More On Turning Ideals Into Realities Radical Bleeding Heart image

Did You Hear the One about the Camel and the Eye of the Needle?

And Finally: What Did Jesus Have to Say? Actually, this is really not about how ideals and realities diverge. That is because Christianity has so far evolved — or perhaps devolved — that Christians no longer treat the actual teachings of Jesus as ideals. Those teachings are simply ignored — utterly and completely.

We talk about this amazing fact elsewhere, where we examine His extraordinary doctrine of absolute and unconditional forgiveness.

The other doctrine upon which Jesus adamantly insisted is the incompatibility of the pursuit of wealth and the journey to Heaven.

Is There Something Wrong with Being Rich? There is no more certain way of being regarded as a heretical crackpot than to assert that there is something wrong with the pursuit of wealth. A politician can more safely renounce religion than suggest that wealth is wicked.

Yet there is nothing more unambiguous in the gospels than the denunciation by Jesus of riches.

Might it not be an interesting experiment to point this out to Christians? Jesus did not harangue his followers about sex, as some Christians seem to imagine; He insisted instead that they must choose between God and Mammon, for they could not serve both (Mt 6:24).

Modern Christians have, almost without exception, chosen Mammon. They may claim to adore Jesus, but only because Jesus, they believe, can give them something: salvation from their own sins. Their Christianity asks not “How can I follow the difficult path that Jesus has laid out for me?” but rather, “What does Jesus give me?” The answer is a perpetually renewable Get Out of Jail Free Card. And to get that precious card one need only proclaim ones belief in Jesus Christ as Savior, such belief apparently not requiring that one actually does what He said to do.

Jesus was right; Mammon is a jealous and demanding god, but only with regard to actions, not words. You can aver your allegiance to the Prince of Peace and Poverty, so long as your actions show unswerving loyalty to the pursuit of wealth and untainted adoration of the wealthy.

This goes way beyond mere hypocrisy. Christians do not claim to follow lives of simplicity and poverty while secretly seeking wealth. They openly and avidly adore riches and grovel before those who possess them. It is as if they just refuse to believe that Jesus said what He plainly did say. And He did say it; there can be no doubt.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” That is Matthew 19:24, but the same saying can be found in Mark (10:25) and Luke (18:25). Nor is it an isolated saying, devoid of context. The Sermon on the Mount is largely a glorification of the impoverished and powerless, and the bulk of the sixth chapter of Matthew is an admonition to put aside worldly treasures.

So why do Christians so totally ignore the teachings of their Savior? A perverse sort of logic seems to be at work. Everyone knows that poverty is terrible and there is nothing more wonderful than the freedom from care brought by wealth; Jesus, being God, could not have meant anything that is patently wrong; therefor, Jesus could not really have meant what He obviously said.

Well? Was Jesus Right? So we are back to the question “Is there something wrong with being rich?,” and the answer, shocking as it may seem, is Yes, indeed there is.

The mistake is in believing that the alternative is abject poverty, hunger, deprivation and want. Mammon keeps his followers in line with both carrot and stick, and the stick is the fear of poverty.

To understand the evil of wealth and to know that the alternative is not abject poverty, we must repeat some essential ideas that we have discussed elsewhere, but they are important and worth repeating. The first of these is the Myth of Independence. (We discuss this in detail here.)

The rabid right loves to rant on and on about the shameful “dependence” of people on government. We all should, they insist, be independent, stand on our own two feet, take care of ourselves. Sounds great. But it is based on a lie.

Margaret Thatcher was absolutely dead wrong when she notoriously declared that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Without society, individual men and women would in fact starve, would perish helplessly. As individuals we would be as useless as my right index finger would be were it severed from my hand. That finger would die, and I would be diminished for its lack.

Everyone of us is utterly dependent on the economic machine to which we all — ideally — contribute. We are dependent as well on the rules society has promulgated to govern how we may participate in that great endeavor — both as givers and as takers.

The Myth of Independence is a lie used to justify those favored by the system and condemn those that the system leaves out in the cold.

The lie, although itself an illusion, lives on because, like a malignant and evil spirit, it has infected and inhabited the bodies of two realities.

The First of the Two Realities. When the blowhards of the rabid right wax self-righteously eloquent about the “moochers” who have become “dependent” on government handouts like food stamps or unemployment benefits, they insist that such programs take away the incentive to take a job. These people, they claim, are being rewarded for not working.

