Gifts to the Rich

“One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich – both come to poverty” (Pr 22:16)


“Next is the matter of our not craving to be rich. For as soon as that lust for gain takes hold of us, it is certain that we will become thieves; it cannot be otherwise.”

“Let us consider for a moment who the rich are: insatiable men who can never be satisfied and who are much more difficult to be content than the poor. If we were to make a comparison between the rich and the poor, we would find that just as there are some who are tormented and grieve, and who are led to steal, and engage in many adverse practices, so the majority are content to accept what God has given them and follow their course. But when we come to the rich, as for kings and princes, we find that they are so inflamed and covetous for the goods of this world that we cannot satisfy them; indeed, they are almost grieved if the sun shines on the poor. In brief, we see that the majority of the rich would not even be satisfied had God given them the whole earth to possess. For, as I have said, they are still jealous that the poor have a common ray of light, and that they drink water, and work, and even succeed better than the rich [in happiness]… And although he draws their sweat and blood, it seems to him that when they eat at his expense they are wringing him of his very intestines and bowels. And unfortunately, this parsimony, or rather brutal cruelty on the part of the rich, is far too common.”

“And let those who enjoy the vogue, who have money in their purses, be especially careful not to oppress the poor, for they always have their traps set. For that is what the rich do; if they see that a poor man is going under, they hurry there like hunters and immediately fall upon him, turning this way and that, and through their weaving have the poor man entrapped in the end.”

“And instead of the rich imagining that they have gained everything [by their own industry] when they have been enriched at the expense of others, let us realize that they have cut the throats of the poor and have made many widows and orphans, even though they don’t think so.”

(John Calvin: Sermon on the Eighth Commandment)


The Opportunity and Peril of our Hollywood Moment

The American culture seems to be experiencing a moment. We are finally awakening to the widespread abuse by sexual predators among the rich and powerful. The many salacious allegations against Harvey Weinstein was the catalyst. These spread to include numerous other leading men of Hollywood effectively ending their careers – at least for the time being. Of course, many such allegations existed as rumors for years, but now that journalists are shining a light on these scandals, Hollywood is taking them more seriously. Indeed, “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). The truth contagion is now spreading to congress. It seems increasingly plausible that half of all men in Hollywood and Washington D.C. will be exposed.

This is an opportunity for Christians. Many in America seem to be taking a collective step back from the grossest excesses of the sexual revolution. This revolution sought to divorce sex from loving, committed relationships and from raising a family. Sex could be “casual.” Casual sex objectifies humans as an assortment of body parts, and sex as mere genital stimulation. Such an emphasis necessarily leans toward selfishness. The rich and powerful are especially prone to narcissism and are therefore more likely to abuse other humans as sex objects. As our Dear Leader noted, “when you’re a star, they let you do it. They let you do anything.” They could thrust their fantasies on others and get away with it.

We also need to note the connection between fantasy and real life abuse. Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:18-19). This is common sense and logical. It is foolish to think that illicit fantasy is morally neutral. We restrain our actions. We ought also to restrain our hearts. Sexual predators act out the fantasies they have nurtured through years of pornography use. Moreover, graphic sexual assault is now frequently depicted in popular MA programming, along with torture, gore and murder. Are these images we should be putting in our head?

There is also great peril for evangelical Christians in this Hollywood moment. We know that the church is not immune from the corruption we see in Hollywood. We know that some have suffered abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, or a handsy Protestant youth pastor. We have heard about the “Patriarch” and his maid, and the mega-church pastor that is now divorced after his serial adultery was exposed. In most cases (at least among Protestants) churches react swiftly and decisively against those that have abused their trust. We must guard against the impulse to conceal sin in an effort to “protect” our own.

This danger for evangelicals is especially acute as the focus shifts from Hollywood to D.C. The danger is that a “party spirit” will warp our judgment if we perceive that a member of “our team” is threatened. Liberals have not hesitated to crucify fellow Liberals, whether in Hollywood or D.C., straight or gay, when credibly accused of wrongful sexual conduct. Yet when Senate candidate Roy Moore is credibly accused of the same, the instinct – especially (and incredibly) for many evangelicals – is to take refuge in baseless conspiracies and fake information. It is one thing to not rush to judgment. It is quite another to exclaim “impossible!” and to invent stories about witnesses being “paid by the fake media from the swamp.”

We are not entitled to alternative facts. God knows. “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Lk 12:2). This is true whether you are a pagan in Hollywood, a Christian from Alabama, or even the President of the United States.

Who Will Stop the Killing?

Law enforcement officials investigate a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This past Lord’s Day (Nov 5) a (non-Islamic) terrorist walked into an unassuming country church. Armed with a Ruger AR-556 (or AR-8515?) rifle, he murdered 26 persons and injured an additional 20. He killed or wounded nearly everyone present that morning. This happened only one month after another (non-Islamic) terrorist unloaded into a sea of persons attending a country music concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding over 600. On and on the list goes and on and on these examples will continue. We have become numb to mass murder, but we must cry out “who will stop the killing?”

