just an apprentice

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...

Friday, June 09, 2006

End of school, economics, and how we read Scripture

Yesterday was the last day of school. I had an interesting conversation with a student that was even more intriguing in light of the Scripture reading from yesterday morning’s office.

It was the last period of the year. Shortened periods…students signing yearbooks…a pervasive euphoria bubbling through the hallways and classrooms with summer freedom just minutes away. A dedicated remnant had made the trek to school for the last day.

I was taking this all in…sitting in the classroom of a colleague…hanging around until noon to go out for lunch with some colleagues.

Perhaps it was the giddiness of the day, or maybe just the natural propensity to talk of an off the charts extrovert…that led one of the students to strike up a conversation with me while she waited for Sr. M. to sign her yearbook.

“Are you still a pastor?” asked T., a gifted student and daughter of Russian immigrants, and most probably a Christian.


“If a student wanted to talk to you about Jesus Christ after class...could you do that?” she continued.

“Yes…I would…and have had conversations along that line. If a student approaches me or asks me a question about my Christian faith or about spiritual matters…I believe I have the freedom to share what my personal belief I don’t view this as inappropriate, nor is it proselytizing or imposing my faith on others. Separation of church and state does not mean that I have to hide my faith and how it influences my view of the world and issues, particularly when students open the door with their questions.”

From that exchange we somehow got on to the subject of economics. She reported that she had been to a Hugh O’Brien leadership conference and that three out of four speakers had been socialists. According to T., the only capitalist that had been invited was there so that capitalism could be denigrated.

She said, “All the socialist speakers were telling us how it was bad to accumulate wealth…that we needed to be using our money to help the poor…”

Later in the day I was thinking about this conversation and my mind went back to the Scripture I had read in the morning office—Mark 10:17-27. I mulled over the words of Jesus, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

This passage is one that you would more likely hear on the “social gospel” side of the aisle. This is the stream of Walter Raushenbush, Muriel Lester, Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Wallis… This is not a passage that I associate with the likes of Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Richard Roberts….I say this in a spirit of love, without any delusion that I myself am living any more faithfully to the call of Jesus in this text. I just am making a point of how we read Scriptures and tend to focus on that which fits within our cultural context, our personal biases, etc.

If we are honest, I believe we have to acknowledge a tendency to read Scripture selectively. To give precedence to certain themes or interpretations based on many different things—not the least of which is our socio-economic footing. It is indeed tough to allow Scripture to speak and not reduce Christianity to the chamber of commerce…popular…feel good God talk that somehow avoids the more troublesome words of Scripture.

How do we read the Scriptures as capitalist Americans? Does our economic system distort our reading, or at the very least influence what sections of Scripture we focus on. In American capitalism, it is more common to focus on a reading of Scripture that honors the rights of the individual. Individual rights and freedoms is a big thing in our country. I’m not sure that the Gospel would begin with those as core values. So the health, wealth and prosperity reading of the Gospel in very individualistic terms is a distinctly American reading of the Gospel.

Christianity in the context of American capitalism is more apt to define and to judge sin in its private morality dimensions. Thus, we see the push to make the definition of marriage a political issue. It seems that in this latest round of debates in the political arena, the definition of marriage was used as a political strategy, and less as a theological issue. At the same time issues that Jesus talked about more overtly are not viewed as important issues where faith can speak to politics. Issues such as poverty, love for enemies, justice…

What does he mean when he tells the man of great wealth, “You need to do one thing more. Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Why is it perceived as a liberal social Gospel to read the words of Jesus in the Mark text and take them seriously? Jesus says more about the poor, about peace, and about justice than he says about sexual orientation.

Is the American Church willing to apply this teaching of Jesus to economics? Is it possible to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God and embrace the laws of raw capitalism? Jesus’ call to the wealthy man in this passage doesn’t seem to flow too well with the principles of capitalism. Is Jesus advocating a socialist ideology—“sell what you own and give the money to the poor?”

The words of Jesus to the wealthy man in the gospel of Mark are difficult ones. They are difficult, because they inevitably will produce a tension between the radical call of Jesus to “sell all and give to the poor” and the conventional wisdom of capitalist economics. Can this teaching be put into practice today? If so…how?

Pure capitalism, as I understand it, seeks to take compassion out of the equation. People get what they deserve. You work hard, get a good education, or become a productive member of society…you should have a good life. I don’t disagree with the notion that free-market capitalism is the most productive economic system that also honors human freedom and ingenuity. However, I think we should also say that the Gospel does not always fit nice and neatly into the principles of this system. The Gospel takes a much broader view of the human condition, while at the same time seeking to uncover the spiritual (personal/systemic) dimensions that contribute to pain and suffering in our world.

Do I benefit from capitalism? Yes! Does the Gospel call me to seek more than my self-interests? Yes! Does a Kingdom perspective require more than the default mode of consumption and materialist values that drive our lifestyle choices in free-market capitalism? Yes. Can some of the conditions of capitalism be appropriated for Kingdom purposes? Yes, if we have our eyes wide open, use discernment, listen well to Scripture, and not hold any delusion that the principles of capitalism stand above the values of the Kingdom of God for a Christian.

So what is behind this post? I guess it is just how I respond to various stimuli in my life--Scripture, conversation with a student, observing Christians speaking to government on the marriage issue.... The underlying issue I am raising is the tendency to read, to hear, and to apply Scripture to our lives and to culture selectively.

Jesus calls the Church to live attentively to the living Word—to allow the story to continue to shape us as we listen well. May we have the grace to listen well. And may our lives be more and more like Jesus Christ in every way.


  • At 12:34 PM , Anonymous dml said...

    Wow - what a powerful application of Mark 10! I appreciate it especially in light of some related topics I've been mulling around in my mind.

    I also find your student's comments fascinating . . . from the way you wrote what she said, it seems she was implying that she was not in agreement with what she was hearing. I do not know when her family immigrated, but it would be interesting to hear how she (or her family) feels about the current state of affairs in Russia.

  • At 6:23 PM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    Yes, it is safe to say that she was a tried and true capitalist...wary of any policy or ideology that would infringe upon her money. The idea that social policies with the aim of increasing opportunities for education and economic potential for the poor is anethema to this kind of viewpoint. This kind of hardline capitilism always refers to the "trickle down" effect of a healthy economy. I believe such a view is like entering a triage room with bandaids and tylenol. It is one thing to argue this policy from a ideological standpoint, but it is another thing to represent it as the way things work in the Kingdom of God--the upside down kingdom.

  • At 4:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Your post reminded me of the following quote from Archbishop Dom Helder Camera of Brazil:

    "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint.
    When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."



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