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Sep 25 2013

Why I’m not a fan of “Jesus shaming” the Republicans

by Frederick Sparks

In the wake of Republicans in the House of Representatives voting to cut the food stamp program by $39 billion, I’ve seen a lot of memes attempting to point out the hypocrisy of Republicans, who so explicitly embrace Christian religiosity on the campaign trial, yet seem at odds with the liberal socialist progressive Jesus of the gospels when it comes to their position on government spending for social safety net programs.  I have a negative reaction to this meme (especially coming from fellow skeptics), not just because I think it may misrepresent the character of Jesus that emerges from the biblical text but also because I ultimately find it to be an ineffective argument.

For one, I do not take Jesus’ admonition to give everything you have to the poor as a call for socialist wealth redistribution, but as a call to a life of religious asceticism by an eschatological preacher who saw the end as nigh.  I mean, this is the same Jesus who told a parable in which a servant who refuses to enrich his unjust master is the bad guy. And yes, I understand that the point of a parable is the not the explicit story, but the implicit message. Still, I think the choice of the explicit story matters.

Jesus also blithely asserted that “the poor will always be with you” (a repeat of Deuteronomy 15:11 by the way). If there is anything that progressive political philosophies have in common, I would think it is the idea that poverty can be eradicated, even if it involves the overhaul or overthrow of a current economic system that seems to necessitate a poor class.

But of course the inconsistent gospel narratives complicate any definite assertions about Jesus’ character and philosophy.  The larger issue is that I’m not sure how this argument will effect changes behavior, if that is the point.  For one, it seems to assume that bible quoting politicians actually sincerely believe what they say, a dubious assumption to say the least. Also, if the attempt is the change the mind of voters who have supported these politicians, I doubt if this will cut it.  Those who vote against their own economic interest have demonstrated their obdurate voting nature, particularly given the fact that food stamp usage increased in counties carried by Romney in 2012.

But also, conservatives already have a counter to the argument that they are not being “Christlike” with respect to the poor.  Jesus didn’t say the GOVERNMENT needed to feed the poor.  Republicans are not (supposedly) against charity, they just think it should be performed by churches and private individuals.

We have far more recent and coherent sources and justifications to argue for a progressive compassionate approach towards the less fortunate.  More time should be spend on articulating those arguments, not arguments based on the inconsistent bronze age book of mythology.

 

27 comments

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  1. 1
    culuriel

    I share your dislike of bringing Jesus into this. We should be able to defend helping poor people, especially children get 3 healthy meals a day. We can, based on the fact that food stamps return alot more money to the economy than are used to make the program, and by telling the damage that malnourishment can do to learning/working ability. It’s impossible to have a productive, educated society while a significant percentage never have enough to eat just to maintain basic health.

  2. 2
    brucegee1962

    You have some good points as always. However, if someone tells me “It’s impossible for you atheists to have a moral code without Jesus” one minute, and then turns around and literally starts taking food out of the mouths of infants the next minute, you’ve gotta let me say something about it or I’m going to explode. Messily.

    1. 2.1
      fredericksparks

      LOL I hear you bruce

  3. 3
    unbound

    The problem is that the same rationale for not arguing the bible with the bible thumpers (i.e. they will just point to passages that they like) applies even more so when we don’t point out the hypocrisy. We are evil atheists, so trying to logically point out the flaws only results in the bible thumpers pointing out their bible. For your plan to work, we have to get them out of the bible entirely, which is like trying to coax a tick out of its hold with pleasantries.

    However, by pointing out the passages in the bible that actually support a god who cares about the poor, we at least get some to start thinking harder about the conflicts inherit in their beliefs. This can be a more effective stepping stone to getting their minds out of the bible in general and actually start confronting moral issues.

    1. 3.1
      fredericksparks

      That’s a nice idea in theory, I just haven’t seen it work that well in practice

    2. 3.2
      brucegee1962

      For a long time, I considered myself a liberal Christian, which is something that many modern conservatives claim can’t even exist. However, there was a time period back in the 60s and 70s when there was a very strong liberal church in this country. If we can at least get them to understand where their fellow Christians are coming from, maybe we’re helping a little.

