Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jesus was not a Free Marketer

I'm going to take a brief break from politics and return to my old stomping ground of religion. Now, I know, in today's day and age, there's not a whole lot of light between those two topics, but, let's just assume some sort of divide...a wall, maybe...that kind of, you know, separates the two.

Anyway, I want you to take a moment and go read this. It's an article by Tony Perkins over at the Family Research Council, about how Jesus is a free-marketer. I know, just go read it. We'll discuss after the jump.

I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I know that you can feel it in your head - your IQ has dropped. Yes, this article is weaponized stupidity, and you are literally dumber for having read it. I'm so, so sorry. Now, most of the time, I'd read something like that, mutter "Idiot..." and move on. But I feel like this is different. This is special some how. Some strange confluence of religion, economics, and politics has swirled into a primal vortex, from which screams an eldritch beast out from the depths of Tony Perkins' black soul, crying, nay, begging for an answer. A hero. Dovahkiin, if you will. So, here I stand. I may not be the one you wanted to reply to this, but perhaps I am the one you needed.

Let's go through this step-by-step.

Here's the parable he's discussing:

11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas.[a] ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

The context of this parable is that Jesus and his disciples are going into Jerusalem. It's near the end of the book of Luke (chapter 19), and if anything, this parable is pretty clearly about Jesus going to die soon, and how the disciples should live after that. Namely, it's often interpreted in terms of "spiritual gifts," that is, go out and convert, or share your skills and talents. Don't hide them. It also explains that though the Kingdom is coming, it won't be immediately, and it's not going to happen in the way the the contemporary Israelites believed. That's fine. I don't have much of an issue with Perkins' interpretation of that bit. Now, he does choose to use the King James version, because it contains the translation of "Occupy," as opposed to "Engage in business" or "Put this money to work." Fine, "Occupy," it's a relevant topic at the moment, and it helps his, okay. After that, however, this article really goes off the rails. Now, a note. I'll be using the word "conservative" a lot in this post. What I mean by that is essentially the current, radical conservative that could be exemplified by the Tea Party, the majority of the Republican party, the majority of the Republican presidential candidates, and quite a few of the really far-right religious blocks in the United States. This gives me a little wiggle-room, so I want to be clear, this isn't all conservatives, but I think it is representative of the most vocal block of people calling themselves that.

First, he claims that the Occupy movement has taken over and "trashed" public property. While there are some examples of this, it is also clear that the Occupiers are willing to clean up after themselves, and often times, they don't have much of an option if local businesses refuse to allow them entry or use. Likewise, I'm sure there were a lot of conservatives who made similar claims about Hoovervilles...I mean, hell, they set up tent cities and protested their government. Sorry, guys, but this whole Occupy movement has deep precedents.

Now, Perkins will admit that the minas probably represent opportunities in life and abilities. Fine, great. But he misses an important point, one that conservatives love to gloss over. He says that Jesus gave each of his 10 servants equal responsibility and opportunity. Number one, a minor point, if he's talking about Jesus and not the guy in the parable, then he had 12 disciples, not 10. If he's talking about the guy in the parable, then that guy had 3 servants, not 10. I don't know where the 10 comes from, but whatever.

The more important point is that we do not have equal opportunities. Now, i know, the usual conservative screed is that liberals want equal outcomes for unequal participation. No, not really. What we would love to have is equal opportunity. Conservatives will claim that we all have equal opportunity, because the Constitution and Declaration of Independence say that we're all created equal and endowed with equal rights. Now, granted, they do a lot to bar those "equal rights," but whatever. The real issue is that, while that is a great sentiment, it is simply not true. Due to the circumstances of your birth, your location, the connections that your family has, the color of your skin, your gender, and a host of other factors, there is not, in practice, equal opportunity for all. Statistically speaking, the lower the socioeconomic class of your family, the lower your likely socioeconomic class as you age. We have a lot of speeches about the American Dream and rags-to-riches stories, but those are relatively rare, and class mobility has all but stopped (except in the downward direction) in the past couple of decades. So, you can say "Well, we're all created equal, and hey, I started out poor and worked my way to the top. Anyone can do it." Well, potentially, but that's a little misleading. It's true, anyone could, in the sense that the next rags-to-riches story could be about anyone, but in terms of likelihood for any individual, it's very low. Wages for the middle class and poor have been stagnant for the past 30 years, while those for the upper income bracket have skyrocketed for more than 200%. So, we're literally in a situation of riches-to-riches, and the chance of you working your way out of a poor neighborhood and becoming fabulously wealthy is actually quite low.

