Co-opting Jesus' Name

The American progressive Left frequently decries the use of the name of Jesus Christ for political gain. I've heard this personally in conversation and read it in many articles, and the condemnation is often intense, claiming that co-opting Christ's name or actions to argue public policy, especially by those on the Right claiming to be Christian, is plainly disingenuous and despicable.

One recent installment in this line of thought comes from Nicholas Kristof writing in the New York Times. In his satirical opinion piece "And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan...", Kristof lambastes U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for the seeming contradictions between Ryan's faith as a Catholic and his actions as a legislator -- specifically with regard to the American Health Care Act, the failed replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I won't attempt to validate Ryan or defend the legislation, but I do, as a Christian myself, feel obliged to point out the many fallacies inherent in the premises Kristof uses to support his fanciful diatribe.

He begins with a story of the woman with a bleeding problem (Mark 5:25-34), who touches Jesus's robe and is instantly healed. Paul Ryan's fictional response is, "But teacher, is that wise? When you cure her, she learns dependency. Then the poor won’t take care of themselves, knowing that you’ll always bail them out! You must teach them personal responsibility!" It's an obvious jab at the conservative principle of self-reliance. The idea is that because conservatives think all citizens must take responsibility for their own lives, somehow this translates into abandoning one’s neighbors to fend for themselves. It assumes that if the government doesn't help them, no one will.

This fallacy is simple to deconstruct. Christians have the best support system in the world: a loving, self-sacrificial church whose members give billions of hours and billions of dollars every year to help both their friends and those in need whom they've never met. The Catholic Church that Ryan belongs to has created a network of over 2,000 hospitals and continuing care facilities across the U.S., and provides medical care for free to underserved populations. Far from leaving needy people to fend for themselves, Christians have instead built an entire infrastructure to assist them. The deficiency in progressives' eyes is that Christians and conservatives don't see government as the prime mover in providing assistance to the needy. Christians instead place that responsibility onto their own shoulders, either as a family, a church, a community, or all the above.

Of course, in the story the bleeding woman's faith was perfectly placed: she went to Jesus, her creator, and her body was fixed. The lesson there is that dependency is totally fine -- as long as the thing you make yourself dependent on is worthy of that kind of trust. God is. The government -- any government on this earth -- is not.

Kristof's next story is that of the Good Samaritan, a favorite when attempting to debunk ideas of individual responsibility in the realm of healthcare and public assistance. The story is familiar, and Fictional Paul Ryan's response to Jesus is:

[The] Samaritan’s work is unsustainable and sends the wrong message. It teaches travelers to take dangerous roads, knowing that others will rescue them from self-destructive behaviors. This Samaritan also seems to think it right to redistribute money from those who are successful and give it to losers. That’s socialism! Meanwhile, if the rich man keeps his money, he can invest it and create jobs. So it’s an act of mercy for the rich man to hurry on and ignore the robbery victim.

Ignoring the more ridiculous bits of this made-up answer (like "it’s an act of mercy for the rich man to hurry on and ignore the robbery victim"), we need to establish some baselines when reading the story of the Good Samaritan. For instance, who was the Samaritan? He was a private citizen, using his own time and his own funds to help the victim. He was not compelled by the Roman government to stop and give his assistance. He offered these gifts freely, out of his own compassion -- not because the State forced him to by taking it out of his taxes. Jesus commends him for his actions. Would he have commended the Samaritan as highly if he was simply dumping his money into a giant fungible Roman coffer earmarked to help the faceless, nameless poor?

Another baseline: if you talk to leaders in the church about helping their communities, you may hear them speak in terms of relief versus development. Relief is supposed to be temporary assistance to someone who has been through a disaster, like a death in the family or a house fire. It gets them back on their feet so they can move forward with healing. Development is a longer-term engagement meant to leave its recipients with additional or improved skills they can then use to better their lives. Looking at our most expansive and expensive entitlement programs in the U.S. -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the ACA, SNAP -- they are all by definition relief programs. They provide no long-term ability for their recipients to better their lives and remove themselves from the program. Yet they provide long-term benefits. Why? Again, the sin of conservatives in the eyes of the Left is that conservatives propose means testing, and a way to empower our citizens not to become reliant on these programs. They see it as abandonment. Conservatives see it as a better way to help people -- and as necessary not to bring the whole system to its knees in bankruptcy.

From here, Kristof's satire meanders into absurdity. After Jesus heals a lame beggar, "Paul of Ryan" cries:

Look, Jesus, you have rare talent, and it should be rewarded," Pious Paul said. “I have a partner, The Donald, who would like to work with you: He’d set up a lovely hospital, and the rich would come and pay for you to heal them. You’d get a percentage, and it’d be a real money-spinner. Overhead would be minimal because every morning you could multiply some loaves and fishes. You could strike it rich!

Apparently, Kristof believes doctors, for whom Jesus is the stand-in here, should work for free. And to be sure, that is consistent with American liberal philosophy as it currently stands. Healthcare is a right, they say, which in Ben Shapiro's words means that anyone in this country -- nay, in the world -- can force a student to go to med school, rack up $200,000 in debt, spend years of his life in study, and then work for that person absolutely for free. Because after all, healthcare is a right. But what happened to "the worker is worth his wages" (1 Timothy 5:18; Luke 10:7)? Doctors are not Jesus. The services they provide require personnel, materials, expertise, professional partnerships, continuous training. None of this is instantaneous and none of it's free.

What Kristof's column really boils down to is money. It echoes a Socialist paradigm in which the making of money is evil because money itself is evil. Kristof and others attempt to use the words of Christ to authenticate this belief. The problem is, Jesus never condemned society's use of money, and never claimed it should be abolished in order to save people from its temptations. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" is familiar, but Jesus also miraculously directs one of his disciples to a coin in a fish's mouth in order to pay the temple tax (Matthew 17:27). He commends the poor woman at the temple for giving her last coins -- 100 percent of her wealth (Mark 12:41-44). He speaks in parables about the kingdom of God being like men who deal in money and investing, with paid workers and servants (Matthew 20, 25). Jesus's words hold the assumption that money is part of life, that societies use it and will use it for a long time. There's even an implied capitalism there, with workers paid directly for a day's work, and business owners having dominion over how they spend and distribute their capital (Matthew 20:13-15). It's far from the Socialist dream Kristof alludes to.

The irony about pieces like Kristof's is they commit the exact offense the American Left accuses conservative Christians of committing: co-opting Jesus's name to score political points. Anyone is free to argue what Jesus may or may not support, but they must do so based on a lucid, comprehensive reading of his words in Scripture. And such a reading does not support socialism, or any governmental system, really. That's the beauty of Christ’s teaching: it leaves us free to decide for ourselves how we will create a just society. Is it too much to ask for our government to do the same?

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