Friday, August 8, 2008

Kristof Haavik, The Socialst Christian

From a recent post on the Cross Left Blog:

Hello! I'm new here, having just joined. Steve Rockwell tells me my book "The Socialist Christian" has been chosen as book of the month, and he asked me to say something about it. Here's a kind of introduction or summary:

Like many people here (I assume), I have been disturbed for years by the positions on current social and political issues that are often presented as Christian. My problem is not so much what such people often say--I might agree with several of their positions--as with what they DON'T say: for me, their concern with personal/sexual morality may be right, but should not be allowed to monopolize the Christian agenda to the exclusion of all other matters. Too often, the idea of responsibility for others falls through the cracks, accidentally or deliberately, leaving the way open for a kind of robber baron capitalism that neglects those in need. As I bluntly put it to a friend, making the issue of gay marriage your most important concern is a luxury for people who know where their next meal is coming from. My personal feeling is that our primary duty as Christians is to care for others, which entails not simply making vague statements of brotherly love but caring enough to DO something. As Christians, we should make sure that everyone has enough to eat, a decent place to live, access to medical care, education, employment; in short, everything necessary to lead a meaningful life. I realize that emphasizing these concerns will open me to accusations of materialism from certain quarters, but I believe the emphasis is entirely justified in scripture: "If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but you do not give the necessities of the body, what good is it?" (James 2: 15-16). Furthermore, most people who object to making such concerns central are precisely those who already have all these things, and don't need to worry about them; let those people spend a week homeless, and I think their attitude about the importance of material wellbeing will change radically.

Most Christians accept this idea, as do many people of other faiths or no faith. The controversy comes in when I suggest that the government should take responsibility for providing all these things, and that we as Christians should take responsibility for making sure it does. Many people still subscribe to the Ronald Reagan point of view that such social services should indeed be provided, but the responsibility for them left to private charities. I respectfully disagree: private charities are overwhelmed, and lack the resources of the government. Does anyone really believe that all of us will voluntarily donate out of a sense of charity every cent that the IRS forces us to pay? I don't even trust myself to do that, and don't think we can trust our society to do so; if most people were that saintly, we would have no crime and no need for laws in the first place. Furthermore, that attitude reduces the concept of charity toward others to something optional, extra, above and beyond the call of duty. I believe the fundamental message of Christ is that care for others is an OBLIGATION, which we have no more right to accept or refuse than we do to accept or refuse the commandments not to kill or steal. After all, when Jesus told the apostles to love one another, he said he was giving them a new COMMANDMENT, not a suggestion for them to take or leave as they pleased.

The crux of the issue is what the government has a right to require of us and what should be left to individual choice. Despite what some people may say, no one really believes that everything should be a matter of choice: that would mean a state with no laws in which anyone can steal, rape, and murder with no consequences to fear. My personal belief is that the government has the right--and the duty-- to intervene and force us to do particular things when clear and demonstrable harm will result from our action--or our inaction; it has no such right when the results are open to individual interpretation and conscience. In other words, the government has no right to tell us what church to attend, since there is no objective way of proving the rightness or wrongness of any faith; it does have the right to tell us we can't leave people to starve to death, since that is objectively harmful under every moral code the world has ever known.
This is not violating the separation of church and state, which I support; it is simply the logical extension of the government's universally accepted authority to prevent crime. It is not infringing on our rights: on the contrary, allowing others to wallow in poverty while the resources to lift them out of it are available is an infringement of THEIR right to a decent existence.

With this as my fundamental philosophy, I look at many of the controversial issues of current debate: abortion, gun control, foreign policy, justified and unjustified war, education, the environment. On many of them, I don't really map out a specific program; I simply insist on the need to deal with them as a duty of all Christians. If private means are doing so, I see no need to transfer control to the government; where private means are failing to do so, we must do something, whether by the public or the private sector, to alleviate the situation. But fundamentally, I argue that the most effective way--perhaps the ONLY effective way--to guarantee that all necessary goods and services are available to everyone is for the government to guarantee them. To put it bluntly, all children should be guaranteed enough to eat every day, not left to depend on how much a soup kitchen received in donations this month. In other countries, such programs already exist; in fact, the United States lags far beyond every other industrialized country in providing health care, education, etc., to its citizens. We do have some such programs, of course: social security, Medicare, Head Start, and so on, which means that even if many Americans dread the word socialism, they accept some of its premises. I advocate extending the range of socialist intervention, not to the extent of killing off individual initiative, as was done in the Soviet bloc--my first chapter is called "Socialism, not Communism"--but in the way that many European countries (and Canada) have done, so that we all can get ahead by working but no one is left too far behind.

Is all of this old ideas? Maybe so. I claim little originality; I simply wanted to make a case that needs to be made. I look forward to hearing what you think of it.


No comments:


In this my personal Christian blog, I hope to be discursive and now and then critical. What I write here is tentative and tensive. I post thoughts, feelings, and observations somewhat randomly and often in immediate response to current events and posts on other blogs.

"Serendipitous Creativity" from Gordon Kaufman

"I suggested that what we today should regard as God is the ongoing creativity in the universe - the bringing (or coming) into being of what is genuinely new, something transformative; …

"In some respects and some degrees this creativity is apparently happening continuously, in and through the processes or activities or events around us and within us(…) is a profound mystery to us humans(…) But on the whole, as we look back on the long and often painful developments that slowly brought human life and our complex human worlds into being, we cannot but regard this creativity as serendipitous …

"I want to stress that this serendipitous creativity - God! - to which we should be responsive is not the private possession of any of the many particular religious faiths or systems …

"This profound mystery of creativity is manifest in and through the overall human bio-historical evolution and development everywhere on the planet; and it continues to show itself throughout the entire human project, no matter what may be the particular religious and or cultural beliefs."

Gordon Kaufman, Mennonite Life, December 2005 vol. 60 no. 4

Melville is a rational man who

"Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist. He wants Him to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to act as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive." (John Updike)

And that is a problem for me.

Fragmented Notions

Fragmented Notions
Copyright © 2007 Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University

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