Monday, April 16, 2012

Supply-Side Jesus Is a Lie

cross-posted from Dagblog

NPR broadcast this piece, on American Christians' disagreement over Christianity's economic teachings, on Morning Edition today. Unsurprisingly, left-leaning Christians like me feel Jesus taught a basically leftist approach to social welfare issues; we feel that when Jesus is talking about feeding the poor and the hungry, comforting prisoners, and helping the homeless, that he means exactly what he says. Right-leaning Christians, perhaps also unsurprisingly, feel that Jesus forbids public spending on the poor, or taxing the rich, or interfering with personal economic liberty. Their Jesus generally sounds a lot like Ron Paul.

After the House passed its budget last month, liberal religious leaders said the Republican plan, which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor, was an affront to the Gospel — and particularly Jesus' command to care for the poor.
Not so, says Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee. He told Christian Broadcasting Network last week that it was his Catholic faith that helped shape the budget plan. In his view, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity suggests the government should have little role in helping the poor.
I know intramural religious disputes can seem completely mystifying to outsiders, and even to nominal insiders who haven't had much religious instruction. It's too easy to believe that whatever a particular preacher on TV (or NPR) happens to be saying on the air is "what Christianity teaches," but Christians disagree passionately about almost everything, including things that might seem straightforward and simple. So let me put this religious disagreement in context:

If Congressman Paul Ryan went to church yesterday, the first Bible reading he heard was this:

Acts 4:32-35

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.
How do I know what selections from the Bible were read in Ryan's parish yesterday? Because, like every Sunday, the same three readings from the Bible were read in every Catholic parish yesterday.  So this reading wasn't just read in Paul Ryan's church. It was read in Rick Santorum's church, and Newt Gingrich's, and all five conservative Supreme Court Justices'. If they went to Mass yesterday, this is what they heard near the beginning of the service. And if they happened to sleep late yesterday, this passage comes by (like every single passage in the New Testament) every three years in a systematic rotation. They all know this passage.

Now, what the Apostles are doing in this passage might sound a lot like socialism. That's because it is a lot like socialism: no individual property, redistribution of wealth according to need, collective decision making, and what is basically a 100% capital gains tax. Where did the Apostles get such ideas? From hanging around with Jesus, whom they worked with closely during his life and from whom (if you believe in the New Testament) they received further direct instruction shortly after his death and resurrection. Now, if you don't believe in Jesus's resurrection, that's fine. If you're not interested in what Jesus or his personal disciples thought about economics, more power to you. But if you're making a claim that Jesus opposed socialism, you're just making up your own Jesus who says whatever you want him to say. You aren't the first, so don't feel special.

Compare what St. Peter and the gang are getting up to in Acts of the Apostles with the kind of "socialism" that Republicans accuse Barack Obama of. If you think slightly higher tax rates on people who make a million dollars a year, a few new bank regulations, and a national health-care plan built on private for-profit insurers is "socialism" then Jesus's best friends are all screaming Commies. (Although, to be fair, Judas wasn't involved in the socialism recorded above, having already taken the path of individual enterprise.) You won't catch Barack Obama whipping any moneylenders.

If we want to ask "What Would Jesus Do?" about the economy, it is very clear that Jesus, unlike Obama, would not regulate banking. Jesus forbids banking outright. He forbids lending any money at interest, clearly and explicitly. What he meant by that is not up for debate. (If you want your Jesus to sound like Ron Paul, it's important not to quote much of what he actually says.)

I'm not recommending socialism, or the abolition of banks. I would not urge Jesus's economic program on the modern United States. But that's the point: it's not that left-leaning Christians are following Jesus's economic teachings and right-leaning Christians aren't. It's that even most left-leaning Christians are far, far to Jesus's right on economic issues. The Gospel's teachings about wealth and poverty aren't somewhere in the middle of America's current political spectrum. They're completely outside our terms of debate. (In fact, following the Gospel's teachings without any rationalizations would mean dismantling capitalism. I have no stomach for that.)  Neither the American left nor the American right is obedient to Jesus on these questions. The right simply happens to offer a more intense and flagrant version of the left's disobedience to these teachings.

