It’s only July, still about four months before the November elections, and I’m already tired of the political ads from both sides. Contrary to much of the current discourse, this isn’t new. Check out this 21st century retooling of the negative campaigning that happened in the 1800s where candidates attacked each other’s physical appearance, sexual appetites, and questioned their biological sex (yes, “hermaphroditical” was used to describe John Adams by Thomas Jefferson): Attack Ads, Circa 1800.
Another thing that isn’t new is the debate over how much tax the wealthy should pay, support for the poor and working classes, and the rights of corporations to pursue unlimited profits – at the same time, the purpose and value of higher education was questioned as proponents of a classical curriculum emphasizing breadth of knowledge meant to “discipline the mind” defended themselves against those advocating for a more utilitarian curriculum that would be directly connected to training for specific trades, particularly mercantilism (aka, business); see the Yale Report of 1828 and this article by Jack C. Lane in 1987. These same debates were also seen in the 1800s as neo-republican ideology swept the country advocating for the freedom to pursue individual success without the constraints of government. Wrapped in what Frey has called a mis-reading of Puritanical ethics, neo-republicanism was as much a religious ideology as it was a political one.
Frey argues for a closer reading of Puritan ethics that would reveal that individual success was always meant to be constrained by investment in the common good. Perhaps, but a close reading of the Bible itself would reveal that the current polarization of the right to pursue wealth against a populist support of poor and working class is far afield from the Christian ethics preached by the religion’s earliest followers.
The Common Lectionary for July 1st used in many liturgical denominations, including Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide, Lutheran churches, and Catholic parishes used Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth as the epistle reading for the week. Here’s a portion of the passage (if you want to read more – the selection begins at verse 7 – click here):
“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” 2 Corinthians 8:12-15, New Revised Standard Version
The passage is about voluntary giving or donations, not taxes imposed by the government in fairness to biblical exegesis, but I think there’s a larger point that is transferable between the two contexts. In Paul’s time, the government couldn’t be counted on to take care of the poor. In fact, poverty often led to enslavement. So the new communities that were forming to follow The Way – that’s what the earliest Christians called themselves as they attempted to practice the way of life that Jesus lived on earth – had to create their own structures of organization and oversight – what some might call government. There were leaders and representatives, folks (like Paul) who traveled to spread news about new policies and practices to be adopted. And during this time, the government – Rome – did impose taxes on its citizens and surrogates and typically the surrogates were under a heavier tax burden than the citizens, even though the citizens were usually far wealthier. So when Paul writes this letter to Corinth, pleading for them to give more because they had more, so that they could help the Christians in Jerusalem, he’s trying to teach them another means of following The Way. Later in this letter, Paul cites the Macedonians’ giving, which was greater than that of the Corinthians even though they were poor themselves. Again, Paul wasn’t asking for the Corinthians to become destitute in order to help some other folks, so that everybody would be poor, nor so that those being helped would end up with more than them. Paul wasn’t even asking for everybody to have the same amount either in a communistic (different from communitarian) economy – a common accusation by those who reject calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. Equal (a = b) and fair are not the same thing. Fairness and justice don’t always call for things being the same (sometimes they do though). Neither hard work nor inherited gain give anyone the right to hoard their wealth. What is the fair balance? I don’t know, but I know we don’t have it when there are people who are going into bankruptcy due to healthcare costs, who don’t have enough food to eat, who are living out of cars or on the street, while others have so much they literally don’t know what to do with it.
For me, it’s just that simple. I’m not asking for our government to be run according to my Christian ethics (we aren’t a theocracy you know), but I do allow my Christian ethics to guide my political stances and how I vote.1 I also want others who claim to be using Christianity to guide their political stances and voting records to think carefully and reasonably about their orthodoxy using the best biblical scholarship and thinking we have access to. I don’t hear that from most of the folks who are howling over how unfair it is to raise taxes on the wealthy and on highly profitable corporations.
This premise that no one has too much or too little isn’t unique to Paul and Christianity; indeed you can find it as a central premise in any communitarian ethic across religious and secular traditions. It’s also an ethic this country has practiced at times throughout its history and during those eras, we were a stronger nation that began to realize some of its greatness (see my thoughts about being a great nation in my earlier blog post from July 5th).
I want the “fair balance” that Paul calls for to become a reality in this country and right now, we don’t have it. We have a lopsided balance that I sincerely believe will threaten the future of this nation if left unchecked. Paying attention to European history (amongst other places around the world) will show that when things get so lopsided, the poor and working classes revolt and some folks in power lose their heads. Just saying – something to think about. I happily pay my taxes (although I don’t happily fill out the forms because those things are a headache) and would happily pay more if I earned more. It’s my responsibility to the common good, to be invested in the success of my whole community, not just myself.
“A rising tide lifts all boats” – at least it should anyway. But more so, when some boats are allowed to run aground while others sail on, safe harbor for anyone becomes hard to find.
A fair balance for our nation and a fair balance for our world. That’s what it means to live in community with one’s neighbors, whether down the street or across the ocean.
1 If you think you know what those are based on what you hear in the media, think again. I am comfortable identifying myself as a “progressive Christian.” For a short clip on what that means, check out Fred Plumer’s explanation (7:16 clip) or go to the website for The Center for Progressive Christianity.
Frey, D. E. (1998. Individualist economic values and self-interest: The problem in the Puritan ethic. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(14), 1573-1580.
Lane, J. C. (1987). The Yale report of 1828 and liberal education: A neorepublican manifesto. History of Education Quarterly, 27(3), 325-338.