Tag Archives: Religion and Politics

Thoughts Toward Sunday

The lectionary readings this week will be Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7 and Luke 16:1-13. I haven’t normally focused on the weekly texts, but this group was arresting.

 The texts for this Sunday’s reading are strongly fitting as a warning against the class envy and class warfare being promoted in current political action. Our president regularly castigates “the rich”and“fat cat CEO’s” and “greedy bankers.” Yet he himself lives like a very greedy showoff with parties and vacations back to back while scorning traditional American values such as hard work, personal integrity, and the ability to prosper in an environment that promotes free enterprise. Our president behaves as if his office is a mandate to destroy American prosperity that grows out of opportunity for all in the name of “spreading the wealth around.” His method for achieving this objective is to abrade the citizens with the notion that people who are poor today would be rich if only the rich had not stolen all the wealth. Any person who understands economics knows what a big lie this is. This week’s lectionary readings completely disassemble such a notion.

 To our president, Amos would say, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy.” Likewise to our congress. The policies and legislation passed by our national leaders have increased the number of “the needy” to record levels. (“Needy” means people living on incomes less than the current legal definition of the poverty level.) Our leaders continue to trample on the needy by pushing more and more people into dependence on government, while simultaneously stealing more and more of the nation’s wealth by oppressive taxation and by policies that make it impossible for free enterprise, the source of employment for everyone, to thrive. Further, our leaders refuse to do the work of government to protect the nation from invasion, choosing rather to encourage an invasion of illegal aliens by the means of a refusal to enforce immigration laws.

 Luke would say that these people are like the faithless manager. This man was accused of abusing the trust of his employer, and as soon as he was called to account, he proceeded to abuse that trust even more. When he ordered all the customers to reduce the amount owed on their bills, he quite literally stole the reduced amount from his employer. He did it to buy friends. Our leaders do the same thing by injecting the DREAM act into a bill to fund our national defense.

 What a perfectly ridiculous joke! To couple funding for defense with legislation that will legitimize the most destructive invasion we have ever experienced is an outrageously obvious attempt to buy friends from among the enemies of our nation’s already battered economy. The government leaders, like the steward who wanted to create a safe haven for himself, are buying votes, just as the “steward” bought friends, from the very people who are poisoning our economy, siphoning off the wealth of our nation to other countries and reducing the number legitimate job opportunities for legitimate citizens. Not to mention the overwhelming difficulty for law enforcement created by burgeoning drug merchandising and human trafficking coupled with the crushing load on American social services expected to serve people who ought to be demanding that their own country do a better job of serving them.

 Paul says that we should pray for people in high positions. He does not say that we should pray for them to continue to oppress us. Rather, we should pray that they will do their work of protecting us from foreign invasion and the work of keeping order domestically that we may be able to live in peace and prosperity.

 Psalm 113 puts it all in perspective. People dare not hope in the government we endure in time and space. This world’s institutions are temporary and broken. We don’t hope in government; we hope in God. We live our lives in relationship with God no matter if we are rich or poor in the time/space sense. We look at our lives in relationship with God, and we are rich. Our gratefulness for the fruits of that relationship enables us and motivates us to be kind and generous to the poor. We trust God to accomplish his sovereign purpose, and therefore, we live lives made righteous by God’s grace, loving and serving our neighbors as citizens of his kingdom.

 In the context of God’s kingdom, self-centered, arrogant, wicked government leaders will ultimately be judged for their failure to serve God and the people. As the proverb says, the wheels of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.

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Government is not God

In ancient Israel, citizens were persecuted for failing to honor Baal, the patron god of the government. It was considered tantamount to treason, because the government relied on Baal for success. One of the classic confrontations between government/god and heavenly God took place on Mount Carmel when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call down fire to burn their sacrifices to Baal. The fact that Elijah succeeded after they had failed did not change the government position in the matter. The government, and all its followers, continued to worship Baal and reject the God of all the earth. Serving God became a sure way to be chased into the wilderness where a person would likely starve or die of dehydration even if the government were unsuccessful in its pursuit.

 In the first century Roman empire, emperors began to claim status as deities, and that claim led to an expectation that citizens would worship the emperor. He claimed the authority and power to take care of citizens, and he expected thankful, respectful worship. Although merely an expectation or a politically correct act at first, it became a mandate and the excuse for persecution of those who did not worship the man claiming godhood. It was tantamount to treason to act as if the emperor were not a god.

 In twenty-first century USA, our government is increasingly taking on the role and expecting the worship of a god. It wants to deliver commandments, receive offerings and dole out blessings. Moreover, it wants worship, in the form of no criticism. So far, the expectation of compliance with government thinking has not progressed to the accusation of treason for those who disagree, but disagreeable speech is not well received. Historically, governments that began by suggesting that arguments against government are thoughtless progressed to actually censoring or forbidding free speech.