How do Paul Ryan or Rick Santorum or Antonin Scalia consider themselves good Catholics? The same way the rest of us do: by picking and choosing the teachings they pay attention to. For a long time, liberal American Catholics have been derided as "cafeteria Catholics," picking and choosing the teachings we find attractive and ignoring those we find less congenial. And it's true: my spouse and I try to be good Catholics, but we disobey the Gospel every single day. (We have a joint savings account). Yet American conservatives use the cafeteria model too, and as conservative ideology has gotten more fervent and intense over the past years it has moved conservative Catholics into ever-more-restricted selections from the cafeteria line. At this point, Ryan and Santorum aren't just choosing cafeteria style. It's like they're filling their trays with nothing but the Jello. Ryan's budget wants to punish the poor, the sick, and the elderly in the name of individual economic liberty, by which he means the moneylenders' profit margin. Santorum fixates on relatively minor teachings (and on teachings that he finds indirectly implied), while blatantly disobeying major teachings. Conservatives deplore contraception as abhorrent to God, but accept and even cheer the death penalty, despite the Church's condemnation of it. (It's true that no one uses contraception in the Gospels, but you might recall that it includes an execution. It's not in favor.)

Conservative Catholics often scold liberal Catholics for not properly respecting the teachings of the bishops and of the chief bishop, the Pope. But the bishops' religious authority is based, directly and completely, on the authority of the Apostles. The theory is that they're the Apostles' successors, with the Pope having St. Peter's old job. If the authority of the bishops matters, the Apostles' authority has to matter as much or more, and as you can see above, the Apostles themselves are a bunch of leftist hippy communists. You can't make a big deal out of disobeying Peter's two-thousand-years-later replacement but flout the actual Peter.

I'm in no position to judge others' practice of Christianity. I am absolutely terrible at it. But the truth is, almost every one of us is. Jesus never promised any of his followers that any of this would be easy. I'll freely admit that the Christianity I manage to follow, and to be honest even the version of Christianity that I try to follow, is different from what Jesus actually taught. But when you see Christians debating their politics and their faith, remember that all of our Christianities are different from what Jesus taught. That's been true in American politics since the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock, and it's not going to change in our lifetime.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reality Check on the Trayvon Martin Case

cross-posted from Dagblog

George Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Since everyone agrees that Zimmerman shot an unarmed seventeen-year-old dead, this seems like a pretty reasonable move. If you kill someone with a handgun, especially someone who didn't have a weapon, you should probably expect to be arrested and tried.

Of course, Zimmerman may have a defense, and his lawyers will now have a chance to mount that defense. So it's good news all the way around. Those who complain that Zimmerman is "being tried in the media" should be happy that he will now be tried in court, and we can be done with all the hearsay and speculation. If Zimmerman was genuinely in reasonable fear for his life, he has a chance to establish the facts and end the argument. But I suspect that getting a day in court will not suffice for Zimmerman's supporters.

Even a few weeks ago, it looked like we were going to avoid the vitriolic national disagreements that have now become standard for almost any issue. The Republican presidential candidates, like the President, went on record saying that the shooting was a problem. And after all, it should be easy enough to agree that none of us want unarmed teenagers getting shot dead, and even easier to agree that when an armed person kills an unarmed person the police shouldn't just take the killer's word for what happened. But apparently, we can't agree about common-sense things anymore, and Zimmerman now has some passionate defenders on the right, who complain that he is a victim of injustice. One of their main complaints is that he has been "tried in the media."

So let's recap a few common-sense facts:

1) The media furor has not been hampering the investigation. The media furor made the investigation happen. When Trayvon Martin was killed, on February 26, the Sanford Police seem to have done much, much less than a standard homicide investigation. It took weeks of mounting public pressure to get a special prosecutor appointed to give the case a real, hard look. And the case did deserve that hard look. The media furor comes from the Sanford Police not doing their jobs.

