Tuesday, June 27, 2017

“Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.” Proverbs 22:16
“A ruler who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food.” Proverbs 28:3
“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Proverbs 29:7
“Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:9
Photo taken by John W. Martens

There is a constant refrain that is heard in conservative Christian circles in the US (and perhaps the Western world in general) that we are in a “post-Christian” or “neo-pagan” or “neo-barbarian” culture. In fact, this seems to be the major motivating factor behind Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option – it is time for Christians to retreat and create intentional Christian communities since the public square is both antithetical to Christianity and hostile to Christians.  I do not want to judge the overall validity of these claims here –since I am not convinced that a culture made up of a majority of Christians is hostile to Christianity, but rather might just be tired of a moralistic pseudo-Christianity – but I do think there is some truth to claims that we are living in a “neo-barbarian” or “neo-pagan” society. 

Usually when these claims are made, however, the blame is cast at what is called in the US the “left” or “progressives” or “liberals,” whether associated with liberal churches or secular political parties or people with such personal liberal leanings. Such charges have not generally been leveled against the “Christian Right” in the US, which has been a major oversight, since the healthcare bill winding its way through the Senate now (having already been through the House) is a specific example of neo-barbarianism or neo-paganism from the Christian political Right.

It is improper really to speak about “paganism” as such, since it is a term that encompasses many ancient Greco-Roman religions and philosophies, and might also include modern versions of paganism, and does not tell us much of anything. I am not using it to refer to ancient Greco-Roman thought in general or modern varieties of paganism, whatever might be meant by the use of that term.
It think it is useful, though, to use the term “neo-paganism” to explore one strain of Greco-Roman thought and religion which was a fatalism about one's lot, as encapsulated by a belief that our lives were governed by fate (moira, tychē, the whims and caprice of the gods, or even that which transcended the gods) and there was not much you could do about your fate but accept it. This seems to be the dominant paradigm by which Christians such as Paul Ryan (Catholic) and Mitch McConnell (Baptist) have created the healthcare bill which may soon become law: if you have had the bad fortune to be born poor or born with chronic and demanding health problems, your fate is to suffer. There will be no help for you. 

With almost 22 million set to lose healthcare in the near future, according to the non-partisan CBO, the position the post-Christian, neo-pagans of the Republican party have taken is that your lot is due to the whims of the gods of health and wealth. If you have neither the fortune of health nor wealth, you clearly deserve neither. This sense of unrelenting fate which determines one’s place in life is not Jewish or Christian, but it is well-represented throughout Greek history. Fate, of course, is not entirely negative, at least for those who are blessed by the gods. But that is the point: you take what the gods give you and no one can alter their fate. 

I will use the dramatist Euripides as an example of this strain of thought, but one could choose from innumerable Greek or Roman examples. Euripides writes: “Look upon us. Whoever is noble among mortals will bear the calamities sent by the gods and not repudiate them” (My Translation; The Madness of Hercules, 1227-29).  In Arthur Ways’ far more poetic translation of this passage than mine, he writes, “who of men is royal-souled beareth the blows of heaven, and flincheth not.” [1] “Flincheth not,” this is our starting point. You take what you are given. You cannot "repudiate" what the gods have sent you! Accept your lot. Take it without complaint, for these are the blows the gods have given us. Among mortals, Euripides makes clear, you can be certain that the “blows of heaven” will fall. It might arise from actions which infuriate the gods, it might arise from divine capriciousness, it might simply be your fate, beyond the actions of the gods, but these blows will fall. 

Euripides represents a type of Greek thought in which the primary ethical arbiter is the caprice of the gods, who do what they will when they will; and who are filled with the same motivations as humans. Hercules’ wife Megara, awaiting her death and those of her children at the hands of the usurper Lycus says, “So, even, nothing (concerning the ways) of the gods is clear to human beings” (The Madness of Hercules, 62). Why is she marked for death by fate? She recounts that “I was not banished from (good) fortune (tychês) through my father” (The Madness of Hercules, 63). So what has brought her to this place of doom? The goddess Hera has decreed that she and her children will die at the hands of their father Hercules. It is this fate, this necessity, which one must pay, though one does not necessarily know why it must be or when the terms of the payment are due, which leads to an overwhelming sense of  helplessness. 

Hera’s hatred of Hercules knows no bounds; Megara and her sons are caught up in his fate. What is in the past is past: “fate (tychê) has substituted your brides and given to you instead Maidens of Doom to have” (The Madness of Hercules, 480-81), says Megara to her sons. But why? The chorus cries out, “But now there is no boundary of the gods which makes clear good and bad” (The Madness of Hercules, 669-670). This is precisely the problem: who knows why we suffer what we do? It is just our fate to accept the decree of the gods. If you are poor, too bad! If you are born sick, face your fate! If you are wealthy and powerful, the gods have smiled on you! It is not in our power as human beings to change the decrees of the gods and we have no idea, really, why they have decreed what they do. 

