There he goes again…
If I could be an advisor to President Obama for a day, I would urge him to tone down the religious talk and to stop “quoting” the Bible altogether. Now, I know that politicians brazenly co-opt everything for their ambitious purposes–and Mr. Obama is no exception. They use people, groups, and organizations to further their political vision, and that’s fine, because that’s what politicians do. But if I could be a bug in Mr. Obama’s ear, I would whisper, “Please think twice before you audaciously use God and/or the Bible to hawk your particular political program. Because it comes off as arrogant, misguided, and nauseating.”
At last month’s National Prayer Breakfast, the president assumed his Spiritual Man persona and talked about the intersection of faith and politics. Which is where the nausea sets in for me.
The first brazen misuse of the Bible came in his discussion of his tax policy. The president’s conviction conveniently “coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'” Never mind that what he said is not actually a quote from any English translation of the New Testament. Never mind that he intentionally gave his words an archaic, biblish flavor to convey authority.
The passage the president tried to quote is from Luke 12, and it comes in the midst of Jesus’ teaching about the End. President Obama’s snippet follows Jesus’ parables about being ready for Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgment.
Here’s the relevant paragraph from Luke’s Gospel (from a certifiable translation…):
[Jesus said,] “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47-48 NIV)
And as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, the Bible is dealing with religious matters here, and not matters of public policy and government (“You tithe the priest, not the tax man.”); this passage of Scripture has nothing to do with a progressive tax system and high taxes on the wealthy. The “much” that is given to the servants is God’s special revelation in the Law of Moses, given to Israel. Jesus seems to be saying that those who know God’s will (i.e., who have received the Law, presumably issues concerning righteousness, justice, and religious duty) are more responsible for obeying it than those who are unfamiliar with God’s express commandments. Nothing at all about taxes!
In fact, the president’s error seems to grow when you draw parallels between what he said and what Jesus said. In Jesus’ words, the master who returns to check the work of his servants and mete out judgment on them is the Messiah. In the president’s words, the master that checks on the servants’ status and demands accounting is the IRS.
It gets even scarier when you consider the president’s implied understanding of government revealed in this passage. In his world, apparently (assuming he’s actually thought this one through, even though he didn’t bother to look up the passage from a Bible to get the quote right), the government plays the role of God/Messiah, and the proletariat plays the role of slaves (Greek: doulos, meaning bondservant or slave) on the plantation. In his world–keeping with his analogy from the Bible–the peasants (us) are accountable to the feudal lord (him), and the slaves are subject to “beatings” if they do not perform up to his expectations.
The second brazen misuse of the Bible was when the president repeated his favorite mantra: “I am my brother’s keeper.” Mr. Obama uses this phrase a lot while campaigning (which is a lot) to refer to our mutual responsibility to take care of our fellow citizens through–you guessed it–a progressive tax system with high taxes on the wealthy, mediated by an authoritarian federal government. (Sense a pattern here?) Once again, “I am my brother’s keeper” is not a quotation from any translation of the Bible, but it is paraphrased from Genesis 4:9. Here, in the biblical story, Cain has already murdered his brother out of jealousy and spite. The Lord comes to Cain and inquires, “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain says, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” So never mind that Cain was lying…to God…about committing murder…against his brother. And never mind that Cain really isn’t a model for our moral obligation for “taking care of” our brothers and sisters (in the mafia sense of “taking care of” someone, that is).
I won’t say much more about this passage, because Jerry Bowyer provides an excellent analysis of the language of Genesis 4 and how the president applies it to his politics. (Bowyer also recently published a defense of his first work that is equally impressive.) In a nutshell, Bowyer points out that “keeper” (shmr) can be translated as “shepherd”–which is a clever pun that Cain uses, considering his late brother was a “keeper” of sheep. And apparently Cain thought he was a “shepherd” to his brother, since he slaughtered him like he would any fat lamb that was ready for the Passover feast. So not only does this verse from Genesis have nothing to do with tax policy, but it is frightening (once again) when we consider its implications for the dynamics between the governed and governing. Does it mean that President Obama is a “keeper” of the “sheep” only until it comes time to pay the bills and feed the family?
I especially like Bowyer’s observation that the LORD (YHWH) is described in the Torah as the Keeper or Shepherd of his people (“May the LORD bless you and KEEP you…”), and not the average Israelite. For them? They just need to be their brother’s brother.
The political and economic theology of shepherds starts with the affirmation that the role of provider, shepherd, and keeper of the people does not belong to any imminent human authority, but to the Lord. On this foundation, we see the Torah develop a social theory of equality before the law and of brotherhood among citizens, not keeperhood by the state.
Am I my brother’s keeper? No. According to the Torah, I am not my brother’s keeper, because I am my brother’s brother. (Jerry Bowyer)
So if I were an advisor to the president, I would say scrap the sermonizing and the tortured biblical interpretations. Because Scripture also says (in the New King James Version, mind you, just for proper effect): “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1 NKJV) And that goes for everyone…including politicians.