Making sure the poor don’t get any food they don’t deserve

“But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”

In a recent interview, Kellyanne Conway said that “able-bodied” people who will lose Medicare with the GOP health plan should “go find employment” and then get “employee-sponsored benefits.” Critics of Conway presented evidence that large numbers of adults on Medicaid do have jobs, as though that would prove her wrong. But that argument won’t work with the people who like the GOP plan because their answer is that those people should get better jobs. The current GOP plan regarding health care is based on the assumption that benefits like health care should be restricted to working people.

For many, this looks like hardheartedness toward the poor and disadvantaged—exactly the kind of people embraced and protected by Jesus, so many people on the left have been throwing out the accusation of hypocrisy. That the same people who are, in effect, denying healthcare to so many people have protected it for themselves seems, to many, to be the merciless icing on the hateful cake.

And so progressives are attacking this bill (and the many in the state legislatures that have the same intent and impact) as heartless, badly-intentioned, cynical, and cruel. And that is exactly the wrong way to go about this argument. The category often called “white evangelical” tends to be drawn to the just world hypothesis and prosperity gospel, and those two (closely intertwined) beliefs provide the basis for the belief that public goods should not be equally accessible (let alone evenly distributed) because, they believe, those goods should be distributed on the basis of who deserves (not needs) them more. And they believe that Scripture endorses that view, so they are not hypocrites—they are not pretending to have beliefs they don’t really have. This isn’t an argument about intention; this is an argument about Scriptural exegesis.

Progressives will keep losing the argument about public policy until we engage that Scriptural argument. People who argue that the jobless, underemployed, and government-dependent should lose health care will never be persuaded by being called hypocrites because they believe they are enacting Scripture better than those who argue that healthcare is a right.

  1. The Just World Hypothesis and Prosperity Gospel

There are various versions of the prosperity gospel (and Kate Bowler’s Prosperity Gospel elegantly lays them out), but they are all versions of what social psychologists call “the just world hypothesis.” That hypothesis is a premise that we live in a world in which people get what they deserve within their lifetimes—people who work hard and have faith in Jesus are rewarded. In some versions, it’s well within what Jesus says, that God will give us what we need. In others, however, it’s the ghost of Puritanism (as Max Weber called it) that haunts America: that wealth and success are perfect signs of membership in the elect. And it’s that second one that matters for understanding current GOP policies.

In that version, in this life, people get what they deserve, so that good people get and deserve good things, and bad people don’t deserve them—it is an abrogation of God’s intended order to allow bad people to get good things, especially if they get those good things for free. For people who believe that God perfectly and visibly rewards the truly faithful, there is a perfect match between faith and the goods such as health and wealth. People with sufficient faith are healthy and wealthy, and, because they have achieved those things by being closer to God, they deserve more of the other goods, such as access to political power. Rich people are just better, and their being rich is proof of their goodness. So, it’s a circular argument–good people get the good things, and that must mean that people with good things are good.

I would say that’s an odd reading of Scripture, but no odder than the defenses of slavery grounded in Scripture, nor of segregation, nor of homophobia. All of those defenders had their proof-texts, after all. And, in each case, the people who cited those texts and defended those practices had a conservative (sometimes reactionary) ideology. They positioned themselves as conserving a social order and set of practices they sincerely believed intended by God as against liberal, progressive, or “new” ways of reading Scripture.

[And here a brief note—they often didn’t know that their own readings were very new, but that’s a different post.]

Because they were reacting against the arguments they identified as liberal (or atheist), I’ll call them reactionary Christians for most of this post, and then in another post explain what’s wrong with that term.

In some cultures, political ideology and identity are identical, so that a person with a particular political belief automatically identifies everyone with that belief as in the category of “good person,” and anyone who doesn’t share that belief is a “bad person.” We’re in that kind of culture.

That easy equation of “believes what I do” and “good person” is enhanced by living within an informational enclave. In informational enclaves, a person only hears information that confirms their beliefs—antebellum Southern newspapers were filled with (false) reports of abolitionist plots, for instance,—so it would sincerely seem to their readers as though “everyone” agrees that abolitionists are trying to sow insurrection. In an informational enclave, “everyone” agrees that the Jews stab the host for no particular reason (the subject of the stained glass above–a consensus that resulted in massacre).

Informational enclaves are self-regulating in that anyone who tries to disrupt the consensus is shamed, expelled, perhaps even killed. By the 1830s, it was common for slave states to require the death penalty for anyone advocating abolition, and “advocating abolition” might be understood as “criticizing slavery.” American Protestant churches split so that Southern churches could guarantee they would not have a pastor that might condemn slavery (the founding of the SBC, for instance), and proslavery pastors could rain down on their congregations proof-texts to defend the actually fairly bizarre set of practices that constituted American slavery.

As Stephen Haynes has shown, the reliance of those pastors on an odd reading of Genesis IX became a Scriptural touchstone for defending segregation.

Southern newspapers were rabidly factional in the antebellum era, and (with a few exceptions) pro-segregation (or silent on segregation) in the Civil Rights eras. (This was not, by the way, “true of both sides,” in that the major abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, often published the full text of proslavery arguments.) Because those proof-texts were piled up as defenses, and reactionary Christianity was hegemonic in various areas, many people simply knew that there were three kings who visited the baby Jesus, that those three kings related to the three races, with the “black” race condemned to slavery due to Noah’s curse.

If you’d like to see how hegemonic that (problematic) reading of Scripture was, look at older nativity scenes, and you will see that there is always a white, someone vaguely semitic, and an African. Ask yourself, how many wise men visited Jesus? Try to prove that number through Scripture.