Let us pass over for the moment the utter absurdity of the idea of millions choosing to live on what amounts to a few hundred dollars a month if they could actually get decent jobs.

The idea that these ranters appeal to is a sound ethical principle: one should contribute if one is to benefit; one should help create the pie if one is to have a slice. It is just that the principle is misapplied.

The Myth of Independence implies that anyone can get a good job who really wants one. To believe that it is necessary to believe that the near full employment of boom times comes about because all of those lazy moochers suddenly and inexplicably get motivated to work, and when the economic bust comes it is because they just as suddenly and inexplicably become hopelessly lazy.

The Second of the Two Realities. When people think that they are seeking independence, they are deluded only in that they have given the wrong name to what they desire. It is not independence, which none can achieve; it is power.

We are not talking about horsepower. It is power over people; the power to command the product of other people's labor.

We no longer approve of the brutal old methods of direct power over others such as serfdom and slavery. We are a tad more subtle. Today, power over others is maintained through money.

We are told in school, in our introduction to economics, that money is simply a more sensible and efficient way of exchanging goods and services, replacing the extremely limited method of barter. This is only part of what money is all about.

Sure, one can provide particular goods or service in exchange for cash which one then can use procure the goods and service that one desires. But if you can figure out a way to just get a hold of lots of money, you can dispense with the tiresome job of producing anything useful at all. That, of course, is the dream of becoming rich.

Being rich is not just about having all your needs and fancies satisfied; it is about control of assets. As we explain in detail elsewhere, it is not enough to be willing to work. You have to have something to work on or with. That something is called economic assets. If you do not have the assets, you have to sell your labor to someone who does. Someone rich. Then that labor and the product of that labor belongs to him. The difference between what the rich guy pays you for your labor and what he sells the product of your labor for is profit. It is gravy. (The technical term is “economic rent”). In other words, it is one of the ways in which rich people use their money to get more money — money which they can then use either to buy more toys or more assets, that is, to acquire more power.

So there you have it. There really are moochers, but they are not the poor, who desire only the opportunity to contribute to the economic pie and receive a decent slice of it in return. The moochers are the rich, who get fat on the efforts of others. And it does not matter whether they themselves work. What matters is that their control of the world's assets allows them to exploit the labor of others. When conservatives praise the rich for their “independence,” they are really bowing down to power, the power to take what others have produced.

Please note that if we were to eliminate wealth in this sense we would not all be all reduced to eating grass and walking about naked. In some sense, we might be richer than ever, all of us then being able to satisfy our material as well as spiritual needs. We just would not riding on the shoulders of others.

So, yes, Jesus was right. There is something wrong with being rich. Let us hope that Christians can now take comfort in that fact. They no longer have to choose between resorting to twisted logic proving that Jesus did not really say what He plainly did say and, on the other hand, having to conclude that their Savior was a crackpot.

What do you think, folks? Can we convince Christians to take Jesus seriously?

Summing Up

There is a very important lesson here, if anyone is willing to take it seriously. That is that we need not so much to find new ideas, but to think seriously and carefully about some rather old ideas. The rabid right has done a very good job of distracting us; we need to remember who we are and what we are about. We need to get focused.

The Points to Remember

  • Restore Democracy. This is absolutely vital, and it will be very difficult. But without it nothing else can be done. Without it we are doomed. That is not an exaggeration.
  • Taking Seriously What Everyone Claims to Believe.
    • Equality of Opportunity. If we really had equal opportunity, or even something close to it, we would go a long way to genuine equality.
    • Reward the Productive and Do Away with the Moochers. This is a matter of incentives and opportunity. We need to guarantee a job doing productive work to anyone who wants one, and find ways to discourage or eliminate all the many ways of acquiring money without providing anything in return.
    • Ask Christians to Take Jesus Seriously. Refer them to Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25. When they explain (as they probably will) that this is not what Christianity is all about, ask them about Luke 6:46 (you can check it out for yourself). And then explain why Jesus was right.

That should keep us busy. For now. But what about the future? What about our long-range goals? Should we not always be looking ahead? Are we not in the pickle we now find ourselves in at least partly because we became complaisant?

[Next: Thinking About the Future.]