2) Being investigated when you shoot an unarmed person dead is not an outrageous result. Being indicted for shooting an unarmed person is not an outrageous result either.

3) Zimmerman's supporters have been playing the press assiduously, largely through attempts to disparage Trayvon Martin's character, and Zimmerman himself recently phoned Sean Hannity to talk about the case. (This is according to Zimmerman's former lawyers, and has been confirmed by Hannity.)

4) The antidote to a media trial is a genuine trial, whose result will either punish Zimmerman for a crime or free him from this charge forever.

5) When you kill an unarmed person with a gun, you should expect that your story gets some scrutiny. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but no one gets to kill someone else with no questions asked.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Opening Day Farewell

Today is Opening Day for most of Major League Baseball, including my beloved Red Sox. For most baseball fans, the experience of falling in love with the game is inextricably bound up with their relationship to the men in their family, to the father or uncle who took them to games and played catch with them in the yard. But my love of baseball grows out of my love for a woman: my aunt Ann, who was laid to rest this week. Today is the first time I have been in Boston for Opening Day since I left New England fifteen years ago. And today is my first Opening Day without Ann. I had expected her to have another, and another. I was not prepared for this day to come without her.

Ann had no children. She was a sister in a Catholic order, what most people would call a nun. (Technically nuns are something different, and since they live cloistered away from the secular world you've probably never met one. The "nuns" you meet in the everyday world, running schools and hospitals and charities, are technically known as sisters. They do God's work in the most practical and literal way, as genuine work. Ann was one of them.)

As her oldest nephews, my brother and I were the closest things she had to sons. When we were still small, she began taking us to Red Sox games for our birthdays, which meant weekend stays with her in Boston, once fairly early in the season and once near the end. (I would like to officially thank my brother for having a birthday that tends to fall in the middle of pennant races.) We saw some great and dramatic baseball together. We were in the bleachers when the 1986 team clinched the American League East and their ride to the playoffs; I have a framed photo in my office that Ann took that day from the stands, with Oil Can Boyd on the mound in full windup, a few pitches before he ended the game and jumped up and down for joy, like a child. We also saw some profoundly undramatic baseball together over the years. A lot of September games have nothing at stake but the player's professionalism and self-respect; over time, I came to view those games as the most revealing, in certain ways: the games played for the highest stakes of all. And, truth be told, you can see a game any time over the summer when not much goes on, and the actual suspense is over by the fourth inning. We saw those games with Ann, too, and watched every pitch. Leaving early was never even mentioned. When you start a thing, you finish it, and when you love a team (or a person), the love is  not conditional.

It would be easy to say that Ann taught me about baseball as a metaphor for life, and so on, but she didn't, and it's a cliche, and Roger Angell has already said all that better than I ever will. And anyway baseball isn't much more of a metaphor for life than any other part of life is, and in some ways it's a less of one. (Life, for example, involves women. And men over forty. And doing your job when it rains.) What I learned about life on those trips I learned getting to and from the games. Ann was an adult, and lived in the city, and being with her I saw what adulthood and city life were like. She could not only find her way around Boston, but find a place to park. She could keep two kids under ten interested and occupied for two and a half days. She was the most streetwise person to ever set a good moral example for anyone, and she set a good moral example to most. Being around her taught me how to be an adult, and made me want to be kinder. When I graduated from college, it seemed natural to start my first adult job in the Boston Church: Ann's version of Boston, and Ann's version of the Church. The Catholicism that the sisters lived was, and is, the face of the Church that I found most comfortable and appealing. Reporting to a sister as my first boss made all the sense in the world.

And for all of the Hall-of-Famers we watched play, all of the dramatic hits and big games, my best memories are of sitting in the stands with Ann and my brother when nothing much was going on, sitting in Fenway and being together. I'd give a lot to sit with Ann through nine dull innings today.

Is baseball a metaphor for life? Is opening day a metaphor for spring and rebirth and new beginnings? Maybe. Sure. But when you come right down to it, baseball is an excuse to sit outdoors with someone you love. If it were nothing else but that, it would be enough.

Rest in peace, Ann.