister doing such a thing now, and even then it seemed rather surprising."

A Prime Minister, yes; especially given the English experience with Puritanism.  An American politician, even an American President?  Not so hard.

I pick this up via the inestimable Grandmere Mimi, who always gives me another reason to blog on.  The original is here.  Now let's get back to it:
In May 1988 Margaret Thatcher went to the General Assembly of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland and gave what would soon be called the Sermon on the Mound. It was an impassioned statement of a certain form of Christianity. The Conservative leader stressed individual salvation over social reform, the legitimacy of moneymaking when combined with altruism, and the “responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ”.
The responsibility, apparently, to get rich and then lord it over those who didn't because, well, you know; if you aren't rich, God doesn't really approve of you.
It was never hard to see the influence of Methodism, born as a reaction to the complacency and privilege of 18th-century Anglicanism, on Mrs Thatcher. She believed in thrift and hard work, and liked the advice of John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, to earn, save and only then give as much as possible. The acts of generosity listed in the New Testament, from the Good Samaritan’s to that of the woman who anointed Christ’s feet, were possible only because the donors had money, she noted.

Oh, let me start here, and call "bullsgeschicte," the way we used to in seminary (all the best scriptural exegetes are German, you see).  You give only from your abundance?  Let's start with Elijah and the widow, shall we?  And then move on to the widow's mite.  Should we point out the generosity of the father of the Prodigal Son is actually, and especially by Baronness Thatcher's lights, a madman and a dangerous radical?  That the woman who anointed Jesus' feet was either rich (Matthew's version) or a prostitute (Luke's).   I don't mean to offend the Methodists in the room, but if that was Wesley's idea (we can only be charitable from our excess), then Wesley was full of...well, I've already named it, haven't I?

No, I am not terribly charitable on this particular subject.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  Now let's move on.

As I said at Wounded Bird, remind me of the beggars Jesus told to:  "Get a job!"  Remind me of the poor and the destitute Jesus said were unworthy of his attention; that he told to come back when they had a little money, because they weren't worth his time otherwise.  The ptochoi he said were lazy rotters who deserved their state because he didn't have enough in the till at the moment to spare a coin or two, or even the kind word (gotta save those, too, ya know.  Toss 'em around too freely you debase the coinage.)  Don't you remember when Jesus said "Congratulations, you rich!  You've made it to the top!  God is well pleased with you!"

What?  Jesus never said that.  Well, he should have.

And Baroness Thatcher was expressing a "certain form of Christianity"?  Say, rather, that Charles Dickens was expressing a "certain form of Christianity"  in his most famous work, A Christmas Carol.  What Thatcher was expressing was much closer to the ideas of Malthus, who, I remind everyone again, was an economist:

 " A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests."
And, you see, if no one can afford to give you anything well, then, what's to be done for you?  I mean, was Baroness Thatcher her brother's keeper?  What a ridiculous idea!  Especially since everyone knows the great thing is individual salvation and making lots and lots of money, so you can afford to be generous with a bit of it.  But not too much, or you might interfere with the individual's salvation.  Gotta earn that umerited grace, donchaknow?

Because, you know, things were simpler when Jesus was around: 

We must recognise that modern society is infinitely more complex than that of Biblical times and of course new occasions teach new duties. In our generation, the only way we can ensure that no-one is left without sustenance, help or opportunity, is to have laws to provide for health and education, pensions for the elderly, succour for the sick and disabled. 
Which is a) a load of crap, and b) one more reason I find the study of Biblical history so important.  It is far too easy to say "things were different, then," and so slip off any sense of responsibility Christianity may induce in you.  The Romans had as many laws as we do.  What they didn't have was concern for most of the people they ruled over.  Arguing we do that better than the Romans did, is not arguing that we are either a Christian society, or that we've got it all right.  Especially when your next sentence is:

But intervention by the State must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility. The same applies to taxation; for while you and I would work extremely hard whatever the circumstances, there are undoubtedly some who would not unless the incentive was there. And we need their efforts too.

I really don't recall Jesus speaking much about personal responsibility.  Indeed, even his disciples would ask why someone was born blind, or was a beggar, and assume it was the result of someone's sin. Jesus never charged anyone so much as the cost of belief in him (the beating heart of modern soteriology, which is another distinctly Christian problem), yet if we, in his example if not in his name, don't invoke some price for our charity, we run afoul of the great economic terror of "moral hazard."

A hazard that always applies to the poor. but never to the wealthy.  Money is its own morality.

Ms. Thatcher's thesis was that Christianity is about spiritual, not social, redemption.  Let me first say this is the primary reason I no longer value soteriology  I know that's a sweeping statement, but I don't make it lightly.  The emphasis on salvation has, I think, been the single greatest mistake in Christianity.  The famous parable of the sheep and the goats doesn't turn on the purity of intent of the "sheep."  It turns on their behavior, on their willingness to do something for strangers, for the ptochoi, for the sick, for the prisoner.  And God identifies God's self as every one of those persons.  And that identification doesn’t emphasize our life in the afterlife, but our life here and now.  Conveniently the Baroness skips over that inconvenient story.

No surprise there.  The parable from Matthew does nothing to support her thesis: that Christianity is all about the spiritual life, and the spiritual life is all about the individual, and Christianity really has no role in our social life except to make us feel good about being, or wanting to be, wealthy.