The cruelty of fate seems to be the only reason I can see motivating the recent iterations of the Republican healthcare bills in which healthcare will be taken from the poor, the disabled, and many others. It boils down to this: Some people have been chosen to be poor and sick and there is nothing we can or should do to help them. They are simply not as loved by the gods as are those who have been chosen to be wealthy and well. Not all lives are of equal worth in this equation. 

The view of the Jews, adopted by the Christians, is different, not just in terms of why people are poor or suffering (it is not usually a matter of personal blame, though God might play some role in it, such as punishment or pedagogy), but how to respond to it (the task for Jews and Christians is to care for the powerless because they are especially loved by God). Regardless of their situation here on earth, God values all human beings as equally worthwhile. The providence of the one, true living God guides all things, without question, but there is a major difference between this and the fatalism of fortune: God cares for the poor and the weak and it is the task of the rich and powerful to care for the poor and weak. Even kings need to listen to God's prophetic word.  You also never ought to imagine that the poor and the weak are not blessed!

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God’s care and love for the poor and disenfranchised is made evident. A few passages (NRSV) will be listed here, though hundreds more - no exaggeration - could be offered:

Deuteronomy 15:7-8
If in any of the towns in the land that the Lord your God is giving you there is a fellow-Israelite in need, then do not be selfish and refuse to help him. Instead, be generous and lend him as much as he needs.

Psalm 69:30-33
30 I will praise the name of God with a song;
    I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the Lord more than an ox
    or a bull with horns and hoofs.
32 Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
    you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33 For the Lord hears the needy,
    and does not despise his own that are in bonds.

Psalm 140:12
12 I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy,
    and executes justice for the poor.

 Proverbs 13:23
23 The field of the poor may yield much food,
    but it is swept away through injustice.

Proverbs 22:22-23
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Amos 5:21-24
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Isaiah 1:17
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Jeremiah 22:3
Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.

Micah 6:8
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Jesus’ own teaching adopts these views of Judaism regarding the poor and the powerless. We see this especially in the Beatitudes of Luke 6, where Jesus said,

20 “Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

Luke also has the Woes for the rich, since, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13:

13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Riches come to be seen not inherently as blessings but as a danger, with the ability to block the wealthy from love of God and love of neighbor. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 places in narrative form the warning in Luke 16:13.  Jesus interpreted his entire ministry in light of his care for those who were the neediest, saying in Luke 4:18-19

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This concern for the poor and those in need runs throughout the whole of the New Testament tradition. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 12:13, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” In his letter to the Philippians 2:3-4, Paul states, “3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

The letter of James excoriates those Christians who believe that faith excuses them from acting on the part of the poor: “15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16). Finally, the first letter of John asks, “17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17).

What we see in the Republican healthcare bill is the antithesis of Jewish and Christian teaching about the poor. It is, I would argue, an adoption of fatalistic beliefs about the poor which once reigned in Greco-Roman thought. I would encapsulate it in this way: “everyone gets what they deserve, even if we do not know why; if some are fated to poverty and uselessness, and some to wealth and power, so be it. The poor are not worth as much as those who have much and so they deserve much less.” There is no way to make Christian sense of a bill that cuts millions of people, literally millions, from healthcare to give tax breaks to the wealthy. 

This rejection of Christian and Jewish teaching is profound, especially since the healthcare bill is written by people who are purported to be Christians (and I take them at their word). The bill suggests that there is a class of people who are no longer loved or valuable in God's eyes. I can only see this as an adoption of one particular type of divine fatalism found in ancient pagan thought: only those with wealth and power are blessed and loved by the gods. The poor are useless, abandoned by the gods.

Instead of adopting the Christian attitude that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48), the neo-pagan belief driving the Republican healthcare bill is rather that those who have a lot deserve it and those who have nothing deserve nothing. Once one rejects the value of every human life, as this healthcare bill does, it becomes possible to extend such anti-life views in every direction. If we regard the weak and the poor as not worthy of healthcare, it becomes possible to extend this belief to those of a different religion, color, or ethnicity, who are seen (and treated) as inherently less valuable. 

The Republican healthcare bill makes it clear that people are no longer valuable in themselves, simply as human beings loved by God, but only for the monetary value they hold. But at various times in our lives, any of us at any time could be what Jesus calls one of the “little ones,” in need of support and care, such as polio treatment, in need of primary healthcare, due to accident, gunshot wound, or disease, in need of food, shelter and medicine. This healthcare bill is a turning point for the Christian Right in the US for it clearly demonstrates that it has rejected the equality of all life, which is a rejection of God's love of all humanity, and turned to a neo-pagan belief that fate has chosen and the gods have decreed. The Christian Right in the US, to the extent that they choose to defend this healthcare bill, have chosen death over life, the gods over God, the maws of Moloch over God's love for all humanity. The barbarians are not at the gates; they are inside the building, shutting out the poor.

John W. Martens

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 [1] Arthur Ways, Euripides. Vol. III (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1912)  229. All translations of Euripides, unless otherwise noted, are from this volume and others in the Loeb series.