That whole history of reactionary Christianity is ignored, and even the SBC has tried to rewrite its own history, not acknowledging the role of slavery in their founding. My point is simply that, when a method of interpreting Scripture becomes ubiquitous in a community, then people don’t realize that they’re interpreting Scripture through a particular lens—they think they’re just reading what is there.

For years, the story of Sodom was taken as a condemnation of homosexuality, but there is really nothing about homosexuality in it—the Sodomites were more commonly condemned for oppressing the poor. There are rapes in it, and one of them would have been homosexual, but there is no indication that homosexuality was accepted as a natural practice in the community. Yet, for years, the story of Sodom was flipped on the podium as though it obviously condemned all same-sex relationships.

For readers of The New York Times, The Nation, or other progressive outlets, the Scriptural argument over homosexuality was under the radar, but it was crucial to how far we’ve gotten for the civil rights of people with  sexualities stigmatized by reactionary Christians. The Scriptural argument about queer sexuality was always muddled—Sodom wasn’t really about gay sex, the word “homosexuality” is nowhere in Scripture, people who cite Leviticus about men lying with each other get that sentiment tattooed on themselves while wearing mixed fibers, Paul was opposed to sex in general.

Reactionary Christians managed to promote their muddled view as long as no one raised questions about exegesis, and the Christian Left raised those questions over and over. And now even mainstream reactionary churches who argue that Scripture condemns homosexuality have abandoned the story of Sodom as a proof text. That success can be laid at the feet of progressive Christians.

One thing that turned large numbers of people, I think, was the number of bloggers, popular Christian authors, and pastors making the more sensible Scriptural argument: there isn’t a coherent method of reading Scripture that demonizes queer sexuality and allows the practices reactionary Christians want to allow (such as non-procreative sex, divorce, wildflower mixes, corduroy, oppressing the poor).

Similarly, an important realm in the Civil Rights movements was that in which progressive Christians debated the Scriptural argument. One of the more appalling “down the memory hole” moments in American history is the role of reactionary Christians in civil rights. Segregation was a religious issue, supported by Genesis IX, and various other texts (about God putting peoples where they belong, and all the texts about mixing). Even “moderate” Christians, like those who opposed King, and to whom he responded in his letter, opposed integration.

That’s important. The major white churches in the South supported segregation, and all of the reactionary ones.The opponents of segregation (like the opponents of slavery) were progressive Christians, sometimes part of organizations (like the black churches) and sometimes on the edge of getting disavowed by their organizations. And that is obscured, sometimes deliberately, as when reactionary Christians try to claim that “Christianity” was on the side of King—no, n fact, reactionary Christianity was on the side of segregation.

Right now, there is a complicated fallacy of genus-species among many reactionary Christians, in that they are trying to claim the accomplishments of people like Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael on the grounds that King was Christian, while ignoring that their churches and leaders disavowed and demonized those people (and, in the case of Jackson and Carmichael, still do).

Reactionary Christianity has two major problems: one is a historical record problem, and the second, related, is an exegesis problem. They continually deny or rewrite their own participation in oppression, and they have thereby enabled the occlusion of the problems their method of exegesis presents. If their method of reading got them to support slavery and segregation, practices they now condemn, then their method is flawed. Denying the problems with their history enables them to deny the problems with their method.

Reactionary Christianity’s method of reading of Scripture begins by assuming that the current cultural hierarchy is intended by God, that this world is just, that everything they believe is right, and then goes in support of texts that will support that premise. And there is also a hidden premise that the world is easily interpretable, that uncertainty and ambiguity are unnecessary because they are the signs of a weak faith, and that the world is divided into the good and the bad.

  1. The Scriptural argument

The proof-text for the notion that poor people don’t deserve health care or other benefits is 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you: that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”

Thessalonians may or may not have been written by Paul (probably not), but it certainly contradicts what both Paul and Jesus said about how to treat the poor. There are far more texts that insist on giving without question, caring for the poor, tending to people without judging, and for humans not presuming to be God (that is, we are not perfect judges of good and evil, and our fall was precisely on the grounds of thinking we should be).

That we have a large amount of public policy wavering on that single wobbly text of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is concerning, but it isn’t new—the Scriptural arguments for slavery, segregation, and homophobia were and are similarly wobbly. Prosperity gospel has a very shaky Scriptural foundation, and the whole notion that Scripture supports an easy division into makers and takers isn’t any easier to argue than the readings that supported antebellum US practices regarding slavery.

Their reading of Scripture says that they should feel good about health insurance being restricted to people who have jobs (which is why Congress is cheerfully giving themselves benefits they’re denying to others—they see themselves as having earned those benefits by having the job of being in Congress). They can feel justified (in the religious sense) in cutting off people on Medicaid, those who are un- or underemployed, and those with pre-existing conditions because they believe that Scripture tells them that those people could simply stop being un- or underemployed, or have made different choices that wouldn’t have landed them on Medicaid, or could have prayed enough not to have those pre-existing conditions. They believe that they are, in this life, sitting by Jesus’ side and handing out judgments.

I think they’re wrong. But calling them hypocrites won’t work.

This is an argument about Scripture, and progressives need to understand that, as with other policy debates, progressive Christians will do some of the heavy lifting. And progressive Christians need to understand that it is our calling: to point, over and over, to Jesus’ passion for the poor and outcast, and to his insistence that the rewards of this world should never be taken as proof of much of anything.


2 thoughts on “Making sure the poor don’t get any food they don’t deserve”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. A very compelling read. Much appreciated and important. It may not be fair to ask you about something you did not write about, but if we build on your argument here and recognize the unlikelihood that detailed scriptural arguments will suddenly dominate our public discourse (much less powerfully insulated information enclaves)… do you see an initial and do-able action step here to move us in this direction? I guess I am thinking of George Lakoff’s analysis: how does your work here help us reframe our response to reactionary Christians more effectively? What is the new frame?

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