COLUMN: Christians should follow Jesus by supporting the poor
Editor's Note: This column is part of a point-counterpoint about how some Christians — like several prominent Republican politicians — can claim to follow Jesus but be against welfare. Click here to read Jason Byas' counterpoint.
Christianity is an ideology with which I am particularly fond of for its notions of charity and its staunch stance on reserving judgment against others. Jesus — a friend of prostitutes, tax-collectors and lepers — really is a philosophical literary rock-star, and as a student of literature and philosophy, I appreciate his sense of minimalist, philanthropic style.
It’s when Christianity becomes mixed-up in American politics and culture that I become frustrated and frankly a little confused.
I’m very unsure about the internal justifications of evangelical politicians, mostly conservative, whose basic doctrine seems to be one that labels the poor as lazy and unjustly entitled, cultural diversity as an evil and some of the greediest people in human history as those who have achieved the American dream.
The American dream, as I understood it growing up, was the dream of starved, huddled masses yearning for agency, the chance to elevate themselves above their class and finally crawl out from under monarchies and dictatorships that allowed them no agency whatsoever. It was a dream of which, I think most would agree, Jesus would have approved. His concern also was the poor, the sick and those yearning to be free from oppression under Rome.
How then, does the political party claiming to be both on the side of the founding principles of America and Jesus Himself also become the party obsessed with medieval notions of morality and is so deeply critical of the poor?
I’m interested in how a person like Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney can stand in front of a microphone, claim Jesus as their personal guide, Lord and Savior, and then negate every sermon Jesus ever gave.
“Let the poor children work as janitors,” Gingrich said.
“The very poor have a safety net, so I’m not concerned about them,” Romney said.
Both these men, incidentally, are at the very least multi-millionaires, own houses and yachts and have no actual connection whatsoever to the poor. Not to be cliché, but how can I not at least mention Matthew 19:23-24? You know, the whole bit about it being a little bit harder for a rich person to get into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? That’s pretty vivid and aggressive imagery.
So rich men who are not shy about wanting to cut programs like welfare claim to be on the same side as Jesus, and I usually hear the same responses to why this makes logical sense.
First, I’m often told that these men, and almost all people like them, give to charity and contribute to foundations that benefit the poor every single year; that programs like welfare should be handled by charities, not the government. The church should take care of this, they say, rather than the government forcing us to be charitable by taxing us and spending our money on programs for the poor.
I believe this was actually Ron Paul’s answer to a debate question. It seems obvious to me that we have charities, churches and a welfare system, and many people still can’t afford to meet a basic standard of living in this country. Removing the welfare system and placing the burden solely on charities and churches seems like a pretty obviously bad idea. The donations from the rich wouldn’t come close to meeting the basic needs of the poor, which was of great concern to Jesus, and cutting programs like welfare would leave many of the poorest people in America to die and many of our greatest cities surrounded by slums.
Besides that, if you have a billion dollars and you give a few million to charity every year, that’s not really what Jesus was talking about, and you know it.
Then people start quoting the Old Testament, and I don’t find this valid at all. Jesus (and the Holy Spirit in Acts 10-11) was pretty clear that the 613 commandments of the Old Testament were a guide for living but that the only non-negotiable rules were to believe in Him, be more charitable than wealthy and don’t throw stones at people because you are plenty guilty yourself.
The 613 commandments are clear, as well. If you follow them, you must follow all of them. Plenty of people do this; they follow Orthodox Judaism. As Christians are not Orthodox Jews, it makes no sense to cherry-pick from the list of rules and claim you are following either doctrine. So to quote Leviticus or Proverbs to justify hating homosexuality or having a billion dollars is no justification at all. It merely shows that a person can read a long book and only take from it the few sentences that apply to them completely out of context — like reading the whole New Testament, missing all the stuff about salvation and virtue and focusing on the execution of the teacher and the Revelation of a man who was not Jesus.
This is a job for a psychiatrist.
There are too many subjects in this discussion to tackle in one sitting, but my point is fairly simple: If you are a Christian, please follow the teachings of Jesus. Please treat the poor better than you treat the rich. Please don’t think you have the right to judge someone unless you are, in fact, a judge. Please act as if you actually believe in the afterlife your religion promises you for doing these things.
If you are going to erect crosses and billboards all over the place that the rest of us can’t possibly ignore, it’s downright rude not to practice what you preach.
Trent Cason is a literature and cultural studies senior.