Bernie Sanders and the Bible
Bernie Sanders speech last summer at Liberty University packed quite a wallop, at least for a couple of news cycles. According to a narrative popular on the progressive side of the spectrum, Senator Sanders voluntarily entered the lions den of the Christian right, at one its most redoubtable strongholds, and, speaking with civility and unrelenting honesty, sought to find common ground with the large felines therein. Sanders argued forcibly that Christian morality must be larger than the Evangelicals’ narrow focus on sexuality and abortion. He made a humane and scriptural case that morality must confront such social issues as income inequality, access to healthcare, and justice. I am not aware if a similarly consensual narrative exists on the far right, but many Christian right voices spoke appreciatively of his personal appearance and agreed to disagree.
Whether Senator Sanders picks up any electoral support among evangelicals remains to be seen, though one pastor’s response suggests that Sanders’ prophetic message hit home. It is unlikely that we will know until actual votes are cast, for the power and possibility of Sanders’ campaign continues to be inexplicable to the guardians of conventional political wisdom. They have no established category by which they might realistically predict his electoral support so early in the campaign. And, I predict, even after the first primaries, they will be unable to objectively report on his electoral strengths or weaknesses.
One particular Christian right response to Senator Sanders caught my attention. Matching Sanders’ respectful tone, Chris Queen argued points of policy with the candidate’s 13-point plan to combat income and wealth inequality. But what most startled me most was Queen’s supposedly scriptural conclusion that “God’s commands are not to enact government programs to take care of the poor and destitute; rather, He commands His people to take care of each other and enact justice as individuals and families and bodies of believers acting on their own obedience to Him.” Of course, I’ve heard this argument before, and usually have ignored it as irrelevant right-wing blather. This time, I decided to wander into the lions den on my own and consider the arguments of those self-proclaimed “bible believers” who populate the Christian right.
Like Mr. Queen, I am appalled. But not by Bernie Sanders’ 13-point economic justice platform. I am aghast at the ignorance of scripture on display in Queen’s rejoinder. His argument is based on the claim that Yahweh commanded his chosen people, the Israelites, to care for the poor. In Queen’s view, this is a personal ethical code to guide the actions of individuals and, by extension, their community of faith. Bodies politic, whether the Roman empire or the United States government or that of the individual States, was, in Queen’s view not part of God’s target audience for his moral preachments. For Queen, this fits neatly with his assumption that the Reagan-inspired mantra that “Government is part of the problem, not part of the solution” is Gospel truth.
What Queen conveniently forgot is that a large portion of the Hebrew bible (aka the Old Testament) chronicles Yahweh’s chosen people establishing a state, a government ruled by, with His blessings, a king. Queen also ignored the whole prophetic tradition in which God spoke through messengers like Isaiah and Amos in pronouncing his judgement on those Hebrew kings who did not follow God’s law and did not take care of the poor, of widows and of orphans.
Queen, Republic strategist David Bartonand fellow Christian Reconstructionists read scripture through the filter of their own political ideology. Therefore, in contrast to the teaching of Jesus and the prophets, they claim social justice is not biblical justice. Individuals and religious communities who care for the poor are dispensing grace, because they are giving something to someone undeserving. State justice, apparently, exists to protect the property of those who deservingly own the same.
Of course, Queen does not mention the shmita or Sabbath years established by the Torah, Jewish law: “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove” (Exodus 23: 10-11). Nor do they consider the Jubilee, the year at the end of seven seven-year cycles when slaves and prisoners were released, debts were forgiven, and all were allowed to return to the property that was once theirs (before they were forced from it by debt and early Hebrew versions of eminent domain).
I won’t even begin to consider how this Republican/Reconstructionist concept of grace is a horrific debasement of a core Christian doctrine based on the teachings of Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and many other fathers and mothers of the Faith. In this little rant of mine, I hoped to make it clear that so-called literal interpretations of the Bible end up showing themselves to be anything but.
NB: Click the cartoon to visit the very informative blog, In the Spirit of Jubilee, from which I liberated the image.