  4. 4
    Gregory in Seattle

    The poor will always be with us, yes: but as represented in the New Testament, Jesus taught a pretty solid message of social justice. There is no “do it now before it is too late” sense in Matthew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats parable) or Luke 10:30-37 (the good Samaritan parable). The writer of Acts asserts that the early Church had a strongly socialist nature (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32, 34-36.) The writer of I John says that charity and compassion exemplify the presence of God in their lives (I John 3:17-18), as does the writer of James (James 1:27.) Even among the misogyny and racism of the Hebrew Scriptures, there are some pretty valuable gems in Isaiah (1:16-17; 58:6-12), Amos (5:10-24), Ezekiel (16:49-50), even Leviticus (19:9-17, 23:22.)

    As for shaming…. When someone holds up their sacred scriptures, and uses it to justify actions that those same scriptures unambiguously condemn, is it wrong to point out the contradiction? Is it a mistake to tell these self-proclaimed holy men that they are showing themselves to be the very evil that their scriptures warn against?

    1. 4.1
      fredericksparks

      Yes, in the one size fits all bible you are able to make a case for pretty much anything if you are willing to cherry pick. No news there

      I didn’t say it was wrong to point out supposed contradictions, what I took on is how effective this will be in changing any political realities

    2. 4.2
      fredericksparks

      and don’t forget to include “slaves obey your masters” along with all those social justice bible quotes

  5. 5
    smrnda

    Though on occasion I might Jesus shame religious believers, I don’t thin it’s useful in this policy discussion since the message of Jesus is ambiguous, and there’s so many handy rationalizations available to people who want to cut aid and be Christians at the same time – even when the rationalizations are a stretch, they work well enough on the people using them.

    In some sense, I just don’t think that religion should be the basis of public policy debate. If someone says that Jesus would be okay with cutting SNAP, I don’t remember electing Jesus, nor do I think Jesus is a constituent in any district, so I don’t see why what he says matters.

    Another problem is that Jesus didn’t advocate any meaningful policy choices – at the time, the understanding of things like economics was so primitive that explaining poverty was like explaining disease; I can’t take assessments from the 1st century AD very seriously.

    1. 5.1
      fredericksparks

      great observations

    2. 5.2
      sisu

      smrnda, thank you for writing that! Your comment gave me one of those forehead-smacking moments – it is so clear and so obvious (now that you’ve stated it) but nothing I’ve heard articulated in quite that way before. Thank you!

      1. smrnda

        It might be that I’m not from a Christian family and grew up (for a while) outside the US, so I just think there’s too much Jesus-talk in politics to begin with.

  6. 6
    unnullifier

    We have far more recent and coherent sources and justifications to argue for a progressive compassionate approach towards the less fortunate. More time should be spend on articulating those arguments, not arguments based on the inconsistent bronze age book of mythology.

    I concur here, it’s a weaker position to make the case from when you’re a secular person trying to use the Bible as an example of moral behavior to a person who holds the Bible as a holy book. It unnecessarily opens up the narrative that even secular individuals need to point to the bible for morality when the truth is more modern philosophies regarding ethics make a stronger case and aren’t a cornerstone of your opponent’s religion.

    I also agree with Frederick above that it’s not wrong to point out apparent contradictions, it’s just not particularly effective in affecting change if that’s your goal; otherwise you’re just bashing conservative Christians for not living up to your interpretation of their holy book. Which seems an . . . odd way to spend one’s time.

    1. 6.1
      fredericksparks

      Indeed, an odd way to spend one’s time

  7. 7
    Pen

    I think on this and so many other occasions, it’s a case of telling them they don’t have the moral high ground by any means available. In fact they’re about a million miles from the moral high ground as usual. I’d be all for leaving Jesus out of it, since I don’t find all of his views all that admirable either, but the fact that they don’t even try to match their hero in goodness is rather galling.

