The Kingdom of God and the Duty of Man
Jesus often spoke about the kingdom of god [King James translation; the more accurate Scholars' Version rendering of the Jesus Seminar is god's imperial rule]. What Jesus believed about god's imperial rule is not entirely clear. Did he believe that it was a future apocalyptic event or condition of political and social life realizable in his own time? While we don't know precisely what he meant by it, the evidence seems to indicate that he did not have John the Baptizer's apocalyptic vision of a world to come.
Based on what we can reasonably deduce from the collected body of his teachings and aphorisms as we know them from the so-called “Q source” in Matthew and Luke [the discussion of which is available in many modern biblical research studies, including those of the Jesus Seminar project, the substance of which we will not repeat here], it appears most likely that Jesus' teachings were intended by him to describe a better world for mankind in his own time rather than in some speculative future. We believe that at least some of the evidence supporting that view is encapsulated in his comment that god's imperial reign is in your midst (or, translated differently by some and supported by the Gospel of Thomas, god's imperial rule is within you.
So what are the teachings of Jesus that are relevant to bringing about a better world in our time? What kind of society did Jesus envision and expect his followers to help create? What is the duty of man with respect to bringing about this better world? Can we find any clues in the teachings of Jesus that would help us to understand what a Christian nation would look like, assuming that a Christian nation would be a nation whose underlying principles were based on the teachings of Jesus?
We get some clues about Jesus' vision of society from some of the sayings that we can reasonably attribute to him, the reference in brackets referring back to his parables and sayings with terms many readers will recognize, such as the corrosive effects of wealth on society and ethical conduct [the eye of a needle]; warnings against privileged lifestyle and conspicuous consumption [the best seats]; duty to the poor [widow's penny]; getting our societal priorities straight [not by bread alone]; serving the poor, the grieving and the oppressed, seeking justice, being merciful and working toward peace [the great sermon]; rejecting retributive justice in favor of forgiveness [eye for an eye]; and distinguishing the demands of the political order from our obligation to right conduct [the Roman coin].
From the collected sayings we get a pretty good picture of the sort of world Jesus envisioned, the type of behavior he championed to bring about a better world, and what he expected of those who claimed to be his followers. In short, we can arrive at the underlying principle of Jesus' own moral principles as well as what he expected as the underlying moral principle of his followers with the term agape, a Greek word that we translate “love” but which is one of three different words for love in Greek and which has the very specific meaning of affirming the worth and dignity of others. [We distinguish agape from eros, sexual love and philos, love of a friend, friendship.] When used by the Christian as a guide to both personal behavior and social ethics in society love of one's neighbor means respect for the worth and dignity of others and treating others as you would want to be treated if the circumstances in any situation were reversed.
None of this really answers the question about the sort of society Jesus envisioned when he talks about god's imperial rule, or what we would call in our day, a Christian nation or Christian community. As we asked previously and we now begin to elaborate, what would society look like if it were modeled on Christian principles? What would it really mean to be a Christian nation? It seems to me useful to ask that question in practical rather than theoretical terms, and therefore to put the question this way: If Jesus were president, what goals would he seek and what policies would he advocate?
I will resist the temptation to try to lay out a coherent political or governmental program based on the Christian principle of agape because I don't see what would be gained by a mental exercise to create a blueprint for a society that is only one of many possibilities and forms that a truly Christian society could take and which, in any event, will not be realized in our time. Rather I think it would be more useful to use Christian principles to critique particular policies and ideas that are currently being debated in our society, with the hope that a Christian social critique will be useful in encouraging slow change toward a more Christian and therefore a more caring society.
From the teachings of Jesus, from the summary of his teachings in the term agape, from the implied notion of the inherent worth and dignity of each individual in society, we derive some related values that we believe are consistent with the values of Jesus:
Duty of Economic Fairness and Justice
The agricultural model that existed up until modern times provided the opportunity for persons to live on and from the land, essentially to live by the fruit of their labors. With the advent of non-agricultural modern societies, the growth of cities and urban centers, and the emergence of contemporary industrialized economic models, people became increasingly dependent on others to provide jobs whether in factories and shops or through the provision of services. The old concept that there was a job for everyone vanished as jobs became subject to the whims of the employer and the economic function of the competitive marketplace. That societal shift for the economic benefit of the broader modern economic social order changed forever the relationship between people and jobs such that economic security no longer depended on the worker's willingness to work but on society's ability to provide jobs.
Our interdependent modern society created a new situation where each person's livelihood was dependent on the larger society, and that interdependency created a corresponding obligation of society to its individual members.
Despite constant repetition by the ignorant and uninformed it is simply not true that everyone in our society who wants a job with dignity and economic security can find one.
