Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mitt Romney, the Desire to Get Rich, and St. Paul

Yesterday a facebook friend pointed me to a statement made by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney  at a Mississippi fundraiser Monday evening — one that raised over $1.7 million, with ticket prices set at $2,500, $10,000 or $50,000.  This is what Romney said:
We're accused, by the way - in our party - of being the party of the rich.  And it's an awful moniker, because that's just not true. We're the party of people who want to get rich. And we're also the party of people who want to care to help people from getting poor. We want to help the poor.
The last couple of sentences made me smile.  I'm sure he means well, but I can't imagine anyone from North Philly or Kensington thinking his economic policies will lift any from those neighborhoods out of the grinding, hopeless poverty that weighs them down like a pair of cement shoes.  The one thing that could — good paying industrial jobs — aren't coming back any time soon, if ever, because of the exigencies of the global marketplace.  Be that as it may (I don't see the other party having brilliant solutions, either), what really caught my attention was the sentence I have highlighted: "We're the party of people who want to get rich." 

Mitt the Mormon might like to consider himself a Christian, but his very honest statement demonstrates a disconnect between his and a Christian worldview and philosophy of life.  What is more worrisome to me, however, is that the vast majority of Christians in America will have no problems with his statement — indeed, many would positively celebrate it — especially those so-called "evangelicals" who should know their Bibles better than to have developed an ideological consanguinity with Romney's political philosophy.  Do "evangelicals" not remember that St. Paul, in one of the last things he ever wrote, said the following?:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10, NIV [altered JRM])
Paul is writing in response to false teachers in Ephesus, one of whose faults was their "supposing" (nomizontōn) that "godliness" or "piety" (eusebeia, the true practice of the Christian religion [cf. I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles {ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999} 135-70]) was a vehicle for (financial) "gain" (porismon) (1 Tim 6:5).  In response, the apostle affirms the connection made by the false teachers between eusebeia and porismos, but redefines both the nature of the "profit" brought by godliness and the conditions on which such profit might be had.  True piety, according to Paul, certainly does issue in genuine "gain," but emphatically not the "gain" of financial advantage.  The "gain" produced by such godliness is spiritual in nature, "the life of godliness itself," as Luke Timothy Johnson eloquently put it (The First and Second Letters to Timothy [AB 35A; New York: Doubleday, 2001] 294).

But such spiritual "profit" only accrues to those who accompany (meta) their "piety" with the concomitant virtue of "contentment" (autarkeias).  Autarkeia was a term used by the Stoics to refer to a detached "self-sufficiency" that enabled a person to resist the force of circumstances.  Paul clearly was riffing off these echoes of Hellenistic moral exhortation.  Once again, however, he fills the linguistic vessel with Christian content.  For Paul, the autarkeia that must accompany "piety" is defined in terms of the recognition that one both enters and leaves this life bereft of possessions (6:7; cf. esp. Job 1:21; Qoh. 5:14 [LXX]) and a contentment (archesthēsometha) with such necessities of life as food and clothing (6:8; cf. Matt 6:24-34; Luke 12:16-32).  This is a "contentment" rooted, not in prideful self-sufficiency, but in a dependence upon the God who strengthens the Christian and "will supply every need  ... according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:13, 19).

In verses 9-10 the apostle continues by stating, as clearly as one could hope, why the false teachers' worldview and desire for financial gain is wrong.  Not simply wealth or the possession of money, but the actual desire to get rich (hoi ... boulomenoi ploutein) leads to an inexorable downward spiritual spiral: temptation, the snare (sc. "of the devil"), senseless and harmless desires, all resulting in the inevitable "plunge" (bythizousin) into spiritual "ruin" (olethron) and "destruction" (apōleian).  Paul could not be clearer: the desire to become rich is a spiritual iceberg that will utterly plunge the unwary person who courts it into the icy depths of spiritual ruin.  He can confidently say this because the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (I hate to say this, but Pink Floyd's Roger Waters was wrong when he wrote way back in 1973, "Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today"), including the most devastating of all, apostasy from the faith (apeplanēthēsan apo tēs pisteōs).

Paul pulled no punches, and neither should any Christian teacher or preacher.  I, for one, am sick and tired of preachers who minimize what the New Testament (or the Old, for that matter) actually says about wealth and poverty either out of concern not to offend wealthy parishioners or, even worse, an unexamined "conservative" Americanism.  In my experience, Christian teachers have spent more time qualifying the story of the "rich young ruler" than in expounding what our Lord actually said about the rich and the kingdom of God.  In my experience, most Christian "preachers" have utterly explained away the early church's practice of communitarianism (Acts 2, 4), even going to the length of claiming that such an "unwise" practice led to the poverty the Jerusalem church later experienced in Acts (tell that to Luke, who saw this practice as an illustration of how "great grace was upon them all" [Acts 4:33]).  And I have heard more than one exposition of 1 Timothy 6 that so emphasizes Paul's condemnation of the desire for wealth (intended target: the poor and others who want to improve their financial lot) that they forget that one necessary corollary of what Paul says is a condemnation of those who have an inordinate desire to maintain their wealth.  Wealth, according to Paul, is an illegitimate concern.  If one doesn't have it, be content with what one has, so long as life's necessities of food, clothing, and shelter are taken care of.  If one does have it, one must be willing to use it to part with it, if necessary —  so as to meet the needs of others.

This is where the rubber meets the road.  I dare say that most people, myself included, are to some degree guilty of the sin Paul describes.  One teacher who didn't pull punches on this passage is my old friend, Buist Fanning.  Buist is a soft-spoken, reserved kind of guy, as befits a man from old Charleston, but a sermon he gave on this passage at Dallas Seminary in the late '80s is one I will never forget, not least because of a brilliant telling of a faux "dream" he had had of Winnebagos and such falling from the sky.  The point he made has had a lasting influence on my thought: all of us who want more than we have are guilty of the desire to get rich.  And the result of such desire has been detrimental to community, both in the people of God and in the national and worldwide communities as well.

Getting back to Mr. Romney's statement of what the GOP stands for, I believe it epitomizes what is wrong with American political discourse today.  It is not simply a matter of the GOP being wrong.  Both political parties are wrong because they have both imbibed from the same poisonous ideological well (i.e., same end, different means).  Romney's political and economic visions, however, are transparent in this regard.  I would argue that the major problem with his political philosophy is that it makes the pursuit (and protection) of individual wealth the driving force of life and political policy to the exclusion of communitarianism and the common good (i.e., the tension between individualism and one's responsibility to others is snapped).  In such a worldview taxes are not one's means-based contribution to the common good and, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, the means by which we buy "civilization, " but a "penalty" paid by the "virtuous" and hard-working "productive people" to subsidize the "others" who are lazy, "unmotivated" and un- or under-productive.  Such thinking, I would argue, is simplistic at best and arrogant self-centeredness at worst.  Once again, I am not saying that the typical solutions of Romney's opponent are optimal.  But the curious fact is that most American evangelicals buy into Romney's vision.  And whatever one's political loyalties are, that simply ought not to be.

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