“Class Warfare” a political smokescreen, advocate for God’s Kingdom instead

Critics have cited President Obama's new job plan as inciting "class warfare" (picture courtesy of ABC news)

I was wondering how long it was going to take before we heard the words, “class warfare,” in the national debate about our economy.  As we continue to move deeper into election season, there will be plenty of rhetoric like this.  Christians will try to get into the debate one way or another, almost too predictably at that.

Read Jesus’ own words on economic justice, like that in Luke 14:33: “So therefore none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” and we generally get two responses from Christians.

One response is to take Jesus literally and advocate for communist-style public policy, while the other response is to engage in watered-down discipleship couched in private philanthropist elitism.

Unfortunately, both of these responses fail to dig deeper into the cultural nuances of God’s Word.  Just as “class warfare” is a relatively modern term, so too are the two options above–psuedo-socialist on the one hand, and private, individualist on the other hand–are ingrained, thoroughly western ideas.

Get at the history of some what Jesus was preaching, (like that in Matthew 19:21), and perhaps we can clear the air of some of our polarized partisanship and debates.

For one thing, wealth in the first century was a thoroughly communal construct.  What that means is that one’s resources had little to do with someone’s private stash.  What mattered most were the very public connections each family had within the community.  Wealth depended on who you knew and with whom you ate supper.

Bible scholars such as Bruce Malina argue that people in Jesus’ society were always looking back and forth, as it were.  Back to see who was behind them on the social ladder, and forward to see who they needed to befriend in order to keep progressing on that ladder.

This entire process played into the cultural dynamic of honor and shame, much like the honor and shame values indigenous in modern Oriental cultures today.  The goal for the first-century family was to gain greater honor within the community by marrying the right people and choosing well-to-do benefactors.  A person’s “wealth” was the sum of their resources and their honor.

Another important cultural key was how people in the first century saw resources in the first place.  Theirs was a “limited goods society.”  If you went to the market and purchased a can of green beans, that was one less can available for someone else.  It’s not like today, where you go into Publix and the stocker can get more cans from the storeroom if you purchase all the cans on the shelf.

What this means is that when the wealthy in Jesus’ day accumulated resources, they were doing so at the detriment of the peasantry.  In many cases, the very rich exploited the very poor (no middle class in Jesus’ day, mind you) in exchange for limited goods.

Jesus’ message, however, was one in which notions of honor went out of the window.  He lived the life of a peasant, denied any honor attributed to his family by redefining who his family was (“My mother and brothers are those who do God’s will”), and ate with “tax collectors and sinners” on a regular basis.

He preached social justice that ran counter-cultural to the norms of his day, and also “blessed” the very people who represented “shame” in his society, like the meek and the “hungry” (Matt. 5).  He told people to share so that goods would not be so limited after all.

If we can learn anything biblical about economic values, its that Jesus transcended class and preached Good News in which all people were to see themselves as gifted individuals partnering in a larger, God-centered family.  This proclamation was not as private or individualized as some conservatives make it out to be; nor is it easily translated into public policy like some liberals might hope.

Rather, God’s economic justice lies somewhere in the middle.  No matter where you fall on the political economic spectrum, Jesus’ call is always the same:  “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Matt. 10:39).

Changing the tone of political dialogue requires responsibility and courage

By Todd Thomason

I was out running errands on Saturday when news of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, first began to drift onto the airwaves. Four days later we are still trying to come to grips with the aftermath: six people (including a nine-year-old-girl) dead, thirteen others wounded, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords lying in critical condition after being shot in the head at pointblank range by a would-be assassin.

In Washington, the finger pointing began immediately after the official expressions of sympathy were issued, albeit with more subdued gestures than before the tragedy. Many, including many liberals, are blaming hardball politics propagated (if not instigated) by a sensationalist media—especially the violent rhetoric employed by some Tea Party politicians and conservative talk radio hosts. Others, including many conservatives, are denouncing the influence of secular society fostered by the “liberal agenda”, while denying any direct link between political metaphors and this all-too-real discharge of a handgun at twenty all-too-real Americans, including a member of the Democratic opposition. A crazy man committed a crazy act, they say, period. Problems with the current state of national and local politics constitute a separate issue.

