Monday, July 8, 2013

Doug Wilson, N. T. Wright, and Riders of "Pale" Horses

Pastor Doug Wilson

Last month Doug Wilson made a characteristically outrageous claim: N. T. Wright rides a pale horse. For those unfamiliar with the imagery, Wilson is alluding to the fourth "seal" of the Book of Revelation: "When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "come!" And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth" (Revelation 6:7-8, ESV).

Professor N. T. Wright
On the face of it, Wilson's accusation would appear to be somewhat over the top. The "pale" horse—actually, the hue conveyed by the term chlōros is a "pale, greenish gray," the distinctive pallor of a newly minted corpse—was, after all, ridden by one of the famous "four horsemen of the Apocalypse" revealed with the slain Lamb's opening of the first four seals of the scroll (Rev 5:1) that, as Richard Bauckham argues cogently, "reveal[s] the way in which, according to the hitherto secret purpose of God, the Lamb's victory is to become effective in establishing God's rule over the world" (The Theology of the Book of Revelation [Cambridge: CUP, 1993] 80). No matter what interpretive strategy one follows for the Book of Revelation, this horseman is a sinister, malevolent figure representing death, whose associate, Hades (i.e., the grave), follows in tow to gather up the strewn corpses left in its wake. In John's theological vision death and Hades, despite their present hegemony, are doomed figures. Indeed, by virtue of his death and resurrection, Christ already has gained power over them (Rev 1:18), and their ultimate destiny of being consigned to the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:14) has been rendered certain. In the meantime, however, the slain and victorious Lamb can and does utilize death and Hades as judgmental agents in the service of the ultimate consummation of the redemptive reign into which he entered by virtue of his death and resurrection.

To what does Professor Wright owe the honor of being dubbed a rider of such a horse? Well, in answer to a question posed by Pete Enns, Wright had the temerity to suggest that the peculiarly American connection between theological and political/economic conservatism was not a necessary connection. His exact words were as follows:
That is very interesting because, of course, in America, the spectrum of liberal conservative theology tends often to sit rather closely with the spectrum of left and right in politics. In England and in many other parts of the world, that simply isn't the case.
In England, you will find that people who are very conservative theologically by what we normally mean conservative in other words, believing in Jesus, believing in his death and resurrection, believing in the trinity are often the ones who are in the forefront of passionate and compassionate social concern of a sort which if were you to transport it to America would say, oh, that's a bit left wing.
I think what I want to do is to uncouple some of the connections which people have routinely made, particularly in America, and to say actually the whole idea of a spectrum, whether it's theological or political, is probably very misleading because there are all sorts of insights that we need. We need to get them from bits of the Bible we don't normally expect and perhaps from people in bits of the church we don't normally expect.
That is something that a robust faith that is firmly rooted in God, in the trinity, in Jesus, in the holy spirit ought to be able to take on board. Otherwise, what we are doing is substituting our framework and then judging people, according to where they are in our framework, rather than something which is actually the given at the heart of our faith.
Well, as I would likewise respond if asked whether or not I liked cheesesteaks, "Of course." This assumed-yet-unnecessary coupling of conservative theology and conservative politics has been the bane of my existence for decades as I have lived in the conservative hotbeds of Dallas, Texas and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I, too, was raised to make that very assumption, but years of graduate biblical study and working stiff jobs eventually conspired to convince me otherwise. Nevertheless, what Wright said was too much for the extremely conservative, "paleo-Confederate" (his term, not mine—don't get me going on that score, America having just marked the 150th anniversary of the carnage of Battle of Gettysburg, ultimately caused by his beloved, slavery-perpetuating Confederates) Wilson. 

The Cambridge economist, John Maynard Keynes
To Wilson, Wright implicitly is an exponent of "leftism" in his economic politics. By such a smear—make no mistake about it, to a conservative no greater insult can be hurled than accusing somebody as being a "leftist"—Wilson means that Wright is a naive, confused advocate of Keynesian economic policies, of which he has quite definite, if in my view muddled, opinions. Keynesianism, in Wilson's confident rhetoric, is simply a manifestation of "leftist ignorance of economics." Moreover, he throws down the gauntlet to the "hipster left" (which, I guess, would have to include me, a rather odd description of a 56-year old Luddite from Philadelphia) by claiming that concern for the poor "necessarily excludes every form of Keynesianism." Why? Because, so he asserts, 
Keynesianism destroys jobs, wages, families, neighborhoods, education, opportunity, and more. How is it seeking the good of the city to saddle them with sub-standard schools? How is it seeking the good of the city to start subsidizing waste, fraud and abuse? All such meddling is economic stupidity, and God did not tell His people to fan out over the globe, doing stupid things to people.
Now, I know where Wilson is coming from. He is an avid defender of "robust, free markets," like almost all Christians with postmillennial and/or Reconstructionist beliefs. He even acknowledges that "only the Spirit of God can bring [such markets] about through the gospel by setting men free from their envy and their covetousness gimmes." (Here, by the way, the delusion of postmillennialist eschatology appears to cloud his judgment almost entirely; such a scenario will never exist prior to our Lord's return to consummate the kingdom that was inaugurated through his death and resurrection; is it not a conceivably legitimate government function to act for the common good and curb the sinful excesses of the powerful and rapacious among us?) Elsewhere he provides a primer on his economic beliefs in a screed against the Wall Street Occupiers entitled "Horse Leech Economics." There we "learn" that the poor and working class don't pay their fair share because 50% don't pay any income taxes and that the beleaguered rich have every right to hide their assets off shore so as to avoid paying taxes, and that they are only to be faulted for "not defending themselves" against "economic insanity" of the type promoted by the Occupy movement. The overly simplistic nature of his argument that the rich are paying their fair share should be evident on only a moment's reflection. More importantly, however, if one thinks his defense of the rich sits uneasily next to the Prophetic and Jesuanic traditions found in the Bible, one would be correct. In particular, Wilson's entire polemic against Wright, and Keynesians in general, has, it seems to me, three basic problems.

