Sins of power

The following is an excerpt from The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age (2007) by Christopher Cudworth. The book analyzes how biblical literalism affects politics, culture and the environment. 

Sins of power

Proclivity for wealth and power is a byproduct of the struggle for existence, a fact long recognized by the world’s religions. In a world where one of the main priorities of civilizations is to create profit and economic growth, the socially disadvantaged or “the meek” may come to be regarded as a drain on resources and a frustration to the flow of civil business. So the aspirations of the ambitious and the directives of faith often come in conflict.

Yet scripture tells us to care and provide for the meek and socially disadvantaged.  To mistreat an equal soul by any means; physically, socially, economically or politically––is a “sin of power.”

Specifically, the Bible consistently warns against choosing material over spiritual gains because focus on material possessions leads to covetousness and abuse. The New Testament offers classic condemnations of this behavior, as in 1 Timothy 6:9-10: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.” Matthew 6:24 is just as succinct: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (material wealth.)”

From a more conservative vantage point, the Bible offers guidance on how to be a fair and just manager in the event one is placed in a position of authority over others. Matthew 25:21 provides a paradigm of good conduct in the employer/employee relationship. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” People who are good with money clearly can be of great benefit in the world. It all comes down to how you handle the gifts you have been given.

This model of decorum is often neglected when pressure for survival tempts people to view the meek as a target for exploitation. It isn’t a bad thing to put people to work if there is a mutually equitable arrangement. But it is obviously wrong to take advantage of people through duress, slave labor or economic dominance. These practices violate the biblical principle of equal souls. For historical perspective, here are just a few of the ways the meek have been exploited throughout history:

#1 Eliminating “the meek”

The most brutal response to the problem of the meek is to eliminate them. That has been the approach of dictators and cultures of the absolute throughout history.  The Roman Emperor Nero made Christians the targets of hatred by blaming them for social ills that were the product of his own failed policies. Adolf Hitler targeted Jews for elimination along with all those he judged to be of an inferior race. Ethnic and religious “cleansings” have also been implemented whenever one culture stands in the way of another’s progress. Indigenous peoples in North America and Australia were persecuted and in many cases wiped out in the battle for land and resources.

These conflicts were also a fight to control the cultural imperative. A raw interpretation of the doctrine of Christian providence or Manifest Destiny formed at least part of the ideology for white settlers on both American and Australian continents.

So we see that competitions of race, religion, social status and economics virtually guarantee someone will be targeted as “meek” and a drain on society. Sadly the Christian faith and especially the brand of faith founded on biblical literalism has been used to fuel this absolutism, especially when it is used to confer the notion of superiority on a self-declared “chosen people” and to foster an “us or them” mentality necessary to justify killing or eliminating people who right should be seen as equal souls, not targets for exploitation or extirmination.

#2 Enslaving the meek

A similarly callous treatment of the socially disadvantaged is to enslave them. In early human history losing a war meant slavery for the people of a conquered civilization. There was also slavery created to feed the needs of commerce. Slave traders and the cultures they served obviously did not support the biblical principal of equal souls. Even America’s first swipe at the U.S. Constitution did not completely accomplish the goal of delivering equality for all its citizens. It took a Civil War and an amendment to the Constitution to complete that process.

#3 Ignoring the meek

Another common response to the meek is to simply ignore them. The Bible provides examples of how the physically or mentally disabled, poor, diseased or widowed were often ignored or ostracized. In a cruel application of religious literalism, illness or poverty was often blamed on a broken relationship with God. As a result, ancient cultures often made no plans to accommodate the needs of the weak, who were left to fend for themselves and suffer.

But faith based on the example of a loving God requires compassion, especially in a world where competition for survival often sends an entirely opposite message. Jesus Christ clearly and consistently called on all people to help the meek. The bible even advises that the meek shall inherit the earth (Psalm 37:11, Matthew 5). What a warning to those who would concern themselves primarily (or only) with material possessions.

#4 Exploiting the meek

There is certainly no crime in being needy or disadvantaged. But you wouldn’t know that from the attitude of people whose “I’ve got mine” mentality translates to politics of discrimination and exploitation of the poor and needy for profit or power. This attitude is not only sin of biblical proportions but also a violation of democratic principles as well.

Democracy and social welfare

At a theoretical level, the democratic ideal endeavors to provide equal opportunity to all its citizens. Yet a certain portion of the population will always require assistance to survive. The democratic response to chronic need has been to use governmental resources to sustain social assistance programs for groups at risk in a competitive society. This welfare also reaches beyond national boundaries to countries in need around the world. At home our government provides support to the elderly, health care safety nets, foster child initiatives, public education and other efforts to assist America’s citizens and immigrants. These programs mimic the Christian call to charity by caring for people in need. Independent faith-based initiatives may accomplish the same aims but a responsible government does not leave the welfare of its neediest citizens to chance or charity.

Considering that money for government programs comes from taxes, people in a democracy do have a right to decide how much tax should be collected and how it should be distributed.  It is a colloquial rule of thumb that imposing higher taxes to fund social welfare programs also produces bigger government. The corresponding assumption is that a cut in funding for social welfare programs reduces the size of government. But we should always challenge such assumptions if we hope to fully understand and sustain the foundations of democracy.

Critics of social welfare programs argue that government handouts diminish personal initiative and create a permanent welfare state. Efforts to initiate welfare reform have focused on changing the circumstance and mindset of the “welfare class” by helping people find work instead of relying on government checks. This effort to place people in jobs may reduce their financial dependence on the government. But putting people to work does not automatically improve the quality of their lives or alleviate social obstacles such as wage, gender or racial discrimination. They must earn pay sufficient not only to buy food and housing, but to afford health care, education and invest in retirement.

The first priority is to eradicate prejudice of any kind, be it racial, economic or discrimination based on sexual orientation or any other factors that impinge the rights of individuals––equal souls. Put another way, there has to be acceptance and love for all people to expect them to succeed. These are the equal rights to which the U.S. Constitution and democracy refer.

These rights align with the liberal core of Christian theology. Any agenda that ignores the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ by implementing fiscal or social priorities that discriminate against the meek or the poor is a sin of power. These are the national values to which politicians of good character adhere.

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