Things haven't changed: "The analogy of humans to lilies, for instance, suggests -- along with many other injunctions -- that things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time." (Christopher Hitchens, 'god is not Great, p. 118).
"In particular, it is absurd to hope to banish envy of other people's possessions or fortunes, if only because the spirit of envy can lead to emulation and ambition and have positive consequences. It seems improbable that the American fundamentalists, who desire to see the Ten Commandments emblazoned in every schoolroom and courtroom...are so hostile to the spirit of capitalism." (Christopher Hitchens, 'god is not Great,' referring to the 10th commandment, p. 100).
Martin Luther, the reader will recall, said that we are 'beggars all.' Colonel Ingersoll was consistent in his disdain for beggars. Not only did he think poorly of those who eat unearned bread in this life, but also of those who attain heaven unearned, relying on "the goodness of another," i.e. the substitute, the scape-goat, Jesus. He condemns those who gain heaven unearned, though none gain those shores on any other basis. Colonel Ingersoll said of the man who "lives to his ideal":
"He asks for nothing he does not earn. He does not wish to be happy in heaven if he must receive happiness as alms. He does not rely on the goodness of another. He is not anxious to become a winged pauper." (Robert Ingersoll, The Best of Robert Ingersoll, pp. 94-95).
Heaven will be populated by none but winged paupers! These atheists are consistent in their attitudes, while many Christians are not. If we despise beggars, while yet we are 'beggars all,' we despise ourselves and complain of the gift of our salvation.
The case which the Religious Right makes against governmental assistance to the poor centers around the idea that the Bible forbids the government to assist the poor, though undeniably enjoining such assistance upon private individuals:
"Anyone who has actually studied and taken the 'precepts of Jesus' to heart knows that Jesus taught us to be personally charitable. This is fitting with Christ's testimony that his was not a political kingdom, but a spiritual one (John 18:36). He came to conquer not earthly thrones, but the human heart.
But this view overlooks the fact that the Bible contains an entire law-code which does mandate "government-sponsored theft," i.e. mandatory redistributions of wealth from those who have it to those who don't. These ordinances were not optional:
It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to criminalize observance of the Mosaic law, though of course a theocracy is only a theocracy when God founds it, not when man does. All of the condemnations the prophets thundered against Israel fall within this context: you are oppressing the poor when you don't do those things which are enjoined by the law of Moses:
"The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully. . . Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the Lord GOD." (Ezekiel 22:29-31).
We are prone to read passages like these with the assumption that 'robbing the poor' means what we would count as 'robbing the poor,' which would have to be pretty dire because we allow things Moses does not allow, such as foreclosure resulting in permanent alienation of ownership. We do not keep ownership of real property open in spite of failure; we do not clear the decks every fifty years and go back to Square One, as Moses does. It is because the nation of Israel failed to do these things, which we do not in any way expect the wealthy to do, that the prophets accuse their neighbors of 'robbing the poor.'
Study of Israel's history suggests that observance of these very generous social welfare provisions was spotty at best:
"It dictated the Mosaic institutions of the seventh year of release and the Jubilee year for the restoration of fields and houses, to prevent the tyranny of wealth from becoming a permanent source of oppression. Wile these were scarcely ever put into practice, they remained as a protest and an appeal." (Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology, p. 488).
The Book of Jubilees, written prior to the gospel era, lists the Jubilee amongst Moses' enactments which were not being observed correctly, in the estimation of the author: "And they will forget all My law and all My commandments and all My judgments, and will go astray as to new moons, and sabbaths, and festivals, and jubilees, and ordinances." (Book of Jubilees, Chapter 1, 14-15, translated by R. H. Charles).
By the time we get to Rabbinic Judaism, these provisions become a dead letter. Many of Hillel's 'liberal' innovations were imaginative end-runs around the social justice legislation of Moses. Nevertheless the letter stands; this was God's law, to be obeyed, not evaded. While the civil provisions of the Mosaic law are not directly binding upon Christians, it must be assumed God has not changed His political perspective in the interim.
It is surprising but true that many Christians nowadays borrow their thinking about wealth and poverty not from the Bible, but from popular right-wing authors like the atheist Ayn Rand:
For reasons unknown, many Christians today will choose an atheist in a flash over any theist when it comes to matters political or economic. They prefer Ayn Rand to the theist John Maynard Keynes, who devised a way to tamp down the business cycle. Capitalist economies have always been plagued by a boom-and-bust cycle. Wherever such economies are planted, whether in Europe or Singapore, the progress of their production shows as a straight line upward only in the most charitable soft focus. In detail it is a roller-coaster ride. The downturns are hard, killing people's dreams of a decent retirement, wiping out savings and destroying businesses. There seems to be something ingrained in human psychology that entices people to predict that 'current trends will continue:' if gold prices are going up, for example, people assume they will continue to rise on a straight line and invest accordingly. But nothing ever rises on a straight line; things revert to the mean, and the real chart will always look more like a sine wave than a straight line. By predicting according to the 'straight line' paradigm, people will always overbuild and overproduce in the boom, and undershoot, hiding their money in the mattress, during the down years. Just as a flock of birds in flight display complex, balletic patterns produced by the simple rule that each bird strives to maintain a constant distance from its neighbors, so the business cycle may be produced by economic actors stubbornly predicting that present straight-line trends will continue.