Perkins claims that Jesus chose for the basis of this parable the free-market system. That's funny to me. For one, free-market capitalism was not a concept that existed in that era of Palestine. The general consensus among economic historians is that free-market capitalism did not really begin to emerge until the Medieval period in Europe, which is notably later than the time period of Jesus. So, sorry, no, Jesus did not chose the free market as a basis for his parable.

Perkins continues to argue that the first servant, the one that got a return of 10 minas, had invested his money and got a nice return. Well, maybe...but I think the terms of investment in this sense is very different from the one that Perkins wants to argue. Moreover, he goes on to claim that it probably took a lot of diligent effort and attention. Well, at that time, probably it did. Now, however, you can play the stock markets - essentially legalized, large-scale gambling. Chance is the ruler of the day, as well as deep-seated fraud and corruption. So, granted, you can poor over stock reports and the news every day and you might get by in the market...or you can join league with speculators, short-sell stocks that you know to be worthless, and make a ton of money on the back end. I'm sure Perkins will argue that Jesus would be very proud of the bankers who short-sold worthless mortgages and crashed the economy. They made a huge profit, and that's what counts, right?

The second servant has much the same story, but the third servant...well, here's a special case. See, that third servant, he knew that his master was a bit of a shady operator, and didn't want to piss him off (which amuses me, as Perkins claims that the master is a stand-in for Jesus), so he basically hides the money and gives it back to his master after he returns. The master is really angry, both because the servant calls him out on his bad behavior, but also because he didn't do anything with the money. Instead, he takes the money from this "wicked servant" and gives it to the richest one. Now, that's exactly the kind of stuff that has been going on in this country over the past few decades, and I know Perkins has gotten quite wealthy from his position, so I can totally understand why he wants to defend taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich (I mean, it's basically the business model of his organization, so, there you go), but I don't think most people consider that to be very, you know, moral.

Mr. Perkins also goes on to praise how the parable shows some of the great qualities of the free market system - for example, there are winners and losers. And, according to Mr. Perkins, parroting one of the biggest conservative lines ever, the "winners are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual." Now, for all the reasons that we've discussed above, and more, that is simply not always the case. He wants to save himself from that criticism by saying that "some egregious abuses have" occurred, they aren't inevitable or intrinsic to free enterprise, and that the parable endorses the principles of the free market properly employed. Well, no it doesn't (again, free market economies didn't exist at the time in the same way that they do now), and actually, the abuses that we've seen are intrinsic to the system and are inevitable given the way it's currently set up and running. They aren't that "occasional" either, Mr. Perkins. Oh, if we just practiced it being bridled by "transcendent moral principles," we'd all be fine. Well, that's great, but it's not going to happen. In fact, you're really arguing against yourself at that point. If you truly believe that the free market, bridled by morality, is the best system, you should be all for regulation to ensure that the market actually is accountable to that morality. I mean, the master does return and audits his servants, no? The market, and corporations, are not immoral or moral. They are amoral, by their very definitions. They have a legal and contractual obligation to generate as much profit as possible for their shareholders and hence are profit making machines. A machine does not care if you get hurt using it. A machine does not care at all.

Oh, yeah, sidenote about the end of the parable, the master (who is now king) also commands that everyone who didn't like him be brought before him and executed. I can see why conservatives love this parable. "Take money from the guy who knows that you've done bad stuff and give it to those who are rich? Sweet! And kill people?! Awesome!! Yeah! Jesus is so hardcore!"

Perkins then goes on to say that "Jesus rejected collectivism." Now, that really interested me. I seemed to remember that Jesus wasn't particularly wealthy, he spent a lot of time with twelve other not particularly wealthy guys, and I seemed to recall a bunch of stories and events (i.e., most of the rest of the New Testament...hell, most of the rest of the Old Testament), which really seemed like Jesus was kind of a collectivist.

Also, hilarious Mr. Perkins, you're so funny. You're going to trash collectivism, but corporatism, one of the most prominent examples of collectivism, he's just fine with. Hah!

So, was Jesus a collectivist? I'm not sure I'd use that term exactly, but he sure as hell was not a free-marketer.

For one, we have the feedings of the multitudes. On two occasions (one reported in all four Gospels, one reported in only Mark and Matthew), we see Jesus take a small amount of food and miraculously feed everyone. Note, not feed those who were wealthy, and not feed those according to how much work they had, he took the total amount of food that they had and distributed it evenly to everyone, regardless of their status, job, or anything else (Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17, Matthew 14:13-21, John 6:5-15; Mark 8:1-9, and Matthew 15:32-39). Huh...that's weird. Rewarding people with the same outcome by distributing everything evenly after having pooled all their resources together...that sure doesn't sound like a free marketer. Maybe you should have chosen this story, Mr. Perkins.

