Saturday, June 11, 2011

St Barnabas

Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 3:31-11; Acts 4:32-27

I suddenly dig St Barnabas. If you'd asked me yesterday who St Barnabas was, I couldn't have given you a very good answer. It's not that I've never kept his feast before, it just never stuck. I wish I had looked him up before I visited a parish of St Barnabas last week.

Reading the lessons appointed for morning prayer on this feast, one wonders just which Bible, exactly, a lot of Americans are reading. (Okay, fair enough: they are in fact probably reading one that does not contain Ecclesiasticus, found in the apocrypha.)

It's hard for me to resist the temptation of pointing out what I think other people should take away from these readings, instead of concentrating solely on what they say to me, but I just get so angry at the way our faith is misrepresented, distorted, even, yea, perverted by those who have appointed themselves its greatest advocates and true believers. Today's reading from Sirach is exemplary, but not unique. How is it, exactly, that so much of America's Christian culture aligns itself with a political system that serves Mammon? I get equally despondent over many liberals, the self-appointed guardians of objectivity and education, who are satisfied that all they need to know about the Bible or Christianity they have heard on television from crackpots, and dismiss Christians as ideological zealous bigots, or, at best, sad, deluded people clinging to some bizarre ancient myth to bring rays of hope into their pathetic little lives, and think of the Bible as an archaic manifesto for every kind of small-mindedness and oppression known to history.

The rich person toils to amass a fortune,
and when he rests he fills himself with his dainties.
The poor person toils to make a meagre living,
and if ever he rests he becomes needy.

Bam! That's about as succinct a summation of the progressive view of the shortcomings of capitalism as you could find. We hear a lot, especially from the "libertarian" crowd, about how the rich are the products of their own success and hard work and, ergo, the poor must be so because they chose not to work as hard. Assuredly, there probably are some underachievers out there who ought to take more responsibility and show some initiative, but a general philosophy that the poor don't work as hard as the rich when more often than not it's the poor who end up working the physically exhausting or the dangerous or the smelly or unpleasant or unrespected tasks is delusion. Some wealthy people definitely work very hard, but usually in a comfortable and safe way, and they are able to rest from time to time in comfort, if and when they choose. And, of course, some rich people don't work at all. We live in a celebrity culture, where some people are famous for being famous.

One who loves gold will not be justified;
one who pursues money will be led astray by it.
Many have come to ruin because of gold,
and their destruction has met them face to face.

Okay, enough shooting fish in a barrel. I certainly am no saint in this regard; perhaps I sin even more egregiously, because I read things like this, and I feel their truth, and while I desire to live a comparatively simple and modest life, the plain truth of the matter is that I am stinking, filthy rich. I don't think most Americans would agree with that assessment -- I drive a Honda, I live in a suburban apartment, I don't have a butler or a maid or take fancy vacations; in fact, I think a lot of Americans would say my life is kind of lame. I don't even have cable. And yet, given my income, I am in the top 1% of earners worldwide. More than 99% of humanity has less money than I do, so I don't know how I could define myself as anything other than loaded.

Sure, I work pretty hard (by "middle class" standards). But I'm not pursuing any particular passion; it's just a job. I want to have my modest but comfortable life, pay off my student loans, and put some money away for retirement. In our culture, that's not bad. It's considered normal and responsible. But there's the serious disconnect between a real Christian life and a generic American life. The stories of the saints are filled with people who walked away from comfort for the sake of the Gospel; in America, we tend to think that following the Gospel entitles us to comfort.

St Barnabas is one of these heroes. He was a landowner who sold his property and gave the money to the church. Now, maybe that doesn't sound so extraordinary to us. Wealthy folk - even the non-religious - commit acts of generosity and philanthropy all the time. But this information about Barnabas comes to us immediately following the controversial section of Acts that appears to claim that the early Christians were essentially socialists. "No one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common....There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold...and it was distributed to each as any had need." Barnabas didn't donate a fortune in exchange for getting the new wing of the hospital named after him. He simply gave away everything he had so that those who had nothing might have something, trusting that the community would be there to meet his needs, too. He didn't decide there was a certain fraction of his income he could do without; he laid his money at the apostles' feet.

Note how at odds this is with the political wing of our country that most loudly claims to be the paragons of Christian virtue. They abhor the notion of living like this, and rail against anything that might benefit the poor at the inconvenience of the wealthy. Of course, they defend this by noting that all this charity was voluntary, not compelled by the government. But we have a totally different system; we are not run by hereditary monarchs (hereditary oligarchs, maybe...), or puppet princes in the service of a foreign empire. We govern ourselves; it's not like Caesar taxing the poor to pay for his own excesses. Instead, we, like the apostles, are supposed to be sitting down together, adding up our resources, and using them to address our needs and problems.

I still have such trouble with the hypocrisy of these "conservatives" who claim the authority of Scripture, but only when it's not inconvenient or at odds with their personal political views. Somehow we end up with "Christians" who want to cut off unemployment assistance in a time when there are vastly more people looking for work than there are jobs to be filled, arguing that unemployment insurance just encourages people to be lazy. We get "Christians" who deny global climate change, even as poor communities in coastal areas around the world continue to be inundated by rising seas, as icecaps and glaciers disappear and deserts expand, because making a meaningful effort to combat these problems would necessarily mean making major changes in the comforts and conveniences to which Americans (especially, but not exclusively) have grown accustomed. We get "Christians" who argue that there is no "right" to health care, as though our capacity to prevent and cure disease and eliminate or ameliorate suffering is a special privilege of the wealthy, rather than a moral obligation.

Blessed is the rich person who is found blameless,
and who does not go after gold.
Who is he, that we may praise him?

Good question.


Jess said...

If only more people shared your wisdom, the world would be a far better place. More true Christians would lead to great things. Sadly, such people are scarce. As an aside, a wonderful person with whom I work said to me one day, "I know you're Jewish and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but you really are a good Christian." Knowing how she meant it, I could only smile and say thank you, for it was a very high compliment! Not sure if I deserved it, but being how Christians should be is really a great thing.

kr said...

I've been a theocratical communist ;) ever since high school because of that stuff, trying to figure out how to apply the concept in real time without a Messiah telling us who to give what money to when precisely ;).

(Obviously He never told the early Christians in detail either; they made up their rules/listened as best they could, too.)

I've been reading the graphic-novel adaptation of the Bible to my kids (long story) and have noticed and comprehended for the first time what the "Judges" were and how that period compared with the period after the people of Israel demanded a king (against God's preferences) ... interesting stuff.