Keynes suggested setting up a counter-cycle, where government spending acts as a counter-weight to the private economy's gyrations. In good times the government was to run a surplus, in bad times operate at a deficit. This tamps down and smooths out the private economy's unwelcome oscillations, as well as providing much-needed relief and employment through public works during the depressions. (Classical Keynesianism ran into a brick wall in the 1970's, when we Americans found it possible to combine inflation with economic stagnation, two things which are not supposed to go together in the classical theory, so Keynesians today have a 'neo' prefixed to the basic paradigm.) This pragmatic, workable idea is hated by ideologues of the Ayn Rand persuasion. Why? What is wrong with what works?
It is sometimes asserted by these conservative political commentators, for what reason I am not completely sure, that no pagan government in antiquity ever provided welfare to the poor. This simply isn't so; isn't it a common-place that the Roman government anesthetized the poor with 'bread and circuses'? Many of these states did provide an upkeep for those unable to provide for themselves:
"The Council also examines infirm paupers; for there is a law which provides that persons possessing less than three minas, who are so crippled as to be unable to do any work, are, after examination by the Council, to receive two obols a day from the state for their support. A treasurer is appointed by lot to attend to them." (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Chapter 49).
This was not uncommon or distinctive,
"The Rhodians, although their form of government is not democratic, are attentive to the welfare of the people, and endeavor to maintain the multitude of poor. The people receive allowances of corn, and the rich support the needy, according to an ancient usage. There are also public offices in the state, the object of which is to procure and distribute provisions, so that the poor may obtain subsistence, and the city not suffer for want of persons to serve her, especially in manning her fleets." (Strabo, Geography, Book XIV, Chapter II, Section 5, Volume III, p. 30).
Since Moses' God-inspired polity did without controversy mandate communal support for the disadvantaged, I'm not sure why the practice of pagan governments interests these commentators, but if they think it is important, they ought to get it right.
Since there is so much material in the Bible favorable to the poor, one would think those who want to uphold their cause could not be held back from looting this treasure-trove. What could be better than leaving the right-wingers to argue with Jesus? The 'red letters,' even! Unfortunately nothing good happens when Democratic politicians quote the Bible. Some may recall from the lovely old hymn that God is the "Help of the helpless" (Abide With Me). Others beg to differ; reportedly Joan of Arc said, "Aide toy, Dieu te aidera:" "Help yourself and God will help you." Certain Democratic hacks think the Bible says 'God helps those who help themselves:'
Many churches teach that the Old Testament tithe is still binding on Christians today. Is the requirement for church members to contribute ten percent of their income to the church Biblical?
During the 1970's this country experienced double-digit inflation. As the currency lost value, lower-income tax-payers were relentlessly pushed into higher brackets intended originally for wealthy people. This was a lazy legislator's dream: yearly tax increases without ever having to vote a tax increase, always an unpopular measure. Belatedly, legislators woke up to an angry public demanding relief, and reduced the tax rates, or rather brought them back down to where they were before inflation had kicked everyone into a higher bracket. Even poor people, never intended as a target of the income tax, had to pay. One Solon of the day remarked, the best anti-poverty program the government can devise is to cease taxing people into poverty! In a similar vein, the best thing churches concerned about helping the poor can do is to cease demanding 10% of their income, a demand the Bible nowhere makes.
It is certain, from the Bible, that God specially loves the poor. But why does He prefer them to the rich?
Different theories have been evolved to account for God's choices, which may seem unaccountable by human reckoning. One group, the Calvinists, are prone to argue that God chooses the poor preferentially simply because this group is unworthy and unlikely, thus displaying His arbitrary sovereignty. He cannot possibly be choosing the poor, because they are unattractive, rather he chooses these people because they are precisely the people He, and we, would never choose! Others argue that this choice, which God makes with a fair degree of consistency according to the Bible, can only be explained by human psychology, showing that it is not really God's choice at all, rather the poor choose God, maybe figuring that they have little to lose:
"Of course, if Jesus were a Calvinist, He never would have suggested that it was harder for rich persons to be saved by God's irresistible grace than poor persons. Their wills would be changed immediately and invincibly upon hearing God's effectual call. It would be no harder for a rich person to be saved by God's monergistic and irresistible calling than it would be for any other sinner. But the real Jesus was suggesting that their salvation was tied in some measure to their response and commitment to His calling." (Whosoever Will, David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, p. 121).