Read her whole speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; that's what it comes down to.  The idea that spirituality is a communal and social activity, rather than a matter of very personal piety, is not acknowledged.  The idea that spirituality leads one out into the world, that spirituality is the very basis of the basilea tou theou, is never noticed.  And certainly, spirituality is never meant to get in the way of what's really important:

But it is not the creation of wealth that is wrong but love of money for its own sake. The spiritual dimension comes in deciding what one does with the wealth. 

The spiritual dimension, in other words, must mind its place, and offer only counsel; it must never stand in the way of the true purpose of the individual, which is to acquire money.  Social considerations, which can be influenced by spiritual ones, should never get in the way of the individual's pursuit of the individual's interests.  That the individual can't do anything outside a social system, that the individual can't even be born without the social interactions of two people, that money itself is entirely a product of human society, are matters that are never even considered.  That everything we do, we do as social beings, is tacitly disavowed.

Andrew Carnegie would chew her up and spit her out.  That Scotsman understood how he made his wealth was what mattered, and what he did with it did not wipe away the responsibility for how it was earned.

She ends her speech hoping vaguely that the Church will finally teach the world to live in peace; which sounds suspiciously like the Pax Romana, the peace of the powerful free to exploit whomever and whatever suits their accumulation of wealth, which they are then at peace to use for such charitable purposes as they might see fit.  The Church, tacitly, really shouldn't get too involved in that discussion, either.  The Church should just bring us to a state fit to enjoy these comforts without conflict, and then move quietly out of the way, its task performed.  Well done, good and faithful servant;  "I tell you, make use of your ill-gotten gain to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out they are there to welcome you into eternal dwelling places."—Luke 16:9 (SV)

Yeah; that's worth applauding.....


  1. "Ms. Thatcher's thesis was that Christianity is about spiritual, not social, redemption. Let me first say this is the primary reason I no longer value soteriology I know that's a sweeping statement, but I don't make it lightly. The emphasis on salvation has, I think, been the single greatest mistake in Christianity."

    Why does it have to be about either one or the other? Isn't the anti-Thatcherism of neglecting the soteriological as corrosive, in the long run, as the Thatcherism of neglecting the social? And if the church has in fact neglected the social, where have all these schools, universities, hospices, soup kitchens, adoption agencies, clinics, hospitals, counseling services, child care centers, relief efforts come from?

    I think it important that opposition to extremists not beget extremism of the opposite sort. I don't feel obliged to dislike dogs just because Hitler liked them.

  2. I reject soteriology in large part because it has promoted both the focus on the individual (esp. individual "salvation") and because it has grotesquely distorted the central teachings of the Gospels, where, oddly enough, salvation is never mentioned at all.

    When the thrust of Xianity is toward salvation, it turns easily and inevitably to the peculiarly Reformed version that emphasis personal piety and purity and value. I have nothing against piety, purity, or personal value, any more than I resent dogs because Hitler liked them (he did?). My complaint is with the undue emphasis placed on salvation, as if that were the be-all and end-all of Christian doctrine.

    Yes, churches have built hospitals, orphanages, etc. The E&R church was instrumental in those efforts in the St. Louis area, creating institutions that exist to this day. Interestingly, their theology wasn't all that concerned with individual spirituality or the "salvation" of a person's soul.

    Thatcher was preaching a very different kind of theology, one I find destructive, antithetical to the teachings of the Gospels (or Paul), and even dangerous. That emphasis on salvation has, I think, been the single greatest mistake in Christianity, especially as it leads directly to the other distortions in her speech which I mentioned in the post.

  3. I don't remember Jesus saying anything about a right to legal and police protection of wealth. Or, as William Cobbett pointed out:

    The audacious and merciless MALTHUS (a parson of the church establishment) recommended, some years ago, the passing of a law to put an end to the giving of parish relief, though he recommended no law to put an end to the enormous taxes paid by poor people. In his book he said, that the poor should be left to the law of Nature, which, in case of their having nothing to buy food with, doomed them to starve. They would ask nothing better than to be left to the law of Nature; that law which knows nothing about buying food or any thing else; that law which bids the hungry and the naked take food and raiment wherever they find it best and nearest at hand; that law which awards all possessions to the strongest; that law the operations of which would clear out the London meat-markets and the drapers' and jewellers' shops in about half an hour: to this law the parson wished the parliament to leave the poorest of the working people; but, if the parliament had done it, it would have been quickly seen, that this law was far from 'dooming them to be starved.'

  4. Anonymous4:49 PM

    RMJ: The E&R church was instrumental in those efforts in the St. Louis area, creating institutions that exist to this day. Interestingly, their theology wasn't all that concerned with individual spirituality or the "salvation" of a person's soul.

    This example brings to mind the nuns who work with the poor and indigent. They are concerned with trying to find food and clothing and medicine for the least among us, not lecturing them on sin or hypostatic union. Mother Teresa did not try and "save" Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs, just help them. As a result, she has become a powerful and inspiring example of Christian values while, conversely, the likes of salvationists like Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard and Pat Robertson have done immeasurable to the Christian message.

    Along the same lines, I truly believe the most powerful and worthwhile thing Pope Francis will have accomplished during his first year in office has already happened, and that was when he visited those in prison and washed their feet. It gave hope to the struggling in a way a sermon about hope - or heaven or hell - ever could.