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Jim Wallis: The Bible is Neither Conservative or Liberal

posted by kham

Thanks for your post, David. I’m looking forward to this discussion with you.
You claim that the Bible has a conservative rather than liberal worldview. I would suggest that the Bible is neither “conservative” or “liberal” as we understand those terms in a political context today. I have written about what I call “prophetic” politics that leads to a fourth option – neither liberal, conservative, or libertarian.


It is traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity and personal responsibility, while being progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship of the earth and its resources, supports gender equality, and is more internationally minded than nationalist–looking first to peacemaking and conflict resolution when it come to foreign policy questions, instead of bowing to the habit of war.
Yet in all those areas, the Bible does not prescribe specific policies on the issues facing us today. While we can use Scripture as a normative vision, we must, as the National Association of Evangelicals puts it, “do detailed social, economic, historical, jurisprudential, and political analysis. Only if we deepen our Christian vision and also study our contemporary world can we engage in politics faithfully and wisely.”
Let’s take the issue of taxes that you raise. We cannot simply use historical texts from the Egyptian or Hebrew monarchies of 3,000 years ago as a policy prescription for the 21st century United States. But, as a preacher, I couldn’t resist looking at the texts. Genesis 47 is after a famine, when the people had lost all their land. Joseph proposes that they return to farming the land and give one-fifth to Pharaoh. Their response was “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.” The condition of serfdom was certainly better than starvation. In 1 Samuel 8, the point of the story is not the 10% rate that the king will take, but that the king will give it to his “eunuchs and courtiers” rather than benefiting the society. And in 1 Kings 12, the complaint of the Israelites is about forced labor, not taxation. In the dialogue, they ask Rehoboam to “lighten the harsh labor”, to which he replied, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke.” It wasn’t taxes at issue.
But deeper than that, you say that people should be responsible for how they spend their money. The ideal of democracy is the collective will of the people speaking through their elected representatives. Our polity is certainly flawed. But I’d be willing to do a test. Let’s ask the people if they’d rather have spent more than $500 billion over the last five years on jobs, education, healthcare and housing or on the war in Iraq. I’d be willing to accept the result, would you?
The fact is that our taxes are dreadfully misused, not that they exist. In the 2008 discretionary budget (excluding Social Security and Medicare), the Defense Department plus the additional spending specifically for the Iraq war is 60% of the budget. Every other function of the federal government receives 40%. The problem, David, is priorities, not taxes. In the 1 Samuel passage you cited, the first warning about a king is about his warmaking, “He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen.”
Let’s move to a specific issue – overcoming poverty. There are now 36.5 million people below the official poverty line ($20,614 for a family of 4). In looking for the appropriate policies to deal with that problem, I apply two fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching. First, the common good – what benefits the society as a whole, particularly the weakest and most vulnerable; and subsidiarity – every problem should be dealt with at the lowest possible level.
There are three sectors of society that have a role in overcoming poverty to which we can apply the principle of subsidiarity. Faith-based and community organizations have a role – local congregations and organizations, and national denominations and organizations. Government at all levels has a role – local, state, and national. The private sector has a role – small business and large national corporations along with labor unions.
The challenge is overcoming poverty is to find the appropriate role for each level of each sector with a unified strategy. It is true that local congregations can provide mentoring and support networks for people in ways that government never could. But congregations cannot provide health insurance for 47 million people, jobs for the 8.5 million who are unemployed, and housing for the millions who have lost their homes through foreclosure. That requires efforts from government and the private sector.
Charity, as you propose in your book, is important, David. But good public policy for government and a committed private sector are also important. Wouldn’t you agree?



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Bruce Gerencser

posted June 12, 2008 at 11:56 am


Jim,
Surely you know God is Republican and wears a flag pin? :)
Great post. I hope somehow the Bible can be rescued from the clutches of political ideologues that are far too prominent in many Evangelical churches.
Bruce
http://www.worldofbruce.net



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Paul

posted June 12, 2008 at 7:51 pm


Jim,
that 8.5 million unemployed number would actually be higher due to the fact that the chronically unemployed are kept out of the unemployment statistics. So, sure, there are 8.5 million people that are still looking for work, but what about the untold number of people that have given up the fight, or live in areas where there’s no work to be had. (the unemployment numbers in Detroit are over 6%. I wonder what the number of people not working in Detroit actually is…)
As I’ve answered conservatives before on issues like this where they claim the private sector is the answer, I always ask, “so where’s the private sector now?”
If the private sector wanted to be part of the solution, they would have been already.