Since society benefited from the change to a more complex economic organization, it has the social duty to see that all members of society have economic opportunity and those who are willing to work have the opportunity to do so or are compensated by society for its inability to provide work for them. In our nation as in most industrial nations, economic security for citizens [which we call the social safety net] is provided in part by jobs programs and by unemployment compensation payments. In short, unemployment compensation is not a social welfare program; it is an economic justice obligation of members of society who have jobs to their neighbor who does not. The selfishness, insensitivity and callousness of some of those who have jobs to imply that those who are unemployed deserve their situation is ethically abhorrent to the Christian, who has a duty of care to his unfortunate neighbor and a related duty to remind the fortunate who have jobs that the interdependency of society compels a societal duty to the unemployed.
Duty to The Disadvantaged and Unfortunate
There is a large group of people in all modern industrial societies who for a variety of different reasons and circumstances are unable to provide for themselves. Jesus concerned himself with the welfare of the poor, but it is probably more useful to consider the “poor” as a broad category of people who for whatever reason are unable to care for themselves adequately and to obtain access to goods and services: these subgroups include the disabled, the mentally or physically ill, the mentally incapacitated or incompetent, the poorly educated, the alcoholics and addicts and those injured in war. What do we do with those who cannot care for themselves? Does it matter whether it is their fault or not? It is easy to blame people for their problems, but those who are less gifted than others, who do not have parental or other resources adequate to their needs, who do not have funds for school or know how to access them, who live in the wrong community, or have had bad luck, or have lousy teachers, or do not have mentors to help them, may not be entirely to blame for their circumstances. Anyway, it is hard for me to see Jesus taking a hard line with those who cannot take care of themselves rather than just helping them.
Early societies took care of their own poor and helpless within their own tribe or community. Some communities and tribal groups did a better job than others of caring for the unfortunate. Early Christians often pooled their resources to help each other, perhaps a viable model for us today. People were used to taking care of their neighbors. We live in a much larger community today. Who is our neighbor now? Jesus answered the question by telling the story of the many who passed by on the other side of the street to avoid seeing and having to deal with someone lying in the street for an unknown reason, until a foreigner came by and stopped to help. Jesus told his listeners quite pointedly that he who has the ability to hear, let him get the point.
We have a number of social programs and policies in place to help those who are unable to take care of themselves. To those critics who don't accept the premise that society has a duty to the disadvantaged we remind them that society deals with its unfortunate through the mechanism of taxing those who have resources to help those who do not. We think Jesus would be on the side of improving those programs rather than eliminating them and that he would be critical of those who argue that what is theirs belongs to them by some inherent right of possession and they should not have to share with others. The Christian, to the contrary, takes what he has as a gift rather than a right and is willing to share what he has with those who are less fortunate than he, and is willing to be taxed for the common good because he understands that is the only way that sufficient resources can be garnered to deal with the problem of improving the living conditions for all.
There is an unconvincing argument made by some that the government has no business getting involved in social programs and that private charities funded by voluntary donations (including churches) should have the sole responsibility for care of the poor and disadvantaged. Without in any way devaluing the contributions of charitable organizations that take on the mission to serve the poor and disadvantaged, it is obvious that they simply do not have the resources to deal effectively with such a massive social problem. Regrettably, some who make this argument oppose any public efforts to help the poor because they do not want to pay taxes to support efforts they do not believe in for personal reasons, specifically, that the poor have no one to blame but themselves for the circumstances they are in. In short, these are people who by nature are not inclined to be generous to charities in any event, so they cannot be taken seriously.
We agree that charitable support is the duty of the Christian either directly or through churches or other charitable organizations. However the argument that there should be no public programs to deal with social problems created by our contemporary economic organization misses the whole point—(a) that these social problems are the creation of our economic society and a consequence of what are deemed by the larger society to be acceptable consequences of modernization that disproportionately advantage the wealthy and the corporations at the expense of society, and (b) that those who caused these problems have a public duty to help rectify the problems caused by their economic policies. Just as those who walk their dogs in public are expected to clean up after them, so the corporations that benefit from our economic system should be expected to help clean up the mess they cause; and the fortunate employed and those whose wealth comes at the expense of others should be expected to contribute to the society on whose backs they have profited. That's what taxes are for—they are the shared burden that we owe each other.
Duty to the Elderly
The elderly present a unique case. They are past the time when age and health permit them to be as productive and active as they once were. They have paid their dues by being productive members of the economic community during their working lives. They should not now be thrust aside as no longer economically useful to society. All societies, even primitive ones, take care of their elderly as both a duty and a privilege.
