The Common Good

An Alternative To: The Perversion of the Words of Our Lord Jesus Christ by the Sinner Barack H. Obama

Detail of Christ's feet on the crucifix. Photo by Getty Images.
Detail of Christ's feet on the crucifix. Photo by Getty Images.

This past Sunday, Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the blog Red State wrote a post titled “The Perversion of the Words of Our Lord Jesus Christ by the Sinner Barack H. Obama."

First, I hope that Erickson remembers that in the Christian tradition calling someone a “sinner” is a theological statement of fact, not a pejorative. Labeling another Christian as a sinner in a bold and brash headline is, I am sure, very gratifying,  but it hardly sets one up for an argument based in the teachings of Jesus who came not for the healthy but the sick or Paul who labeled himself the “chief of sinners.”

So, let me get this out of the way. I, Timothy M. King, am a sinner too.

Now, on to Erickson’s argument:

The President this week chose to pervert God’s Word to make the case for a tax increase, but he also chose to ignore God’s word on life and is ordering Christians, while he claims to be one, to violate their Christian conscience on abortion — requiring Christian organizations to provide health insurance that will cover the cost of drugs that induce abortions.

He is trying to have it both ways. He is trying to use God’s Word to defend a tax policy that dissuades individuals from giving gladly and charitably to the poor as God instructs and is ignoring God’s Word in order to force fellow Christians into violating their Christian conscience — something about which God cares a great deal.

The Obama administration accepts the basic argument that religious beliefs do constitute a sufficient reason to be exempted from some government mandates. Conscience protections in the HHS decision concerning contraceptives are in place for religious institutions like churches and denominations. Where both Erickson and Sojourners disagree with the administration is that we believe these exemptions should be extended to other religiously affiliated organizations such as faith-based charitable organizations and colleges.

It is not a disagreement in principle, but in application.

Erickson calls Obama's citation of Luke 12:48 — “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required" — in reference to his economic policy, a “perversion of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now, if I thought the President Obama was basing all of his tax policy on one verse in the Gospel of St. Luke or thought that his idea of an ideal top marginal tax rate was divinely inspired, I would call it a perversion too.

But, that’s not what happened. If you read the President’s speech he says,

And when I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.

But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.

What the President argued is that a broad swath of religious traditions argue that those who “have” also have a unique responsibility to care and provide for those who “have not.” He used the term “coincide” and, I would guess, was very careful not to claim a full justification of his economic agenda lies in the St. Luke's Gospel.

The biblical reality is that Scripture consistently and clearly presents the value of both personal charity and broader societal justice when it comes to moral concern for the poor. I’ve written before about gleaning laws and the Year of Jubilee of laws that require justice for the poor and not just charity. If we take Scripture seriously we have to assume that Jesus’ teachings come out of the context of the Torah and tradition of the Hebrew prophets.

If we look at the tradition that Jesus comes out of and the broader context of Jesus’ teaching about wealth and poverty, it is not unreasonable to assume that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required” is a broader moral principle that has legitimate application outside of it’s immediate context.

Even that doesn’t close the debate. The president then needs to show that this principle is not purely sectarian but has an application that can be argued for on the basis of what’s good for the country.

It is entirely reasonable to say that, while the president has spoken to a basic moral principle, he has incorrectly applied it. I think Obama is on the right track, but I can see why other thoughtful Christians might disagree.

However, Erickson is trying to explain away the Biblical principle by presenting it as a narrow spiritual lesson concerned only with personal piety. This just doesn’t cohere with an understanding of the laws and tradition of Hebrew Scripture, the precedents of the prophets, or Jesus’ own teaching about “Kingdom.”

In his post, Erickson cites Scripture about the sanctity of life. Those passages are important and an essential part of Christian morality. The question, then, is what policies we should argue for in the public square that reflect those principles. Erickson and Sojourners likely agree on the principle but not necessarily its application.

If I were to re-write Erickson’s headline for him it would go something like this, “I, Erick Erickson, a Sinner Saved by Grace, Disagree Passionately with President Barack H. Obama, a Sinner Saved by Grace, in His Application of Biblical Moral Principles to Our Country’s Public Policy Debate Concerning the Ideal Top Marginal Tax Rates and the Role of Social Safety Nets as a Means of Income Support Or Replacement for Those Whose Incomes Fall Beneath the Federal Poverty Line.”

But, I guess that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. 

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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