When I was studying US history in grade school, I learned about something they called “civil religion,” a sort of nondenominational generic Protestantism, mostly, that melded Church and State, set the Flag and the Bible side-by-side, and seemed to have patriotism as its main doctrinal tenet. The way it was represented in those days, it was kind of an innocuous way of publicly acknowledging God without giving offense (even allowing, generally, for the inclusion of Jews and Catholics). In later years I have learned that this phenomenon remains alive and well, but is often now more closely associated with a somewhat belligerent version of “Christianity” than it is with the generic, nonspecific religion embodied in the carefully-worded daily prayers offered by, say, the Chaplain of the United States Senate. In this belligerent, sectarian, in-your-face version of civil religion, several things seem to be taken as articles of faith:
- * Patriotism remains paramount.
- * America is both the Chosen People and the Promised Land (I think this is referred to fondly as “American Exceptionalism” by the intellectual conservative elite).
- * Capitalism is presumed to be the only, indisputable, God-ordained economic system.
- * Accordingly, Private Property is Sacred.
- * The Bible, while it of course mostly supports all these things, is more concerned with teaching us right beliefs about personal (that is, sexual) morality. It gives no guidance to business or government except where it touches on these matters.
- * A more recent corollary seems to be that Christianity , which is to say, this American religion, is in competition with other world-views and other religions; and this competition, like the economic and military competition which this religion embraces, is a contest for dominance in the arenas of law, government, public discourse, and resources.
My problem with all of this, of course, is that I actually read the Bible, and profess a faith that has to do with Jesus Christ. The Bible I read actually includes a history of a people, a nation, and a lot of material about what is required of a nation that follows God; how it ought to govern itself. There’s quite a bit of material about economics, and about the uses and abuses of power, both political and economic power. There’s a great deal about how a nation is to treat its poor, its powerless, and its neighbors; about whether private property is indeed an absolute value (it is not).
And Christianity is about following, not just admiring, Jesus, and doing what he does: loving the world God made, and the people within it, serving (not being served), preferring to suffer rather than inflict suffering, sacrificing self for the sake of those God loves. Paul talks about wanting to share His suffering; adherents of modern popular religion often seem to have a different kind of ambition.
So today I want to focus on just one little thing, to illustrate how far we’ve come from biblical principles. Let’s talk about private property.
The story of a people escaping oppression and receiving a good land, driving out its inhabitants before them, and obtaining an inheritance for each of the families of the new people being established: this could be the story of the conquest of Canaan, but it is also the way the story of the conquest of North America has often been told.
So let’s go with that, for the moment, flawed parallel though it may be. What was the relationship of the people to the land?
First of all, the entire land belonged to God: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Pious, empty-sounding religious words? No, an economic principle: All land, and its produce, belong to God. No property is private. It was God who made sure each family had an inheritance on it. In acknowledgement of this, they were called upon to offer tithes. Not only that, they were forbidden to fence off their lands, and were not allowed to go over their fields a second time after harvesting, and the same was true of the grape vines: “you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: for you were aliens in Egypt.”
That’s right. Poor people and foreigners were expected to trespass on the homesteads of farmers after the harvest and pick up whatever was left over (the “gleanings”) after the harvest, for their own use, and no one was allowed to prevent them from doing this. The reason? The earth (the land) is the Lord’s.
A touching example of this practice is recorded in the book of Ruth. Ruth, a foreigner, an alien, a Moabite woman (whose people were under a curse to the tenth generation) collected grain on the property of a wealthy landowner, Boaz. This Ruth, by the way, became the great-grandmother of David. David was thus of mixed ancestry, and according to the strictest readings of the law (“No Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord, unto the tenth generation”), neither he nor his son Solomon nor some generations beyond that should have been eligible for citizenship, let alone leadership of his country….. but I digress. Let’s get back to a foreign woman trespassing on private property to take some of the produce that had been grown there.
How would that go over in our version of the promised land? Do those advocating a return to the Bible press for this kind of economic reform?
Next came the matter of debt, and here the rule was very simple: All debts were to be forgiven every seven years. Period.
Many years and much watering down later, we now begrudgingly allow some debts to be released, maybe once in a person’s lifetime, if and only if they accept a blot on their economic record that lasts at least seven years. And I am willing to bet that a lot of “Bible-believing” Christians are pretty sure that anyone who takes advantage of this provision is a victim of his or her own moral failure, and ought to be ashamed.
Now, along with requiring all creditors to release the obligations of all debtors once every seven years, without exception, the biblical law also expressly prohibited the accumulation of extreme wealth: “Woe to those who add house to house, and field to field!” Christian America, are you listening? To implement this, there was a provision that once every fifty years (seven periods of seven) any family who had sold their own homestead to pay off debts would have that property returned to them, free and clear. This was expressly to prevent the accumulation of wealth by some at the cost of the permanent impoverishment of others.
Me, I’m just reading my Bible. And all I want to ask is: does the popular religion that passes for Christianity in America really have anything to do with Jesus, the Bible, or Moses?
Before you rush at me with an answer, go read the Bible. I did. Cover to cover, and again, and again. Paying special attention to the words of Jesus. Oh, by the way, his take on economics? Let me quote a few sayings (words of Jesus in red, because, well, it’s the Son of God speaking and it ought to stand out):
Give to him who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who would borrow from you.
Give, and it shall be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, shall be poured into your lap.
Freely you have received, freely give.
Sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.
You will always have the poor with you, and you can help them any time you want to.
[on whether to pay taxes to an unjust, unrepresentative, oppressive government] Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; and to God what belongs to God.