My main goal this year is to blog the entire New Testament. At 260 chapters, that’s less than a chapter a day. (By the way, did you know that the entire Bible can be read aloud in about 70 hours? Yet so many Christians have never bothered to read or listen to most of it. How many have watched every episode of Friends – a feat that would require roughly 90 hours?) A chapter a day is still a pretty tall order, since I am often distracted by other readings – today I bought a copy of Deer Hunting with Jesus and I can hardly put it down. (No joking, I’ll be posting on it soon.) Nevertheless, let’s aim for a year, and be happy if it takes no more than two.
We were last looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Pretty much everyone agrees that Paul wrote the first one in the 50s AD, but opinion is split on whether he wrote the second one shortly thereafter or if someone using his name wrote it around 40 years later. For our purposes, it really doesn’t matter – what is most important is to look at how Americans read it today, and how it influences our society and the political debate. Let’s look at the positive first.
My favorite verse in the letter in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” I can’t think of another Bible verse that would do more good for American society if it were whole-heartedly followed – nor of one that is so blatantly anti-capitalist. Paul is basically saying to consider others when you decide to do something, and make sure whatever you are doing is good for everyone else. Imagine how much better our society would be if we constrained our actions in this way. No one would cut you off in traffic. Your neighbor wouldn’t walk his dog in your front yard. A stock price wouldn’t rise when a company sacked a few thousand workers, because this wouldn’t be good for society as a whole.
Adam Smith assures us that the beauty of capitalism is that everyone can work towards their own self-interest, without giving too much thought to what effect it might have on everyone else. The invisible hand will somehow make this work out for society in general.
In my personal economic experience, it has been more of an invisible backhand, Stanley Kowalski in a wife beater undershirt. Perhaps for the 1%, this hand is more satisfying, more like an invisible hand job from an expensive escort. In any event, someone is wrong, as there is an obvious contradiction here. Either the Apostle Paul got this one wrong, or Mr. Smith did.
Is it possible that you can’t believe in capitalism and the writings of the apostles at the same time? It’s no problem if you’re intellectually lazy – you’ve never read the tenets of either. But if you sincerely want the government to run according to Biblical principles, you might have to say goodbye to Wall Street. We’ll find this sort of anti-capitalist sentiment even more prevalent when we start looking at the words of Jesus himself.
Paul also encourages all Christians to live moral lives – nothing wrong here, except that in modern American society, this is obviously more easily said than done. It seems every few years an influential pastor or preacher gets caught with his pants down. It shouldn’t be funny, but getting caught with the organist is always going to get a few laughs.
If I think of his admonishment in only general terms, this would definitely be positive. Who wouldn’t agree that we should all do our best to be moral? However, in real terms, which is to say political / legislative ones, this is something that is really tearing America apart. Who gets to decide what constitutes morality? The Catholics? The Mormons? Me? You? And – a question nearly as old as the Constitution itself – can morality even be legislated? While that question might appear to be rhetorical, the obvious answer is – no, it can’t. Ken Cuccinelli would disagree, but I think this is mostly because he’s pissed off about having a last name that sounds a lot like Italian for vagina.
Other problematic ideas in Thessalonians that we’ve already discussed include:
- a fatalistic attitude towards the future – if God has already ordained the way events will play out, there’s no need for government to try to solve critical national and international problems.
- a justification of clergy living parasitically off of the general population of believers.
- a tendency to declare one’s own thoughts and desires as ‘of God’, and those of others as against God.
- a highly developed sense of being persecuted by others.
- a schadenfreude, if not outright glee, at the thought of eternal punishment for those who disagree with Christians.
- a fear of / desire for the events of the apocalypse that could inspire self-fulfilling prophecies.
In short, there are many ideas in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians that could hurt us as a nation, and only one (largely ignored ) that would make America better. In my opinion, the worst thing Thessalonians does is lay the groundwork for a Christian ideology that isn’t interested in improving American society. If Jesus is coming back in my lifetime – what me worry?
Some Christians would say that these ideas are off the mark – that few Christians espouse these them. I disagree. It is the fact that these ideas have basis in the scripture that make them so dangerous. It’s not like the so-called fringe are pulling these ideas out of thin air – they can point to chapter and verse.
As long as a huge group of Americans think they’ll be meeting a magic man in the sky before their grandchildren graduate high school, it will be very difficult to make some of the tough decisions that our country needs to make – the outcomes of which will decide if we prosper or decline in the coming years.
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