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James

posted June 13, 2008 at 1:33 am


I would like to make an additional point regarding David K’s comments on Biblical taxes. Early Israel was an agarian society and the economy was based upon having land and producing your sustenance upon that land. Prophit or income was not the main feature. The tithe was a “tax” not on income but upon production. One was to offer 10% of what the produced not 10% of their excess. So if you had 100 acres of land that cost $10/acre to produce it would cost you $1,000. If you transfer that to a modern idea and then sell the produce for $20/acre you have $2,000 and a prophit of $1,000. A modern 10% tax on the prophit would be $100 but the tithe would cost you 10 acres of produce which is $200.
It should also be pointed out that the producer was to leave behind some of the harvest for the poor. This was not set up as an optional gift to charity but was a requirement for citizen of Israel – an additional tax, albeit one that serves the poor. There are additional requirements elsewhere to be generous and charitable when confronted withn those in need. The Levitcal system set up this provision to the poor as a matter of law but also called upon the people to be generous and charitable. God didn’t trust the care of the needy only to the generosity of his people.



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hootie1fan

posted June 13, 2008 at 9:23 am


The “politics” of the Bible often depends on the reader and which passages they choice to take as absolute truth and which ones they ignore outright.



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Andy

posted June 13, 2008 at 9:49 am


One of the things Klinghoffer misses when talking about people being free to spend their money is the fact that people quite often don’t make very charitable choices with their money when they get a lot of it. In fact, we tend not to make very good or charitable choices in general when we’re left to ourselves, which is why we have law–God’s law especially.
“The ‘politics’ of the Bible often depends on the reader and which passages they choice to take as absolute truth and which ones they ignore outright.”
Yes hootie1fan, it’s true that what we get from the Bible depends to an extent on our a priori assumptions, our presuppositions and our agenda. However, let’s not fall into the trap of letting that fact become a cop-out. What we see in the Bible depends much more on sound scholarship and exegesis, which includes taking textual and historical context into account. On that score, at least in their first exchange, Wallis kicked Klinghoffer’s conservative hiney!



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Today's opinion

posted June 13, 2008 at 10:40 am


If we have anyone bending the Bible (mangling, mutilating, altering) to submit to thier political and secular-social goals, it is the Leftist. The Right keeps to the Bible even when it is uncomfortable to do so. That is where honesty and integrity is found.



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hootie1fan

posted June 13, 2008 at 11:21 am


The Right keeps to the Bible even when it is uncomfortable to do so. That is where honesty and integrity is found.
———————————————–
Including the part about divorce, remarraige after divorce, eating shellfish, wearing mixed fabrics, doing for the least of God’s people, etc.?



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John McClure

posted June 13, 2008 at 12:55 pm


That the Bible is neither liberal or conservative may be true sometime. These labels have changed over the years. Classically liberal ideas are congruent with the concept of dignity of all men, and this idea has its roots in Judeo-Christian values transmitted through the Bible. Currently liberal means socialist. Socialist values seem more related the desire for a secular utopia.



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The Price of Freedom

posted June 13, 2008 at 1:10 pm


I believe God tries to help all of us do what it right. Liberal, moderate, Conservative. Unfortunatly none of us get it right and so we need divine help.
I just wish that both extremes right or left understand that there are morally reprehensible things that are done in the name of the bible to get to a more moral end result.
Examples: Its ok to lie about your opponent. Its ok to misrepresent something. Its ok to have a war but not care about peace. Its ok to discriminate and hate people as long as they sin. Its ok to say you told the truth because someone took your quote out of context even if they played the whole video.
I think God shakes his head when ever humans say they tell the truth.
This is why I thank god for youtube.
I don’t know how you can trust someone that frequently is caught changing his/her words every other day to be for or against issue you care about.



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Alicia

posted June 13, 2008 at 1:55 pm


I agree with the commenter who said the title of this dialogue is ridiculous (and so is the title “God’s Politics”). God doesn’t have politics. We don’t really know anything about God. It’s all guesswork and projection.
There are some wonderful and terrible things in the Bible, the idea that the Bible contains the mind of God doesn’t make sense to me. To me, the Bible offers the stories of two religious communities that yearn for God, as well as the stories of many people who were searching for God.
The Bible tells us what those individuals and communities thought, it doesn’t tell us what God thinks.