Notice how hard it is for both parties to the debate to fathom that it really is God's choice! They see nothing appealing in weakness and failure. Why does God?
While some people try to make Jesus into a disciple of Ayn Rand, other place a red beret upon His head and consider Him as a "peasant revolutionary." This reconstituting of the 'historical Jesus' in the direction of Che Guevara is accomplished by the usual means, that is by subtracting what does not work for them, leaving only what features they like. The law of Moses however forbids accumulation of land by the collective just as stringently as it applies to Roman proprietors of latifundia. The Bible fact that the land belongs to God does not mean it belongs to the government or to the commune.
There is an alternative universe, believed to be real by aficionados of the contemporary 'Jesus' publishing industry, in which the world of the first century Roman empire was a static, inert, timeless 'agrarian' society, just like imperial China. Was it really this way? Did the ancient Roman world suffer under a 'caste' system like one finds in contemporary India? Consider Agathocles, who aimed early in life at the dream of being a pottery-maker: "Since he was poor he taught Agathocles the trade of pottery while he was still a boy." (Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Book XIX, 2.7. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Classics) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Location 22270).) The democracy in Syracuse elevated him to power; he promised land redistribution and forgiveness of debt, both of them Jubilee themes, both of them very popular in the world of ancient democracy: "On the other hand, many of those who were poor and involved in debt welcomed the revolution, for Agathocles promised in the Assembly both to abolish debts and to distribute land to the poor." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book XIX, 9.5). From very humble circumstances, he rose to the heights of that society. The people who lived in that world were not aware they lived in a world where one's destiny was determined by the circumstances of one's birth; rather, they used to talk about the "fickleness of fortune:"
"And it was with good reason that these emotions were shared by all who then beheld the reversals in Eumenes’ fortunes; for who, taking thought of the inconstancies of human life, would not be astonished at the alternating ebb and flow of fortune?. . .For human life, as if some god were at the helm, moves in a cycle through good and evil alternately for all time. It is not strange, then, that some one unforeseen event has taken place, but rather that all that happens is not unexpected. This is also a good reason for admitting the claim of history, for in the inconstancy and irregularity of events history furnishes a corrective for both the arrogance of the fortunate and the despair of the destitute."
Now, it turns out, that plundering the possessions of the rich led to lasting prosperity in those days no more than it did when the twentieth century Bolsheviks took the same line. And just as the people burdened down by the tyranny of Josef Stalin wondered what they had found so oppressive in the genial old Tsar, the Sicilians realized they had been more free when they were oppressed than after their liberation, and that in fact all the revolution had accomplished was to bring in a new elite, a nomenclatura, even more rapacious and avaricious than the old aristocracy. In Rome, Catiline plotted to effect a Bolshevik style coup; it was Cicero's moment of glory when he unravelled the conspiracy and squelched the plot. All his life he suspected there was one unindicted co-conspirator who got away: Julius Caesar. If you trust the offerings on 'history' put out by the Harper Collins publishing house, you wouldn't know that the founder of the Roman imperial system, the first Caesar, was somewhat of a pinko. Wasn't he the Chinese emperor who wanted to make sure the peasants stayed in their place? It's a shame when impressionable young people can't see through this type of material:
The framework for Crossan's revision of Jesus' preaching is the do-it-yourself approach. For God's Kingdom to come does not require the skies to split open; rather, if everyone acted according to Kingdom ethics, the Kingdom would in substance already be here. What hinders the Kingdom is not any immovable mountain or state of nature, it is just the way people behave. Certainly there is some truth to this: while some ills will take a Divine hand to heal, other wounds are self-inflicted. It cannot be expected that everyone will adopt Kingdom ethics all at the same time: there will be freeloaders, and there are ever the wicked oppressors trying to gain an advantage. So the first adopters might be asked to go beyond reciprocity onto self-sacrifice, to make up for the non-compliant. So, according to Crossan, Jesus and His fellow 'peasants' thought that, as far as concerns the Kingdom coming, we can do it ourselves. (His 'Jesus,' of course, is no more than human solely, and an "illiterate peasant" at that.)
What is Crossan's end game, his stopping-point when the 'Peasant Revolt' is deemed to have succeeded? He is unfortunately fuzzy on this point, leaving it to speakers quoted to mouth the ideal. I cannot think why he would not rather have offered clarity, other than to maintain deniability. The reader can only surmise it is communism, communal ownership of the land, because no other desideratum is presented to counter his pleading communist Sicilian woman. He seems to consider the modern European Union and the United States as little better than ancient Rome when it comes to oppression and imperialism. The perplexed reader may object at this point, if devotees of Ayn Rand and communists can both insist Jesus was on their team, His social teaching must have been very obscure and poorly defined. Oddly enough, it's not.