First, Wilson operates with a flawed, simplistic definition of what "Keynesianism" entails. Wilson, of course, is not alone, a fact which led Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of Princeton University, perhaps the world's foremost Keynesian, to write a post on his blog last month entitled "Karicature Keynesianism." What Krugman means is as follows:

Anyone who’s followed the various attacks on yours truly knows what I mean: Keynesians believe that budget deficits never matter, that increasing demand can solve all economic problems, that there’s no such thing as a supply side to the economy, that more spending is always good.
This is clearly the working assumption of the "Austerians" of present day Europe and America who promote governmental inactivity-induced economic pain to be the "cure" for the supposedly Keynesian-induced recession that has roiled the developed world for going on six years. But it bears little resemblance to what Keynes and his latter-day acolytes propose. Indeed, what Keynes in fact argued for for increased public sector spending when the private sector was unable to sustain the economy sufficiently. Failure to do so  could have catastrophic consequences, as Krugman earlier wrote when summing up Keynes's major point: "slashing spending in a depressed economy depresses that economy further." What about when times are good? That, argued Keynes in 1937, was "the time for austerity at the Treasury."

Of course, Wilson has his sights set on more than simply governmental stimulus to ailing economies. He is an advocate of bare-bones government, and wishes it would stop "meddling" in places where it has no business, such as education as well as commerce (let alone healthcare). It will surprise no one that I am not in sympathy with Wilson at this point, despite my own concerns for governmental overreach. But, as the saying goes, the cure for a headache, no matter how severe, is not decapitation.

Second, Wilson's black-and-white descriptions of the effects of Keynesian policies is empirically unjustified. Indeed, what he says lines up perfectly with the blunt assertions of Ron Ross two years ago at The American Spectator in the wake of Obama's half-hearted stimulus package: "Keynesianism doesn’t work, never has worked, and never will work." Such is presumption, pure and simple. Ideology, it seems, almost always trumps evidence. At best, it succeeds in screening out or transmuting nasty evidence to the contrary. For, as Stanford Professor and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has argued, it was Keynes, and the economic policies he promoted, that likely saved capitalism from itself in Western Europe and America in the wake of the Great Depression (he was hardly the "leftist" his modern conservative detractors suppose, an index, it seems, of the shifting rightward of the ideological center during the past 30 or so years). Keynesianism destroys jobs? Tell that to the millions helped by FDR's WPA (Indeed, it was FDR's precipitant return to austerity in 1937 that led to the recession of 1937-38, which would only really end with the Keynesian defining moment: Word War II). Keynesianism destroys opportunity? Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of GIs, including my late father, who were able to attend college only because of the federal government-provided GI Bill. Keynesianism destroys wages? Tell that to the vast American middle class of the 1950s and 60s, the enormity of which was created in large measure by FDR's New Deal, and whose seemingly inexorable decline today coincided with the "rebirth" of so-called "Supply Side Economics" under Ronald Reagan in 1980. Keynesianism destroys economies? Tell that to tens of million Europeans in countries like Spain and the Republic of Ireland whose economies have sunk ever deeper into entrenched stagnation due to the fashionable, anti-Keynesian austerity politics of the EU, just like Keynesians such as Krugman said they would (ditto Krugman's predictions about Obama's stimulus package). Presumption is a powerful intellectual force, but in the real world an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption. And, as Krugman has often said over the years, "reality has a well-known Keynesian bias."

Third, Wilson's economic positions are, at best, theologically unjustified. I write this with some hesitation, knowing as I do Wilson's commitment to living all of life under the gospel and his desire to help the poor as part of that. Moreover, I understand the concern of writers such as Joseph Sunde that people in western democracies recognize the importance of earned success in life. (This, I suppose, is at the bottom of most middle class Christians' distaste for policies of preference and string-free assistance.) 

