Recently I ran across a 35 minute talk given by Rev. Robert Sirico entitled "The Rise (And Eventual Downfall) of the New Religious Left." Rev. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute and speaks and writes often about the "Religious Left."
In his talk, Rev. Sirico describes the new "Religious Left" using seven characteristics:
1. A tendency to believe that the Kingdom of God is not something essentially eschatological. It is a state of being that can and should be achieved here and now through human effort on earth.
2. A loathing of the economically successful rooted in the assumption that wealth is generally unjustly acquired, even -- and especially -- when it has been accumulated through market mechanisms.
3. A conviction that the cause of material inequality is primarily due to injustice that must be rectified.
4. A reliable bias against commerce and the merchant classes, their products, their marketing, and their cultural presence.
5. A bias in favor of government programs purporting to do good for others, and a preference for public policy solutions over individual or voluntary community action.
6. A judgment that earthly states of social well-being must come to be realized ahead of issues such as faith and morals.
7. An attachment to the idea that the natural environment represents a source of moral light in the world that is darkened by the activities of human beings.
Voices of the new Religious Left include Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo on the Protestant side, and Gustavo Gutierrez, Hans Kung, and Edward Schillebeeckx on the Roman Catholic side, according to Rev. Sirico.
So what do I think about his seven points? I think they are accurate, but I do not think that they are all bad. Specifically, I wholeheartedly agree with the premise outlined in point 1.
For centuries, Protestants (and many Catholics) have argued that God has given the world over to Satan, and that the world can only be delivered from Satan literally through the cataclysmic battles described in Revelation, after which God will lock Satan in a bottomless pit for 1000 years and then judge all men according to their deeds. Those who are judged righteous will live with God in the New Earth that is created after Satan's defeat.
This view of the End Times, combined with the "Rapture Fever" that has enthralled American evangelicals for the last forty years, has led many contemporary Christians to regard our world as hopelessly lost and in such a state of dysfunction that only its complete destruction can cleanse it of evil.
I believe that this view is flawed. God's Kingdom is here and now, and not, as Rev. Sirico describes it, an eschatological (or future) event. When we pray The Lord's prayer, we say, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven." This is a prayer for the contemporary transformation of our world into a mirror image of Heaven.
I also believe that selfishness and injustice is the primary cause of material inequality. Were this not the case, the Old Testament prophets would have not spent so much time pleading with Israel to practice justice for her people, starting with the poor and the weak. And I have to somewhat agree with point 4. While technological advances (and the continual upgrades that accompany those advances) are generally good things, the planned obsolescence that accompanies "styles" and "trends" makes us part with far too much of our money.
Those points aside, I believe that Rev. Sirico's criticism of the Religious Left and its over-reliance on collectivism and big government programs is spot-on.
Currently I am finishing up the 30-week JustFaith program. While I have a very high opinion of the program overall, I have some concerns about the strong leftist slant contained in much of the contemporary social justice literature that JustFaith uses. Capitalism and profit motives are continually questioned, while government programs (and, presumably, continually escalating taxes to provide the funding for those government programs) are consistently championed.
When Ron Sider's controversial book Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger was first published 30 years ago, Sider was strongly criticized because nearly all of his proposed solutions to global poverty involved large-scale state intervention and management of wealth. In the preface to the latest edition of Rich Christians, Sider back-tracks and explains that he really does believe in free markets and private ownership of property. He admits that the fall of the Soviet Empire and its socialist satellites in Eastern Europe severely dampened any remaining hope for the success of large-scale economic intervention by the state.
Another affront to sensibility is presented by Robert McAfee Brown in his book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible With Third World Eyes. While this book contains some profound theological and sociological insights into the role that the poor play in Scripture, and how Christians in Third World nations interpret Biblical texts much differently than their wealthy Western counterparts, Brown's extreme political naivety is exposed in passages such as this:
... Cuba does better when measured by Jesus' checklist [Matthew 25:35-36] than do the Latin American dictatorships that our nation supports. There are national programs to provide enough for those who hunger and thirst, so that Cuba's citizens, if not lavishly fed, all get enough; there is a welcome to strangers, not only from third world countries but even those from the United States, who uniformly report that they are treated with respect as individuals rather than categorized as representatives of a hostile government; there is a national commitment to clothe the naked by providing jobs for all and by sharing available shelter while new housing is built; there is a strong national commit to caring for the sick: free infirmaries, dispensaries, hospitals, and medical schools are located throughout the island.
Ah, Cuba's glorious national health care system, the envy of the world. And did you know that anyone is welcome throughout Cuba without fear of being searched and detained by the state police? I certainly didn't; I suppose I spend too much time reading imperialist propaganda. Anyway, to his credit Brown does admit that Cuba's record is "not as good in relation to prisons." Really, Mr. Brown?
So, is it possible to practice biblical justice without depending on collectivism and a planned economy that distributes wealth according to an endless series of five year plans? I do not believe that justice, democracy, and free market economics are mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe that an omnipotent state is capable only of perverting justice, because the only legal actions under such a system are those that directly benefit the state. Justice as outlined in the Bible requires actions that empower the weak and poor, which directly contradicts the notion that the state should benefit regardless of the cost to the individual.
There is a real need for evangelicals and other economically conservative Christians who believe in the superiority of free markets and democracy to provide guidance on how to use these principals in establishing social justice. I do not wish to see finger-pointing and "we care more than you do" debates erupt between conservative and liberal Christians. But I do wish to see conservative Christians become more involved in social justice, rather than just passing it off as a "liberal" or "socialist" fad that merits little serious attention.