Let’s Talk “Lo$ing Faith”

I was pumped to see an excellent set of established and emerging theologians had put out a report on money’s role in politics. You can download “Lo$ing Faith in our Democracy” here. Among the theologians I was excited to see involved were D. Stephen Long and Charlie Camosy, as well as William T. Cavanaugh, whose Eucharistic work I riffed on in my reflection on Maundy Thursday. Does it live up to the hype?

Yeah. It does. For starters, here’s the big consensus issue that forms the theological spine of the whole report:

If there was one principle that our theologians agreed on, it was that the needs of the poor must remain front and center. A number of them substantially focused their teaching on this principle. And they generally felt that the current role of money in politics does not take into account the needs of the poor.

Given the tendency of some theological approaches to resist ‘creative politics’, that is, the use of politics to restructure and reform, I was pumped to see the creative impulse alive and well here, operating under an intent to serve the vulnerable. Another neat note: there was open resistance to pure “procedural justice”, i.e.. the framework that judges distributional programs by their methods of procedure rather than outcome. Most of these procedurally just systems are hooked into desert theory, which is rife with theological problems.

On the subject of God’s love of the poor, Ron Sider dropped this explosively beautiful chunk of wisdom, which rang in my soul like the tone of a bell:

Amazingly, the Bible declares that God so identifies with the poor that when we care for the poor and needy, we truly minister to God Himself (Proverbs 19:17). On the other hand, religious people who neglect God’s summons to care for the poor are not the people of God at all. God rejects their worship (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 58:3-7). Those who do not feed the hungry and clothe the naked go to hell (Matthew 25:44-46). Jeremiah declares that we simply do not know God properly if we do not care for the poor. (Jeremiah 22:16). Do these hundreds of biblical verses mean God is biased toward the poor? No. The Bible explicitly forbids God’s people to be biased toward the poor (e.g. Leviticus 19:15). But does God’s lack of bias mean that God is neutral in historical situations of injustice? Again, no.

Precisely because God cares equally for both oppressor and oppressed, God sides with the oppressed to end the oppression so that oppressed and oppressor may become whole. The analogy of good firefighters helps us understand how God is not biased but sides with the poor. Good firefighters do not spend equal time at every house in the city. They focus on burning houses. But their focus on burning houses does not mean they care more about some people than others.

Very interesting — especially the ultimate goal of community wholeness. There are a lot of ways of conceptualizing this — geographically is one novel way — but there is also the matter of treatment and conceptualization. Thinking of the poor as us seems here a necessary and required theological practice, and in that case, how must our politics follow? I personally think this has fascinating implications for means-tested programs: if we’re to work toward wholeness, it would appear that programs serving all of us together might be more conducive to the goal of blending the community in unity than ticky-tacky means-tested programs. Here I’m thinking of, say, universal healthcare, a universal child allowance, and/or universal basic income. Fantastic food for thought on the theological grounding of those policies. And here’s Cavanaugh, pressing on:

The ‘option for the poor,’ therefore, is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community. The extent of their suffering is a measure of how far we are from being a true community of persons. These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” It is a fundamental Catholic principle that the poor should not only be served but that the voice of the poor should be heard. The current equation of political speech with money virtually ensures that this principle will be violated, and the interests of those with access to money will prevail in the “marketplace of ideas.”

Very deep theological thinking about the amplification of political thought based on nothing but available funding — this is basically what weakens Christian leftism, by the way; there just isn’t a donor base. Income inequality seems a natural issue to solve the current state of affairs back to here, which seems fair given that the whole document is interested in understanding the right role of money in political life, which means both that money does have the potential to serve good purposes in politics, and that it currently isn’t doing so.

There’s a meaty section on corporations and political speech that I won’t quote here for length, though it’s worth reading. I thought I detected a bit of slippage in the use of the term corporation/corporate when it came to Cavanaugh’s critique of the other theologians’ deep suspicion of corporate personhood. Yes, corporate personhood has a place in Christianity in the sense that corporate bodies of people (like churches and so on) have a divine purpose, but ‘Corporations’ as such do not actually seem to be corporate in the way that we think of integrated bodies of people ideally being. Therefore I would retain some level of suspicion as to whether or not we should imagine them to operate theologically as corporate bodies of people do. (Which isn’t the total substance of Cavanaugh’s critique, but rather a response to it that preserves the good thought of the theologians he himself responds to. Now, group hug.)

There’s a very engaging meditation by Long near the end on land ownership in the OT and systems of debt and distribution; he uses this to meditate on what can be a dismaying fixation on process by some motivated parties:

That the procedures must be fair is clear in the several texts that demand unbiased courts (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17 and 10:17-19; Exodus 23:2-8). That distributive justice (i.e. fair outcomes) is also a central part of justice is evident not just from the hundreds of texts about God’s concern for the poor…but also in the meaning of the key Hebrew words for justice (mishpat and tsedaqah). Time and again, the prophets use mishpat and tsedaqah to refer to fair economic outcomes. Immediately after denouncing Israel and Judah for the absence of justice, the prophet Isaiah condemns the way rich and powerful landowners have acquired all the land by pushing out small farmers (Isaiah 5:7-9). It is important to note that even though in this text the prophet does not say the powerful acted illegally, he nevertheless denounces the unfair outcome. In another text, Isaiah denounces the powerful who used “unjust laws” to “deprive the poor of their rights” (Isaiah 10:2). The prophet even declares that God will send Israel and Judah into captivity for their economic injustice.

Excellent. Anyway, I just wanted to point you fellas toward this, as it’s a great document full of really readable thought. I didn’t quote any of the outstanding Jewish analysis here because I wanted to keep the quotations tight to the Christian ethical analysis I usually forward, but there is fantastic Jewish work in the report that’s well worth incorporating into our discourse. Happy reading!