Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On Pope Francis, "Marxism," and the Loss of Privilege

If you hadn't noticed from my intro for this past Sunday's sermon, I have thus far turned out to be quite a big fan of Pope Francis.  His pro-life appeals are couched in compassion, not simply doctrine, and his modesty and overwhelming concern for the poor has caused a lot of lapsed Catholic Christians to return to Mass.  I'm not Roman Catholic myself, but I'm all for more people coming on Sunday mornings to hear the Gospel proclaimed.

But Francis's papacy has thus far not been simply a bundle of sunshine and rose petals.  He has withstood withering criticism for throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water with his relational approach to religious leadership, and that trend culminated yesterday with everybody's favorite washed-up blowhard Rush Limbaugh accusing Francis of advocating "pure Marxism."

Now, far be it for me to actually dignify Limbaugh with a response, but I'm just a guy with a modest little blog, so it's hardly like me writing about this will keep it in the news cycle or anything.

But I really want to cut this myth off at its roots: the Bible is not capitalist.  Capitalism simply was not an economic system in Biblical times.  There is nothing Scriptural at all about the notion that capitalism is a divinely ordained economy.

That does not mean that there are not arguments to be made in favor of capitalism, but pretty clearly, unrestrained capitalism is an evil--as evinced by our need for child labor laws, a minimum wage, and many other workplace regulations (because you usually don't need to outlaw something that isn't happening to begin with).

And by the same logic, Scripture is not Marxist, either--Marxism likewise was not an economic system in Scripture or in Biblical Israel.

However: the "to anyone according to their need" maxim that often gets attributed to Marx is, in fact, a quote from the New Testament--Acts 4:35 to be precise.  The early New Testament church completely rejected the idea of private property in their earliest community-planting efforts, and their reasoning is abundantly clear in Acts 5; the story of Ananias and Sapphira demonstrated the potential for defrauding the church with private property transactions.

In other words, the early church was what we would think of today as...well, a commune.  Minus--one would hope--the didgeridoos and massive amounts of weed.

And that is to say nothing of institutions like the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25 in which all debts were cancelled and all land returned to their original owners.  It was a rule designed to prevent the rise of a landed oligarchy, as were the term limits set on an Israelite slave's enslavement in Exodus 21.

And so on.  The Bible is no macroeconomics textbook, but it frowns upon economic exploitation at every turn, and Pope Francis has certainly carried out that concern in his ministry thus far.

That being said, because Scripture isn't an economics treatise, I can empathize with another critique of Francis, this one from Fox News's Stuart Varney, who said in part, "I go to church to save my soul.  It's got nothing to do with my vote.  Pope Francis has linked the two."

I can empathize with this because I believe that when the chips are down, church really does have nothing to do with how someone votes.  I have both Tea Party Republicans and Prius-driving Democrats in my congregation and I am called by God to love them and minister to them equally.

But Pope Francis is not the first Roman Catholic or Christian leader to make church about someone's vote.  Priests are routinely told to deny Holy Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, a practice that to me borders on heresy because of my belief that Communion should be offered to all people who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  But you didn't hear those objections from folks like Varney because the church was enforcing a view he would have agreed with.

Which is what brings me to my final thought here for this post: that what is really happening here is a loss of privilege.  People who, ever since the ascendancy of Pope John Paul II in 1978, have had the ear of the papacy when it came to matters of social issues and religion in politics, are suddenly feeling cut out because this new Pope is not like the two who preceded him.

This quote from a New York Times article last month ecapsulates this perfectly: "It seems he is focused on bringing back the left that has fallen away, but what about the conservatives?"

What about the conservatives, indeed.  I'll simply say that a lot of progressive Christians know exactly how that phenomenon feels like, of feeling shut out by your own religious leadership.

Which isn't to say I think Pope Francis is trying to do that here.  He hasn't made any substantial changes to Catholic doctrine; what he has tried to do is make the church more open and inclusive, which I can only applaud.

But part of welcoming more people in means risking the privilege you previously had--a privilege like, say, having a pope you are in lockstep with.  More people means more worldviews and experiences, and more work to bring them around the common cause of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That work is not easy, and we should never pretend it is.  But it is far preferable to the alternative, in which the church continues to shrink and its influence upon peoples' souls and consciences continues to wane.

Yours in Christ,

Edit: I'd like to see what this fellow has to say about the Bible verses I cite here.  Jesus wasn't a capitalist.  He wasn't a socialist, either, but He certainly wasn't a capitalist.  Maybe He is crying big wet tears in heaven over us calling Him one, not over Pope Francis's theology.

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