I have seen comments from other Christian pastors on this subject. They say that the true problem is spiritual. The source of our national sickness finds its source in the sinful heart of mankind. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). They conclude that the solution is therefore not political or sociological. Only repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ can take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh, wherein God’s law is inscribed on our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. Wars and violence will continue to the end of the age. At long last King Jesus will return and usher in universal peace and righteousness. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and violence will be no more.

At first blush this seems like a good Christian answer. It is true that violence springs from the evil within the human heart. It is true also that utopian dreams and the perfection of human society will elude us this side of heaven. Finally, it is true that the shooter Devin Kelly was an outspoken atheist (and ex-Christian) that surrendered to his nihilistic beliefs. The error is the fatalistic attitude that suggests there is nothing anyone can do other than to pray and point sinners to Jesus.

The suggestion that American gun violence is an exclusively spiritual problem that requires an exclusively spiritual solution is an implicit denial of fundamental Christian doctrine. All Christian traditions affirm this teaching. In Protestant circles we refer to this teaching as the first (Lutheran) or second (Reformed) use of the moral law.

In Reformed dogmatics we distinguish three uses of the moral law. The first is the theological use, wherein God’s law is our taskmaster that exposes our sin, convicts us of our guilt and drives us to Jesus in order to find grace and forgiveness (Rom 3:19-20; Gal 3:23-24). The third use of the law is the rule of obedience for the Christian. In the knowledge that we are loved by God as his children, we are motivated by love and gratitude to obey God’s commandments (John 14:21; Rom 8:4). What then is the second use of the law?

The second use of the law is the civil use. A function of the moral law is to act as an external restraint on sin. This use of the law is directed to the impenitent who give no thought to God and who would rush headlong in violating the life and liberty of others apart from this external restraint. The restraining use of the law is St. Paul’s emphasis in 1 Tim 1:9, where he teaches that the law is given “for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful.”

There are two interlocking concepts that comprise our view of the second use of the law. The first concept is that God reveals his moral law universally and immediately in the human conscience (Rom 2:14-15). Our consciences, which accuse us when we sin and excuse us when we do right, are a gift of God by virtue of our being created in God’s image. Although we have been corrupted by sin and no longer retain original righteousness, yet the vestiges of a properly working conscience remains. Even so, we are able to suppress the truth and harden our consciences, thereby giving ourselves over to evil.

The second concept is that God has given to us civil government for the express purpose of restraining evil and promoting good in the body politic. God has ordained the human institutions of government “to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Pet 2:14). We know that all human government is corrupt and ineffective in greater and lesser degrees, and yet God’s purpose in civil government has not completely failed. The Roman state in the days of the apostles was characterized by gross corruptions and miscarriages of justice, yet St. Paul could still say, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” and “For it is God’s servant for your good” and again, “for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” (Rom 13:3, 4).

An emphasis of the Protestant Reformation was the honorable vocation of the public servant. The Reformers affirmed the temporal authority of government, and the magisterial duty before God in supporting the rights of the poor, restraining the ambition of the wealthy, and maintaining law and order, so that the life and liberty of all may be protected.

“Believe in Jesus” is the answer to the question, “what must I do to be saved?” When Christians suggest that “Jesus” is the answer to any and every question they descend into self-parody. They are like the child in Sunday School Student who thought Jesus was the answer to the question, “what has a bushy tail, lives in trees and stores acorns for the winter?” Even the historical antinomians affirmed the civil use of the law.

Our sin problem does find the final and ultimate solution in Jesus. But God has also given us temporal tools useful in restraining civil crimes like murder. Therefore, our sin problem is partially sociological and technocratic. An international comparison of social sins like murder, suicide, violence, theft, and abortion is illuminating. The uncomfortable fact is that the American gun violence is a perverse form of American exceptionalism when compared against other wealthy nations.

There can be no doubt that there are public policies that will significantly reduce murder rates in the United States. There is doubt, however, as to which policies will be most effective. Christians need to weigh the evidence and debate these matters. Those who are dismissive of such discussions claiming that “Jesus is the answer” are without a theological leg to stand on.

Are there gun safety measures that will save lives, or is the problem that too few people are packing at all times? Is the problem that we do not invest enough in mental health care? Or, do we have too much care in the form of over prescribed psychotropic drugs? Is gun violence related to a love for shoot-em-up video games and violent movies? This is unlikely, but there are some who take up that argument.

Christian theologians do not necessarily have the answer to gun violence or the other social ills. As it turns out, the Bible was written before guns were invented. But, as fellow citizens, it is good and right that Christians think carefully about social sins and their temporal remedies, even as we point to Jesus as the only, ultimate, and final solution.