    Is it effective? I agree with you about the insincerity of the leaders but I wonder about the impact on all of those ordinary Americans who think of themselves as ‘good church-going people’. Won’t the burden of moral disapproval, even on their chosen terms, start to hang heavy on them?

    1. 7.1
      fredericksparks

      we can hope it has that effect on the good church goers, but as you can probably surmise I remain skeptical

  8. 8
    fredericksparks

    Sorry Ona, the comment you replied to was deleted. I don’t tolerate unsubstantiated neoconservative rhetoric on my posts. That’s where I draw the line and I don’t care who has a problem with it

    1. 8.1
      Onamission5

      I have no problem with your comment policy! Awkward, tangential comment I’m left with not withstanding. :)

  9. 9
    Bennie Crouch

    Hmmm, we can always use BOTH approaches. That way we can be both smug and factually correct when we point to the data AND we get the joy of rubbing the Word into their faces. Win win I think ^_^

  10. 10
    Ani J. Sharmin

    Really enjoyed the post. This “Jesus shaming” sometimes bothers me, too. I understand that, from a strategic perspective, it can be a good idea, since most people in the USA are Christian. However, it reinforces the idea that religious arguments are a valid way of having an argument about things that also affect people of other religions. For me personally, it can be a bit frustrating to hear entire arguments going on about stuff that affects me, with all the arguments based on a holy book I don’t accept, instead of secular arguments that would be relevant to everyone. I think sometimes liberal Christians don’t understand that. Even some atheists, I think, still have an (unwarranted) good view of Jesus. And there some issues for which, I just don’t think that the pro-equal-rights-Jesus argument can win based on the text (without advocating ignoring the text), because the pro-bigotry message is much more apparent in the book.

    1. 10.1
      fredericksparks

      great comment. Thanks

  11. 11
    nathanaelnerode

    The usual context in which I use “Jesus shaming” is to wake up people who pray in church. ‘Cause I actually believe in the lesson of Matthew 6:6-7.

    The thing I’m really trying to get them to admit is that they do not really believe in the truth of the Bible. Once they’ve admitted that, it becomes possible to have a conversation with them about religion. While they’re claiming that the Bible is “true”, it’s impossible to talk to them because they just regurgitate formulas.

  12. 11.1
    Onamission5

    I was able to feed my family much better, nutritionally, when I received food stamps than when I had to rely on food banks. With food stamps I could purchase baby food, fresh fruits and vegetables and other perishable items such as milk and meat, and cheese that didn’t clog the colon. Food banks serve a valuable purpose as emergency stop-gaps to hunger but heavily packaged, high sodium, low nutrition, heavily processed foods are not a long term solution to poverty induced malnutrition. There is only so much rice, beans and hamburger helper (without the hamburger, mind) that people can eat.

  13. Onamission5

    And the recession ended for the wealthy in 2009. For the rest of us it’s still going strong.

  14. smrnda

    Another problem is that some areas have multiple food-banks replicating the same service multiple times within a small area, where you can get stuck going from one to another hoping to find one with anything in stock, and when you get there you’ve got your choice of creamed corn or ramen noodles.

    Why not just hand out debit cards that people can spend at local grocery stores the same way you can spend food stamps? Poor people often have dietary restrictions that might mean all your available food does them no good. Imagine if someone who had a wheat allergy went to a food bank. If the concern is ‘they’ll spend it on things other than food’ then something needs to be worked out with local stores (can’t be too much trouble) and if the issue is people buying food with higher nutritional value, I’m sure buying a real potato is better than getting a box of instant mashed.

  15. F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    @smrnda

    Because the food baks rather tend to operate on donations of stuff that people and stores/foodservice businesses do not want for one reason or another, or is about to expire.

    This is how one can end up with 50 can of green beans and 10 jars of peanut butter from low-quality brands one had never seen before in their life.

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