 There are Christian leaders, surprisingly, who seem to believe that government can, even should, be God’s agent to bring his kingdom to pass. They applaud a government role in social services for provision of food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education and transportation. They believe that when the government guarantees to provide for all human needs, it is creating the kingdom of heaven on earth. They seem to believe that when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come” that we are praying for the government to bring that kingdom to pass.

 The author of Revelation warns us in twenty-two riveting chapters of the futility of believing that government can replace God. John of Patmos was granted a vision that transported him into heaven where he could look back at the earth and the time/space continuum, and there he could see what becomes of a world in which people worship government instead of God. This world is full of ever-increasing chaos and destruction, all overseen by a bloated, besotted, whorish government that wants and needs the worship of the people who are being destroyed by the boulders that government oppression drags down upon them. The book of Revelation is completely relevant to our world today, not as a timeline for the end of the age, but as a real vision of what is happening right now.

 The big lesson of Revelation is that God does not call upon government to do his work on earth. He calls on his faithful followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless and share his love with everyone. God rightly expects that his followers will worship him, and those who love him rejoice in the opportunity to do so. Their worship and testimony pushes back the evil that runs rampant over lives and property when government replaces God in people’s hearts.

 The sad part of it is that some Christians seem willing to pay exorbitant taxes to government under the impression that all that money will bring the kingdom of God to pass. They forget that money we give to government seldom comes back to bless anyone. All that money builds bureaucracies and builds buildings to house bureaucracies and buys computers and papers to process the rules and regulations of bureaucracies. Very little of it ever gets into the hand of poor, starving, homeless people. Those who do receive any benefit have been so thoroughly demeaned by the process that they can never do anything more than survive to apply for more aid.

 Contrast this outcome with the results of the World Hunger Project of Lutheran World Relief. People who participate in this project are the beneficiaries of giving motivated not by tax laws but by the love of God and people. Of every dollar that LWR puts into this project, 92 cents is placed in the hands of the people the project helps. That money funds deliveries of animals and plants to farmers along with water projects and training in agriculture skills that increase productivity of both plant and animal culture. Families are not simply fed three times a day; they receive livestock and training that set them on a path to self-sufficiency. The family does not become dependent on the program. Rather, the program leads them to become independent of the program. They take away skills and encouragement to help others as they themselves have been helped.

 For that matter, contrast government charity with the results achieved by the Heifer Project, a completely secular and private project that also provides livestock and training for hungry people. The people helped by Heifer Project also are led to independence and self-sufficiency, unlike the sad dependents of government charity in housing projects across the country.

 The people who are “helped” by government become defeated and dependent. The people who receive help from projects like the World Hunger Project retain their personal dignity and become independent, self-sufficient, and prosperous. It is not government that brings the kingdom of God to earth. It is God’s people following the Holy Spirit in love and service to others.

 Government has an important role on earth, a role ordained by God. It provides security and good order to allow free people to thrive and to serve God in safety. Government clears the playing field for free commerce, providing opportunity, not benefits. Government has no God-given right to supersede the work of bringing God’s kingdom to earth. When we try to make government an agent of charity we only beggar both the taxpayer and the recipient. As Christians, we all need to work very hard to reverse the trend of trying to replace God with government by means of social programs. We should not put our faith in government. We must  put our faith in God and serve him obediently and faithfully, doing the work he calls us to do, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Social Justice God Wants

I hear politicians talk about social injustice all the time. They always bring it up in the context of an explanation for higher taxes and more programs. Right this minute, our president is asking for $50 billion to stimulate the economy. Sometimes it is about money for unemployment benefits or food stamps or other things. The stimulus program is supposedly justified by a crisis in our financial sector that had its roots in a government requirement to lend money to people who could not pay it back so they could buy houses they could not afford. Our country does a lot of things supposedly in the name of social justice.

My church friends mostly believe that the government ought to do these things. I must confess that there are times when I think the government does a good job of helping people with temporary problems. Where I truly diverge from most of my friends is that I do not believe that the church should advocate for social programs to be underwritten by the government. I also do not believe that the church, or any faith-based group, should apply for government money to fund their social programs.

I have two fundamental reasons for my position:

1. God created people free to choose to do good or evil. He did not create robots who can do nothing against his will. He created human beings who are so free that they can, if they dare, spit in God’s eye. There are consequences to their choices, but God never hampers their right to choose.