Nevertheless, when I read writers like Wilson and R. J. Moeller claim that the Bible espouses "principles of economics" that broadly conform to right-wing American political ideology, the New Testament scholar in me immediately bristles. For, as is always the case, the evidence presented in favor of such ideas is always selective in scope. To be sure, the Bible teaches the value of hard work and thrift, and prohibits stealing and envy. At the same time, the Torah which Reconstructionists envision enforcing on all of society also taxes the people of Israel heavily (the various "tithes" add up to more than 23%), and such taxes are on produce/"wages," not consumption. Likewise it prohibits a farmer from going back over a harvested field to pick up any grain left behind. Such produce was rather to be left for "the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow" (Deut 24:19), who are not thereby deemed "moochers" for their taking of what they did not produce. Likewise, both Jesus (Mark 12:17) and Paul (Rom 13:1-7) assume the right of even Imperial governments to tax their subjects.

More importantly, however, the discussion often is carried out based on a fundamental misunderstanding. For the Bible nowhere lays out a definitive pattern for macro-economics any more than it does botany, astronomy, or, for that matter, biology. To understand it to do so fundamentally misunderstands what the Bible is about. And understanding the Bible this way makes one particularly susceptible to distortions caused by assumed metanarratives such as the typical American worldview—which was Professor Wright's point in the first place.

Calvinists—of whom both I and Wilson count ourselves—have a decided tendency to prefer "rigorous" ways of thinking and to let the chips fall where they may. Better to be consistent, so it seems, than emotionally wishy-washy. Such a tendency rears its ugly head in discussions of election and predestination, where the sovereignty of God is (rightly) extolled at the expense (wrongly) of grieving compassion for those subject to the awful decree of preterition and prostration at the mercy and grace shown to us who are called.  In the same way it is easy for Calvinists to fall into the trap provided by rigorous "austerity" ideology and to advocate a socially-Darwinian, Ayn Rand-like economic policy that, to be frank, conflicts both with the "data" on the ground and the mind of Christ, who taught us to love our neighbors—indeed, our enemies—as ourselves. For behind the bare statistics are real, flesh-and-blood people whose lives are inexorably affected by the economic realities of our time, people who count more in the grand scheme of things than ideology

We do not live in a world—not here in America, not in Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan, or anywhere else where people are "free" and prosperous—in which people are free from sin and live by the "rules." Nor do we have a legitimate hope that the Holy Spirit will progressively work to produce such this side of Christ's parousia. The costs of living so-called "middle class" lives are escalating while wages are, at the same time, slipping. The costs of education are increasingly prohibitive for more and more people. Work is not compensated according to effort, results, and importance of the tasks performed. The twin forces of globalism and new technologies have unleashed economic forces that are likely to be detrimental to the livelihoods of scores of people brought up to expect more. And the "free market" loved by so many Christians has conspired to exacerbate rather than to alleviate these problems. The laizzes-faire impulse has resulted in an expanded and growing wage and wealth disparity that has fostered a growing inequality of opportunity in a land that pretends it stands for equality. To shrug one's shoulders and hope that the Spirit will reverse this trend is a pipe dream, as is the fantasy, which I have often heard espoused, that the church rather than the state should be the caregiver for the poor (Nobody living in any large urban center would ever make such a naive claim, even assuming such a task should be incumbent on the church; it isn't). Moreover, to suggest, as I have often heard, that "in the end" things will work out if we only stay the course (e.g., critics of FDR's New Deal), Keynes himself had the right perspective: "In the end we're all dead."

At bottom, such miscalculations have their root in two simple problems, with which I will close. The first is the perpetuation of an unhealthy individualism which is characteristically American. Far too many Christians see themselves almost entirely in individualistic terms, believing themselves to have little or no responsibility to the society as a whole. Yet if, as the author of Genesis clearly implies via the selfishly indulgent murderer, Cain, we are our brothers' keepers. I, for one, cannot understand how citizens of a nation whose government, as Abraham Lincoln so famously put it, is "of the people, by the people, and for the people" should resent economic (and healthcare) policies designed to make opportunity more equal across the board for all its citizens. That, it seems to me, is simply common human decency—or at least it should be common.

The second problem is the assumption that economic freedom is the highest good to which a society should aspire. Those that don't succeed—after all, most people will end up failing whether or not due to mistakes they make—don't deserve to be lifted up. Well, in absolute terms, maybe they don't. But it seems to me that followers of the Suffering Servant, who counted his own life of no account for the sake of his enemies, should rather be concerned with manifesting the same mercy to others they were shown by the Lord. There is no uglier sin than the self-righteous pride of those who forget St. Paul's dictum that everything they have they have received (1 Cor 4:7). Which leads to one final observation: laizzes-faire capitalism ultimately is based on an unchristian greed. This remains true no matter how hard Wilson and others attempt to transfer guilt to its critics as "envious" of the rich. Simply buying into the system is, to use the language of the New Testament, capitulation to the "world" and allowing oneself to be "molded" by the pattern of the present evil age (Rom 12:2). Ultimately, we as Christians pledge our only allegiance to the Kingdom of God and must live to implement its values, not those of the temporal society in which we live and to which we bow down in idolatrous nationalism. I hope it won't be the case, but sometimes I wonder if absolutist "free market" Christians will be disappointed when the Kingdom arrives in its consummation because it certainly won't look like what they expected ... or wanted.

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