While there is no saying attributed to Jesus directly on the subject of care for the elderly, it is pretty clear that the implication is there about care for the neighbor, the poor, the disadvantaged, and the sick, as well as in the general principles of agape—treating others as you would wish to be treated—that care for the elderly is a Christian duty. I suspect there are two reasons why there is no specific mention by Jesus of the elderly as a separate category of compassion: (a) in the Middle East culture there was inherent respect for the elderly who were part of extended families that cared for older generations just as they cared for younger generations; and (b) those who for whatever reason were not part of extended families would have fallen into the poor, the helpless, the abandoned, and so did not need to be mentioned as a specific separate category.
Those who insist that there is no general societal duty to care for the elderly because elders should be the duty of care of the extended family fail to understand the significant social changes in our society that make duty by the extended family impractical or impossible. In an agrarian society people lived on the land and several generations lived in the same household, with the duty of care passed down with the land from generation to generation. In our earlier national history even those families that were not strictly tied to the land as farmers, tended to live in villages and towns in extended families with occupations as tradesman and craftsman passed down from father to son. Our industrial age has changed that with urbanization, which took people from the land and from traditional occupations and forced them to move wherever jobs were, splitting up the traditional extended family. There is also the obvious point that there were some people who had no extended family even in early days due to illness, untimely death, migration, war, imprisonment, or loss of the mortgaged land—in short, we have always had the elderly poor.
The extended family with multiple generations living under the same roof is largely a relic of the past. In our wage-based highly mobile “labor as commodity” society it is naïve to assume that the elderly are or could be the obligation of their children.
Note how our society has changed in the past fifty years. In the 1950s, within my lifetime, a single wage earner could support a family with a reasonably comfortable middle class lifestyle, with wages and benefits that were significantly higher in constant real dollars than a typical single wage earner receives today in wages and benefits. Families could buy homes, put their kids through college, buy an occasional new car, buy consumer goods, pay their doctor. Wages and benefits rose steadily through the 1960s and early 1970s. Then the economic model began to change. Employers began to see labor as a commodity and a slow but steady decline began in real wages and benefits as corporations became bigger, expanded their horizons to foreign markets, competed globally, and saw labor as one more cost of doing business the cost of which had to be driven ever downward. Corporations are reducing their contributions to retirement programs and medical benefits or dropping them entirely, leaving citizens to fend for themselves. We no longer measure the strength of our economy by the lifestyle and economic strength of our citizens but by the gross domestic product and profits of our corporations without regard to the economic effect on the working man, unemployment, median earnings or the general welfare of our citizens. Modern society looks at labor as human capital to be exploited for profit.
So what is the implication of this change for the elderly? Corporations are reducing or eliminating pensions as well as medical benefits for their retired employees and dropping pension obligations entirely for new workers. Our wage based consumer-driven economy has reduced the economic value of the older worker by forced retirement or early retirement incentives to make room for new, younger, immigrant and therefore less costly workers. The alleged rationale for this dehumanizing social change is overall benefit to the economy—but if the economy benefits by this change it must accept the responsibility for the damage this change does to the social order and in equity it must compensate the displaced employees, including older workers.
Prior to this commoditization of workers an employee could expect to retire with three sources of support—savings, pensions, and social security. The current economy has (a) reduced wages to the worker so significantly that surviving with basic necessities has become difficult, leaving no room for surplus to put away for savings; (b) reduced or eliminated private pensions and retiree medical benefits previously provided by employers; (c) decreased existing pension values and the savings inherent in peoples' homes by the market collapse generated by market-driven financial instruments that had no inherent economic value; and (d) forced many workers to rely solely or primarily on Social Security and Medicare to survive.
In our time of economic dislocation and financial restructuring for the benefit of corporate interests, Christian love for the elderly implies widespread support for programs that help the elderly survive in difficult times and that includes, at a minimum, shoring up Social Security and Medicare as the basic underpinning of a national concern for the welfare of the elderly. We believe that this is the moral obligation of the Christian and the duty of a nation that wants to consider itself a Christian nation. We believe that it is the ethical obligation of a society that has benefited for 40 or more years from the labor of an elderly worker. We believe that it makes economic sense for our society to maintain the purchasing power of the elderly. Finally we believe that providing for our elderly is a legal and contractual obligation of our society that promised that if workers paid into a national social security retirement plan that provided a minimum floor of benefits that those benefits would be there for them when they retired.
Jesus would be appalled at what Republicans and their Pharisaic allies in the so-called Christian Right are doing to the poor, the disadvantaged, the laborer, the sick and the elderly in his name. The selfish whiners in Congress and on talk radio that continue to scream that they do not want their tax dollars to go to support others is unworthy and inconsistent with Christian values and contrary to the implications of being a Christian nation—and these folks need to be called-out for the selfishness, anti-Christian character and short-sightedness of their vision.