2. The government is a terribly poor steward of a dollar.

The United States was founded by people who believed that God created human beings, and they believed that God gave people individual liberty. They did not always like what individuals did with their liberty, but they firmly believed in that liberty. The hallmark of American history is the individual who tamed forests, prairies, mountains and oceans with a lot of will and energy. The whole structure of the Constitution is to limit the central government and prevent it from interfering with individual liberty. The Constitution was intended to specify the very few things the federal government could do, but lest anyone get confused about the intent, the first act of the new nation under the Constitution was to pass ten amendments, the tenth of which said clearly that the federal government could only have the power defined by the Constitution. All other powers were reserved to the states and to the people.

As an American citizen, I treasure my individual freedom. As a Christian, I treasure my freedom, also. One of the greatest blessings of Christian life is the freedom to try and fail and be forgiven and try again. God is unhappy when we make bad choices, but he loves us anyway.

My freedom as an American citizen and my freedom as a baptized child of God make me cringe when I hear church leaders talk about advocating for the government to tax every citizen in order to pay for programs that do the work of bringing about social justice that Christ would want. They glibly promote the idea that Jesus wants the poor fed and clothed and housed at government expense. I dispute that allegation. If Jesus had intended to change government into the instrument of his kingdom’s work, he missed a great chance when he made his speech about “render to Caesar.” No government on earth could have benefited more from the introduction of a social conscience than the Roman government, but Jesus chose to say that we give to God what is God’s, not to Caesar. What does that mean?

I think it means that if we want God’s work done, we should do it ourselves. To ask the government to do it means that many people who have not chosen to do God’s work of feeding, clothing and sheltering the poor are nonetheless obligated to do so. When the church is successful in advocating for social programs, and the necessary taxation, the church overrules the freedom God gave people to choose to participate in those costs and services as an act of love and service to him. The church is, therefore, acting in place of God by demanding compliance from people who have no desire to serve him. God always invites, but he never compels. Taxation not only compels, but it also oppresses.

Those who disagree with me point out that the government has more power to get the money and can, therefore, get more money out of people that we can elicit by invitation. This statement is quite true. It does not, however, provide justification for overriding the liberty of each human being to be charitable in his own way. Americans have demonstrated over and over that they are very charitable people, even though it is certainly easy to identify some holdouts. The fact that more could be done, however, does not justify the church in advocating for its vision of social justice to be paid for by all citizens.

However, my second point is that the government does not use the money it collects wisely. We citizens never see an honest accounting of what the government does with taxes collected for the purpose of social programs. If we did see such a thing, we would be appalled. We actually ought to ask the government to account for its money the way private charities are expected to account for theirs. If we actually saw how much of each dollar in government hands ever actually helps a hungry or homeless person, we would be angry. This is a major reason for not letting the government take our money away from us taxes. Far too little of it ever comes back to help the people who are suffering.

When I first grew old enough to make my own money decisions, my parents taught me to look carefully at the financial record of charities. Some charities, it turns out, squander money as if they were government agencies. Money donated to those charities turns into huge executive salaries, elaborate and expensive buildings, and nebulous benefit programs for the employees of the charities. Very little of their money ever feeds a hungry child.

On the other hand, some charities are excellent stewards of the donations they receive, putting more than 90% of the money into services and benefits for the people they serve. The Heifer Project is a prime example. The Lutheran World Hunger Project is another. Both of these charities operate on less than 10% of their donations. The rest of the money actually helps not only to feed people, but also to provide people the means to feed themselves into the future. No government program has ever demonstrated either the level of stewardship or the degree of benefit these programs provide. They do it without the use of force, i.e. the power of taxation, and they do it to the very great benefit of a lot of people.

There is one more thing to consider about using government money to achieve the church’s agenda. If the government pays the bill, the government runs the show. In a homeless shelter that operates without government money, a church can ask people to say grace before meals or invite them to a Bible study without apology. It is what churches do. If the government pays for the food or for the building, then the government can attach conditions to its money. The government might say that in the interest of separation of church and state, no prayers before meals and no Bible study in this building. We can protest all we want, but this is the government’s right if it pays the bills. Look at all the strings it attaches to federal highway money or school lunch programs. The government is quite assertive about the price recipients pay for government money. We may get that money without undesirable strings today, but those strings can become quite knotted by tomorrow.

I believe that God’s way of doing business is to call and empower and motivate and guide individuals who commit themselves to his work. I do not believe that it is God’s way to impose the power of the Christian agenda on people who disagree with it. It bothers me for my church leaders to be aggressive in this area. However, even if I thought it was a theologically sound idea, I would object because of the stewardship. If I give a dollar to feed hungry people, I don’t like the idea that the hungry only get a dime. That is the government way, not the way of Christian stewardship. If I give a dollar to feed the hungry, I am much happier when they receive at least 90 cents of it.