Friday, December 12, 2014

Rick Perry, Biblical Ignoramus

Presidental hopeful Rick Perry loves quoting
the Bible. Thinking about it, not so much.
Outgoing Texas governor Rick Perry, openly tooling himself up for another Presidential run in 2016 despite currently being under indictment for public corruption, granted the Washington Post a not-very-in-depth interview regarding his long-term policy position and aspiring national agenda. The resultant low-tension puff piece is particularly galling because Washington’s greatest lawmakers read the Post daily. Perry’s festival of ignorance would appear merely half-assed in regional urban newspapers. In Washington, such worshipful fawning becomes outright dangerous.

One quote is particularly galling. Asked about efforts to address poverty in Texas, Perry gave the verbal equivalent of a pious shrug: “Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion.” This line, beloved of conservative Christian politicians everywhere, recurs whenever somebody questions whether government, as the embodiment of popular will, should undertake efforts to alleviate poverty. It derives from Matthew 26:11, spoken by Christ just before the Crucifixion.

Serious theologians debate what this citation means; I cannot resolve millennia-old debates here. However, the response to Perry’s statement widely overlooks that Jesus, in this passage, quotes Deuteronomy 15. Matthew, considered the most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels, includes frequent references to the Torah, the Books of the Law. Matthew assumes throughgoing Biblical literacy which his First-Century Jewish audience could’ve taken for granted, but which many modern audiences, including conservative Christians, just don’t share.

The Evangelist Matthew's mainly Jewish
audience studied Scripture the way
we study writing and math
Most of Deuteronomy 15 addresses issues of indebtedness among Hebrews. (Five verses deal with animal sacrifice.) Then as now, powerful people used debts as instruments of social control, encouraging poor to cover old debts through further borrowing—the Insta-Cash Advance companies of ancient Canaan. Hebrew Scripture unambiguously declares lending at interest sinful, because the recipient of such loans becomes subservient to the debt owner, an unacceptable form of peonage. Americans holding underwater mortgages can sympathize.

Witness the progression of concepts through Deuteronomy 15:
Verse 4: “[T]here need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you…”

Verse 7: “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.”

Verse 11: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
That’s quite the trajectory. From “no poor” to “if” to “always.” Apparently God, Moses, or whoever, realized that a gap exists between humanitarian ideals and reality, especially where money intrudes. Yet, even amid these changing qualifiers, one point remains constant: how we treat the poor among us matters.

Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and others have recently justified deep cuts in America’s poverty protection network, claiming that defunding food stamps and AFDC empowers poor citizens to find jobs. This tortured logic makes perfect sense among people substantially untouched by recent economic circumstances. America’s financial magnates gamble recklessly on paper debt instruments, ship manufacturing jobs overseas, manipulate loopholes to evade lawful and moral taxes—then subsidize legislators to say: “If you’re poor, get a job.”

Teapublicans like Rand Paul love Biblical
language. They're somewhat squishier
on the actual Bible.
Oh, and don’t they love Biblical quotations to create retrospective moral justifications. Besides Perry’s misuse of Matthew, many love citing 2 Thessalonians 3:10—“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” These references always get flung willy-nilly, without contextual reference, mere orphan quotes. They provide moral armor for actions which, taken otherwise, would offend citizens’ standards of common decency. But they subvert what the passages mean, which undermines shared faith in Biblical authority.

Rhetoricians call this “quote mining”; Biblical scholars call it “prooftexting.” Theologians have another word for such naked misuse of Scripture: “heresy.” Do nominal Christians like Perry really start out finding ways to empower poor Americans, and progress to slashing the safety net? Of course not. They want steep tax reductions for their backers, subsidized by undercutting public services. Biblical citations permit them to cover their asses retrospectively, a cynical behavior completely antithetical to Biblical ethics.

Perry uses Biblical language to fatalistically opt against meaningful action. But his source specifically requires responsibility for the less fortunate. Public conservatives love quoting Biblical law regarding sexual and reproductive issues; yet if we truly believe American law derives from Scripture, that means all of Scripture, not just whatever makes well-heeled white guys feel righteous. The Torah spends pages and pages on how we treat the poor. Come Judgment Day, ignorance will provide no defense.

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