Oh, how about this one, from Matthew 5:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If a man wants your shirt, give him your coat as well? Don't turn away from one who wants to borrow from you? Give to those who ask? What? None of that sounds like the free market, does it Mr. Perkins? Aren't you arguing that the Occupiers just want to trash things and want hand-outs, and that Jesus would have tossed them out? Even though you'd be wrong about your characterization of the Occupy movement, it also looks like your whole argument is just...wrong.

While we're on the subject of tossing things out, how about this, from John 2:

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade." 17His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."

Or this, from Matthew 21:

12 And Jesus entered the temple[b] and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers."

Huh...sure doesn't sound like he was too happy at those making a profit around the Temple. Now, you might say that it's really their location that bothers him, but he also seems to be pretty pissed at the general greed as well. He sure as hell did not stand around saying "You see, here it is, free market economics just humming along. Sure, there are occasional abuses, but these guys are just great. We should work on our know, stocks...well, you don't know, but people 2,000 years from now will'll make sense to them."

Oh, and how about Matthew 19:23-24, or Mark 10:24-25, or Luke 18:24-25? A young, rich guy (I'm sure he got that way through diligence and determined effort in a free market economy) approaches Jesus and asks how he can get into heaven. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, which he has been doing, and moreover, that if he wants to be "perfect," go and sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor, and follow him. Young rich guy isn't willing to do that (I mean, hey, he earned it in the free market, right?), and Jesus says that's hard for a rich man to enter heaven. Hey, Mr. Perkins, if Jesus was a free marketer, and rewards are really only given based on merit, shouldn't it be the other way around? Like, the wealthy are the ones who have "earned" it through "diligence" and "effort," right? So...why does this seem to contradict your whole argument?

Oh, mean the meek inherit the earth, and blessed are the hungry and thirsty, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:5-6)? Wait, that doesn't sound very free market at all.

Mr. Perkins, I think you may want to see this as well, from Matthew 25:

31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 40And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[f] you did it to me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' 45Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

The righteous are the ones who have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned? Oh man, Mr. Perkins, you might want to really rethink that whole free market thing, because that certainly sounds pretty...well..."socialist" (in today's American terms), at least. But, that's probably an isolated example, right? Or Jesus was just kidding around? You know, he liked to have a few jokes about socialism before going and preaching about free market economics.

You mean there's another? From Luke 10? Oh, that Jesus, always going on about seemingly collectivist stuff:

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" 27And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." 28And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."

29But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35And the next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' 36Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" 37He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise."

Oh man...paying for another guy's health care, that certainly doesn't seem free market. But, the one who shows mercy, that's the righteous guy. Mr. Perkins, that doesn't sound a lot like your vision.

One last thing, from the book of Acts, chapter 2. Now, you may say that hey, that's just the apostles, that's not Jesus, and you're right. But, I think most people who agree that the people who are mostly to have gotten the whole "living a Christian life" thing right were probably the apostles...because, you know, they lived with him and had all his teachings. So, they're living it up in a free market environment, just wheeling and dealing left and right, correct, Mr. Perkins?

42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe[d] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Oh...they were living as a collective in a commune...selling all their stuff and distributing the money to all, according to need...well...that seems pretty bad for you, Mr. Perkins.

Okay, so all of that was a long way of saying that Mr. Perkins is dead wrong...actually, it's so bad it's not even wrong. The above is giving Mr. Perkins a lot of credit in assuming that all he states is actually true, and assuming that the Bible can be used to justify any sort of economic or social policy. There are numerous other criticisms (beyond the easy one, "Bible's a series of supernatural myths punctuated by some sometimes alright moral philosophy [often not that great, though], and thus we can reject it as a foundation of an argument". I've tried to avoid the easy path on this).

We could go on to say that parables, by their very definition, are not really about the things that are spoken about within the parable, e.g., the parable of the sower is not about good agricultural practice, and Mr. Perkins wants to have it both ways with this one.

We could also go on to say that since free market economics did not exist at that time and location, obviously the parable is not about that, and it would be impossible for the Bible to be praising an economic system like that, and Mr. Perkins is just reading into it.

We could also say that this proves that point that if you're really diligent and willing to bend some wording a little bit, you can find a quote from the Bible to justify nearly any position, and thus, maybe it's not the best source to be using in broad arguments.

We could also say that the Bible should not be the basis of us determining economic and political policies because, you know, it was written in a time vastly different from our own and does not speak directly to our times without a little massaging of the content.

With all that in mind...I'm going to go ahead and call it. You lose, Mr. Perkins. Good day, sir, you lose.

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