Saturday Night Theologian
13 April 2008

Acts 2:42-47 (first published 17 April 2005)

As people have been singing the praises of Pope John Paul II over the past two weeks since his death, many have mentioned his vigorous opposition to communism in his native Poland and throughout Eastern Europe and his role in the downfall of communist governments there. Few have also noted that the pope was a scathing critic of capitalism as well. In his papal encyclical Centesimus annus, written on the hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum, John Paul discusses his predecessor's words regarding "unbridled capitalism" and the socialist reaction that was underway in many places around the world. He says that despite the many changes that have taken place in the world in the past century, "unbridled capitalism" remains a threat. The pope's primary critique of communism was not its stance on economic issues but its practical denial of human freedom and dignity to individuals living under communist dictatorships. The early church, as described in the book of Acts, practiced voluntary communism of sorts. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Thus, the church was able to meet the needs of its members, and people were willing to share their possessions with their brothers and sisters in Christ. The Marxist dogma of class struggles accurately describes the situation that prevails when capitalism runs amok and owners of capital make millions or billions of dollars while ordinary workers cannot make ends meet. Western governments have reigned in unbridled capitalism to some extent over the past century. In the U.S., the most significant gains were made under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. Monopolies were broken up, labor unions were recognized, and important strides toward justice for workers were made. Unfortunately, today many of those gains are slipping away. CEOs of many companies make hundreds of times the salary of the lowest-paid workers in the same companies. The telecom and oil monopolies that were broken up by anti-trust laws are reassembling themselves with the help of compliant politicians who accept campaign contributions from the companies that they are supporting with their legislation. The greed inherent in "unbridled capitalism" is no less onerous for many people than the severe restrictions on freedom that characterized former communist states in Eastern Europe. The example of the early church offers us a way out of this impasse. Generosity on the part of both individuals and the state is an imperative of Christianity that cannot be ignored or denied. Freedom is important, but so is human dignity. Those who criticize government policies that help the poor most stridently are generally those who have never needed the government's help themselves. They've never been unemployed, they've never faced enormous medical bills, and they've never been dependent on minimum wage jobs for their livelihood. The communist governments and policies of Eastern Europe were oppressive, and their people deserved better. Some of the capitalist governments and policies of the industrialized West have policies that are just as oppressive to some of their own citizens, not to mention the citizens of underdeveloped countries. The example of the early church, where people shared their possessions out of love for one another and concern for people's needs, should inspire Christians today to give generously and to demand that their governments care for people as well, citizen and non-citizen alike.

Psalm 23 (first published 17 April 2005)

If someone were to ask you today to list five things that you'd really like to have, I'll bet you could do it without much problem. It is inherent in human nature to want more and more: more toys, more prestige, more success, more love, more money. The traditional rendering of the first verse of Psalm 23 says, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." It is interesting to trace the meaning of the word "want" in the English language. It comes from the Old Norse word vanta, "to lack," and it had entered the English vocabulary by the 13th century. In Middle English the verb wanten still meant exclusively "to lack, to be in need." So, for example, in Chaucer's poem "Pity": "And certes yf ye wanten in these tweyne (truth and beauty), // The world is lore (lost); ther is no more to seyne." According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first recorded use of "want" with the meaning "to desire, wish for" was in 1706, fairly recently in terms of the history of the English language, and well after the classic King James rendering of Psalm 23. Nowadays the word "want" regularly means "to desire," and we often forget its original meaning. The same can be said of our understanding of God's provision. When we read, "I shall not want," we sometimes think it means that we will have everything we desire, but that's not the meaning at all. This verse teaches us that God cares for us and provides for our needs, not necessarily our wants. No one can deny the beauty of the King James rendering, preserved in many modern translations as well, but shifts in the English language itself require us to revise the wording, at least in our minds: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack for nothing that I need."

1 Peter 2:19-25

I occasionally sign online petitions for one cause or another--calling for an end to the war in Iraq, opposing the abuse of science by the current administration, supporting immigrants, etc.--but I recently signed a petition that opposes a practice in which our government is currently involved and that I find impossible to reconcile with any reading of the Christian faith. The National Religious Campaign against Torture opposes the torture of prisoners under any circumstance as a matter of conscience. The statement says, very simply,

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved--policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. Let America abolish torture now--without exceptions.
I thought of this petition while perusing today's reading from 1 Peter, which says of Jesus, "When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly." Jesus' reaction to assault on his person was nonviolence, endurance, and even, amazingly, forgiveness. It is a natural human reaction to respond to violence with violence, to seek revenge against those who have wronged us, and to identify more closely with those who are most like us (e.g., our fellow citizens). Christ calls us to abandon that line of thinking. If we would follow in the steps of Christ, as today's passage advocates, we must learn to fight our battles in nonviolent ways, to forgive others, and to work with all our might to turn our enemies into friends.

To sign the petition against torture, go to the Web site of the National Religious Campaign against Torture.

John 10:1-10

(first published 17 April 2005)

Almost every day I get e-mail from people offering to help me get a lot of money. It seems that a well-connected person in an African nation needs to get some money out of the country, and he or she needs my help. If I am willing to help that person, at no risk to myself, I can earn a hefty commission. Yeah, right. The Internet is crawling with people who prey on the weak and gullible, playing on their emotions or their greed or their good nature to swindle them out of some money. The authors of these e-mail messages appear to be offering me the deal of a lifetime, but in fact, they are thieves. How can you tell a crook from someone who legitimately cares about you and wants what's best for you? Jesus describes those who would lead his flock astray for their own selfish ends as thieves and killers. They pose as shepherds who care about the sheep, but in the end all they really care about is themselves. Unfortunately, this attitude of "me first" permeates the church in many places, and the church in turn passes along to its members ideas like this: "God wants me to be rich!" "God has chosen me and my kind above all others!" "God loves me but hates my enemies!" Jesus portrays himself in this passage as the gate to the sheep. His subsequent self-identification as the Good Shepherd is easy enough to understand, but what does he mean by comparing himself to a gate? "I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture." This saying seems to be tied to Jesus' claim in John 14:6 to be "the way." Jesus is the path through which his followers find God and life. They don't necessarily find riches and financial security, however, as some purveyors of Christian doctrine teach today. After Constantine made Christianity legal in 313, an immense competition arose for the posts of bishop in the most prestigious churches, because such posts meant a life of ease, wealth, and influence. In protest, many Christians fled to the deserts, convinced that the Christian life should be characterized more by struggle than by ease. The desire of some church leaders to get rich off of the flock continued throughout the Middle Ages, and it is alive and well today in some quarters. I don't see a problem with pastors and other church leaders making a decent living, but some take the desire for wealth and power to an extreme that is unhealthy and counterproductive to the Christian message. It's bad enough when a pastor exploits the congregation, but it's even worse when the pastor's lust for wealth catches on with the congregation, and they begin to equate money with God's blessings, condemning the poor as lazy or believing that their faith is inadequate. One rule of thumb for testing the message that someone preaches is to ask whether the same sermon could be preached in a village in Honduras, in a slum in Calcutta, or in a town in Rwanda. If the sermon would be inappropriate in those venues, then one must question its validity in a wealthy, Western church as well. Jesus offers the way to abundant life, and blessed is the earthly shepherd who is able to guide his or her flock to that life with compassion and integrity.