Saturday, January 20, 2018

"Why do we not know this yet?" On the Day When Republicans Shut Down The Government Using Sick Children And The Stranger Among Us To Shaft The Poor Even More

One of the characteristics of our modern so-called intellectuals is that there are large numbers of them who peddle themselves as a sort of budget rent-a-scholars, who every so often write a magazine article or a book of scant intellectual gravitas which they peddle around on the higher-mid-brow talk show circuit.  Or at least that was how it was done until fairly recently.  I get the feeling that even that level of intellectual life in the English Speaking People is giving way to the tendencies within it to celebrity culture and fandom.  The "Bright" lights of the new atheism could be a quintessential example .   But there are certainly those whose stock and trade is religion who do that, though since about the 1990s, not so often in the liberal denominations.  One of the earlier ones was the once ubiquitous Episcopal bishop,  John Spong who would every few years write a book and in between would be asked on to debunk the religious tradition that, somehow, took him to be bishop material when it was clear he really didn't believe much of the central faith holdings of Episcopal Christianity.  If you want a good take down of Spong's road show you could do no better than to read the first section of Marilynne Robinson's essay,  The Fate of Ideas: Moses, in which she dismembers Spong's nasty and mean spirited and surprisingly, for a bishop scandalously uniformed, presentation of the Old Testament and, in particular the Mosaic Law.   There is a familiar conservative critique of Spong's act, this is the far less familiar traditional American liberal critique of it.

I say that because while I'm tempted to post what she said about Spong and that genre of writing,  I'm only going to recommend you look for it in the collection,  When I Was A Child I Read Books, because I want to post something that gets right to the heart of the matter and which has the power to expose a lot of the religious fraud from those who thump on the Bible without, as well, seeming to know much about what it says.   As Brueggemann said last year, we need to take back and rescue the Ten Commandments (which Spong insists are in need of junking) because they are what we need to save justice under an egalitarian democracy.   Risking a cease and desist, I'm going to give you a big chunk of the essay because I can't do better at making the argument than Ms. Robinson does.  And it is so important.  Remember that a lot of our law and legal tradition and culture comes directly from the English common law that is in almost every instance far more brutal than the much maligned Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, and where it was harsh English law tended to be as harsh if not harsher.

After centuries of neglect and suppression the Old Testament became a much studied and lovingly translated text at the time of the Reformation.  Its beauty rewarded the attention of Christian humanists and was the occasion for the definitive emergence of modern languages such as English and German as literary languages.  The religious significance ascribed to it and the method by which it was interpreted varied with the theological setting in which it found itself.  Yet never was it justly dealt with or properly valued by any major Christian tradition, nor is it now. 

In his Utopia,  Thomas More, the sixteenth-century statesman and scholar, notes one great difference between the regime of Christian England and the laws laid down by Moses.  English thieves were hanged in great numbers, sometimes twenty on a scaffold, whereas “to be short, Moses; law, though it were ungentle and sharp, as a law that was given to bondmen, yea, and them very obstinate, stubborn and stiff-necked, yet it punished theft by the purse, and not with death [emphasis mine].   And let us not thin that God in the new law of clemency and mercy, under the which He ruleth us with fatherly gentleness, as his dear children, hath given us greater scope and license to the execution of cruelty upon one another.”  More wrote his book in Latin, and the learned could not be hanged (if they were male) – that is the actual meaning of “benefit of clergy” - so those to whom his thoughts would have been of pressing interest would not have been among his readers.  But a very valuable point is made here, which is seldom made, and which, if we were honest, would force us to consider many things. 

Moses (by whom I mean the ethos and spirit of Mosaic law, however it came to be articulated) in fact does not authorize any physical punishment for crimes against property.  The entire economic and social history of Christendom would have been transformed if Moses had been harkened to only in this one particular.  Feudalism, not to mention early capitalism, is hardly to be imagined where such restraint was observed in the defense of the rights of ownership.  Anyone familiar with European history is aware of the zeal for brutal punishment the terrible ingenuity with which the human  body was tormented and insulted through the eighteenth century at least, very often to deter theft on the part of the wretched.  Moses authorizes nothing of the kind, nor indeed does he countenance any oppression of the poor.  More is entirely conventional, as he would be still, in describing the law of Moses as “sharp” beside the merciful governance of Christ.  But how could Europe have been more effectively Christianized – understand the sense in which I use the word – than by adherence to these laws of Moses?  Granting the severity of the holiness codes in the Torah, they do not compare unfavorably with laws touching religious matters in More's England.  More himself called for the burning of William Tyndale, the great early translator of the Bible into English, who was in fact burned.  It is often said that Europeans learned religious intolerance from the Old Testament.  Then how did we happen to skp over the parts where the laws protect and provide for the poor, and where oppression of them is most fiercely forbidden?   It is surely dishonest to suggest we learned anything at all from the Torah, if we have not earned anything good from it.  Better to say our vices are our own than to try to exculpate ourselves by implying that our attention strayed during the humane and visionary passages.  The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor.  Why do we not know this yet? 

Utopia describes the consequences of the nightmarish policy of clearance and enclosure, persisted in for centuries, which drove the rural poor out of the English countryside. 

"For look in what parts of the realm doeth grow the finest and therefore dearest wool, there noblemen and gentlemen, yea and certain abbots, holy men no doubt . . . much annoying the public weal, leave no room for tillage.  They enclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing but a church to be made a sheep-house . . . [The poor] must needs depart away, poor, silly, retched souls, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, woeful mothers with their young babes . . . Away they trudge, I say, out of their known and accustomed houses.  finding no place to rest in . . . [ When they have sold whatever they have] what can they do but steal, and then justly be hanged, or else go about a-begging?  And yet then also they be cast into prison as vagabonds, because hey go out and work not,  whom no man will set a-work, though they never so willingly proffer themselves thereto."

As I will demonstrate from the text, all this violates the laws of Moses, in letter and in spirit  How it is to be reconciled with any conceivable intention of Jesus I cannot imagine, but that is not the issue here.  In fact, the laws of Moses establish a highly coherent system for minimizing and alleviating poverty, a brilliant economics based in a religious ethic marked by nothing more strongly than by an anxious solicitude for the well-being of the needy and the vulnerable.  

I will go on with this essay because she does, in fact, demonstrate that, far from the characterization of The Law and the "Jewish God" that is current among the college educated English Speaking Peoples, if the economic provisions in it, alone, were adopted as our law it would be a more radical redistribution of wealth and power than has ever happened after any Communist revolution, such as we're still supposed to be hankering over, though their equivalent of the "holiness code" made the severity of the one in Leviticus look like a slap on the wrist.

As she asks, "Why do we not know this yet?"  It's not as if the book isn't there to be read, though I doubt more than one in a hundred of its casual online slammers has ever really read it, depending on the clippings of such mid-brow ersatz intellectuals or, more likely, what they heard on Fresh Air or some TV talk show.

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