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Gene Bearman

posted June 13, 2008 at 4:19 pm


I agree somewhat with Mr Wallis about the bible being traditional on family values and personal responsibilty, but how he derives gender equality from that is beyond me -is that part of traditional family values? Starting at the fall of man in Genesis gender equality is eliminated and in the New Testamant that concept is still not in effect as is shown by Paul who commands that women not even be heard in gatherings, not even so much as to ask a question. That does not sound like gender equality. I can’t figure out where Mr. Wallis’ assertion that the bible is “internationally minded rather than nationalist…either. Where does that assertion come from? Yes , blessed are the peacemakers – but watch out for the nation that needs to be judged – God has no problem with this including Israel itself which has endured past judgements through wars and is protected by God in other wars.
By the way – Mr. Wallis shows through his question on spending for Iraq that democracy is overrated – and nowhere in the bible are there democratic societies or any inkling that a democracy -if one ever comes to exist – is a good idea.



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eastcoastlady

posted June 14, 2008 at 3:26 pm


How I miss the three rabbis chatting!
What was the reason their column was discontinued, again?
And who is best qualified to debate the Torah? Someone who is not Jewish? BIG mistake.



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Stephen

posted June 18, 2008 at 6:12 pm


He writes “looking first to peacemaking and conflict resolution when it come to foreign policy questions, instead of bowing to the habit of war.”
I am not sure where he gets this from. The old testament is full of wars being used by God to settle differences, punish evil empires etc. I don’t find much evidence of diplomacy being used to settle disputes. If you go to the New Testament, Jesus stayed away from politics almost entirely. He did say blessed are the peace keepers, but I think he was talking about personal issues not country to country issues,



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Robbie

posted June 18, 2008 at 10:03 pm


In this post, Wallis perfectly displays the difference between religious liberals and religious conservatives. Liberals do not take Biblical commandments seriously, as conservatives do. Liberals read the Bible as interesting stories and/or history. Conservatives read the Bible as God’s Word and a guide to life.
Jim Wallis claims, “the Bible does not prescribe specific policies on the issues facing us today.” If this is true, then can the Bible prescribe ANY rules on how we should live today, apart from politics?
Wallis adds, “We cannot simply use historical texts from the Egyptian or Hebrew monarchies of 3,000 years ago as a policy prescription for the 21st century United States.” Is this how the Christian Wallis views his own sacred texts? Are these texts just “historical texts,” interesting to look at, but not useful in making prescriptions for our 21st century lives?
In Genesis 47, the Israelites are, indeed, desperate. Yes, living as serfs under Pharoah, that is, living with a 20 percent tax rate, is better for the Israelites than starvation. But, so what? The point is that the Bible equates a 20 percent tax rate with serfdom.
Wallis argues, “In 1 Samuel 8, the point of the story is not the 10% rate that the king will take, but that the king will give it to his ‘eunuchs and courtiers’ rather than benefiting the society.” Actually, this is only part of the warning that God and Samuel give to Israel. God and Samuel also warn that a king will institute conscription, rather than having an all-volunteer military. Also, God, through the prophet Samuel, warns that a king will force more of the Israelites to do work for him (i.e., becoming government workers), probably in the name of “benefiting the society.” This in contrast to allowing individuals to benefit from their labor. The Israelites are warned about giving too much power to a strong central government. So, God is really warning the Israelites of the dangers of big government!
Later, it seems King Solomon fell into the trap of big government and foreign alliances. King Solomon’s public works projects forced the king to lay a “heavy yoke,” i.e. high taxes and forced labor, on the Israelites. Rather than listening to the elders who had served his father, King Rehoboam listened to “the young men who had grown up with him.” For Rehoboam and his friends youth and “change” meant more than the wisdom of the elders. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist” (1 Kings 12:10, NIV).



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EllieDee

posted April 23, 2010 at 4:10 pm


Its all in how you propose the question. You suggest that many people would prefer to spend on themselves..as in education, jobs etc, and you place that against the word WAR. However, if you asked that same question, asking if we would be willing to help a people, rid themselves of a sadistic dictator who harbored terrorists who were training to come and kill us. I wonder what the answer would be? My statement was not a promotion of war, but rather how simple it is, to garner the answer you believe supports your philosophy.
As for more money toward education. We have been throwing money for education, only to see our children less educated. As for jobs, jobs were great, before those who were supposed to be in charge of OVERSIGHT, failed at being watchful.
As for Poverty… it also can be argued, that its a state of mind.. Something that can be overcome, by teaching a man how to fish!



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