Personally, I do not think we will ever be able to draw a straight line between the shooter’s actions and a particular political ad, speech, or sound bite. There is no evidence he had political motives.  A crazy man did do a crazy thing and he will be held accountable for it. However, I also find it difficult to assert that the ideological, disdainful, and at times extremist tone of our contemporary political discourse—amplified by a 24-hour news cycle and the Internet—did not contribute to this tragedy. It seems more than coincidental that this shooting occurred in Arizona, the same state in which Gabrielle Giffords’ Tea Party opponent in the 2010 congressional campaign invited voters to come fire an M-16 rifle with him, and in August 2009—in the thick of the healthcare reform controversy—a Tempe-based, right-wing Baptist minister told his church that he was praying for Barak Obama to die and burn in hell because he and the Democratic party were leading the country to ruin. A man who attends that church later turned up at a Presidential rally in Phoenix carrying an AK-47. Climate shapes what grows in us as well as around us.

Regardless of how much political rhetoric did or did not influence the Arizona shooting, I would hope we can all agree that politics hasn’t always been this way, it doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way. There are ways to have honest, robust political debate without demonizing those who disagree with us. That should be the way a democracy functions—especially one in which so many of the participants claim to be Christians.

So, the question then becomes: how do we change the tone? Taking personal responsibility for our political speech—and holding our elected officials accountable for theirs—is certainly an essential part of the solution. That said, politics is a game and politicians often say things they don’t necessarily believe in order to play that game. Responsibility in and of itself won’t be enough. We have to insist that they change the way the game is played.

In the wake of the horrific events in Tucson, I want to suggest (as odd as it may seem) that we, the American people, need to challenge a slate of issues all related to campaign finance reform if we want to affect truly positive political change. The Apostle Paul said that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6.10) and I can see more than one tendril from that root climbing the backdrop of this tragedy.

The increased venom and vitriol that we’ve experienced in the last fifteen to twenty years coincides with three major changes in the way we Americans allow our politics to be conducted. The first change is the shameless partisan redistricting of voting precincts—what used to be called gerrymandering. Democrats and Republicans have both used their legislative majorities to create voting districts in which the electorate heavily favors one party or the other, virtually ensuring that party will control that precinct. In any typical election year, more than 90% of the seats in the House of Representatives are “safe,” meaning that the political party that currently holds that seat will almost certainly retain it.

The second change is a direct result of the first: elections have become more about ideology than issues. Because so many congressional voting districts are practically guaranteed to go either blue or red, the election itself is a mere formality. The real contests now take place in the primaries where Republicans and Democrats determine who will be their party’s candidate in the general election. Those primaries almost always devolve into ideological duels about who is the “true” Democrat/Republican or the “real” conservative/progressive. If you’re wondering why moderates continue to disappear from Congress, this is why.

The third change, which has correlations to both gerrymandering and the pursuit of ideological purity, is that running for office has become exponentially more expensive than it was a generation ago. Each successive political campaign costs more than the last so that running for office now requires an investment of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. To lose is not just to lose an election, it is to lose a fortune. The stakes for the candidates have never been higher. Thus, I cannot help but wonder if the diatribes that now pass for stump speeches aren’t motivated by the need to convince one’s ideological base and one’s special interest underwriters to give generously of their money more than anything else. Personalities and ideas garner votes; but nothing generates cash quite like scapegoating, fear mongering, and brown-nosing.

These three changes, catalyzed by domestic and international crises as well as opportunistic leaders within both parties, have combined to form the political mess in which we now find ourselves. On good days business is conducted on strictly partisan lines; on most days the shouting, spinning, and name-calling drown out any substantive dialogue on even the most basic issues; and on bad days scandals are exposed, congressional offices are vandalized, and shots are fired.

Special interest politics has always existed in some form. It may well be the only political reality that has ever really existed. Nevertheless, special interest politics has never before existed on as large a scale; and with corporations now permitted to give unlimited amounts of money in undisclosed fashion, the scope of it is only going to get wider and the muck is only going to get deeper.

Unless, of course, we challenge it and change it. And we can—but only if we become as vocal, passionate, and serious about the polluting effects of money, ideology, and gerrymandering in our national political systems as we are about the polluting effects of other corporate residue in our backyard ecosystems. Politicians do still have to answer to us every two, four, or six years.

Let us honor the memory of those whose lives were ended or forever altered by the horrific events in Tucson by getting serious about the serious issues that lie at the roots of our political dysfunctions. We cannot have a civil society without a civil government. And we cannot have a civil government unless we, the people, insist that our leaders treat each other—and us—with respect and dignity. But they won’t do that as long as they are kowtowing to their donors rather than serving their constituents. I only hope and pray that the cold shower we need to finally sober up and get a move on won’t come in the form of another bloodbath.

Todd Thomason is pastor of First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, Maryland.  This article was originally published on his blog at Via Ex Machina.