Recently, Pope Francis held a TED talk to remind Christians of our primary obligation: to take care of the less fortunate.
This is not a new message. At least, it shouldn’t be for the 70% of Americans who identify as Christian, or the 40% who claim to attend church regularly.
The Pope, however, recognizes hypocrisy when he sees it, as only half of those who claim to attend church actually do – a mere 20%.
Likewise, America claims to be a Christian nation. Or so we’re told each time a nonwhite female wears a head scarf.
But would a real “Christian nation” deny legal protections to anyone perceived as different? Or remain unsympathetic to immigrants of war-torn countries? Or blame poor people for their poverty instead of addressing its root causes?
Let’s be real: in the 21st century, few Americans live by Jesus’ teachings.
That’s why the Pope sought an audience with the U.S., and why he recited the parable of the Good Samaritan - a story we’ve heard more times than we can remember, yet conveniently forget its moral:
"People's paths are riddled with suffering, as everything is centered around money…instead of people...Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other,...to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.”
That he took to a TED stage to repeat the same thing Jesus said in any given gospel demonstrates Christianity’s failure on a global scale.
Consider the Gospel of Matthew:
Jesus cures a leper, a paralytic, a hemorrhaging woman, a servant, a blind man, and a dying girl. He feeds thousands for free. He instructs his apostles to heal the sick without payment. He tells us to love our neighbor and obey his teachings. He warns against wealth and material possessions.
Consider the Gospel of Luke:
Jesus heals a leper, cures the sick, helps the poor, and calms a storm. He feeds 5,000 people for free. He tells us that loving our neighbor is our most important virtue, followed by humility and kindness. He warns against accumulating wealth and riches.
Consider the Gospel of Mark:
Jesus heals a paralytic, a deaf man, a dying girl, and calms a storm. He feeds 5,000 people for free, then 4,000 more. He says that loving our neighbor is God’s greatest commandment. He warns that the rich will have difficulty entering heaven, and even evicts merchants from the temple.
Consider the Gospel of John:
Jesus cures the sick and restores sight to the blind. He feeds 5,000 people for free. He tells us not to judge people by appearances. He drives merchants out of the temple.
Jesus was so on-message, he was the world’s first brand, and he left little room for ambiguity.
He tasked us with three responsibilities:
- take care of the sick
- take care of the poor
- shun wealth
In other words, Jesus was:
- pro universal healthcare
- pro eliminating poverty
Jesus lived in an area of extreme poverty, where the poor (including prisoners, slaves, and those of other races) were subjugated by the wealthy. This divisive relationship between the “haves” and “have nots” is a constant historical pattern, be it royalty and their peasants, pharaohs and their slaves, or the 1% and the 99%.
In nearly every case, when a concentrated group of wealthy elites become a parasite on their people and resources, civilizations go extinct…from the Roman Empire to the USSR to the Mayans.
“This imperialist drive has been and continues to be the cause of most wars, pollution, starvation, species extinctions, and genocides. And it has always taken a serious toll on the conscience and well-being of the citizens of those empires, contributing to social malaise and resulting in a situation where the wealthiest cultures in human history are plagued with the highest rates of suicide, drug abuse, and violence.”
Jesus was no fan of the rich, be they kings, Romans, or for-profit prophets like Joel Osteen, worth an estimated 40 million dollars. Osteen lives in a Houston estate worth 10 million, and he has a second home worth 2.9 million. Suspiciously, he refuses to reveal his charity contributions. Not unlike Donald Trump and his taxes.
To quote Jesus:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” - Matthew 19:21
Like every televangelist before him, Osteen defends his wealth, claiming “It's God's will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty."
Despite building his fortune on Christ’s message, Osteen conveniently ignores it. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to profiteers what is God’s.
Jesus expressly forbade the commercialization of church:
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, ’but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” -- Matthew 21:12-13
I missed the verse exempting Texas from such transgressions.
Jesus rightly saw the poor as victims of the rich, and the majority of his work was in caring for them. He realized enormous wealth was (and is) the gateway to greed, where empathy and compassion are sacrificed for self interest.
Just like in modern America.
Journalist Chris Hayes explains in Twilight of the Elites that wealth makes us less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed, and less empathetic.
“For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt than those in a more egalitarian social order…As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elites.”
Wealth leads to power, and with power, we lose our Christian values.
“Those in power pay less attention to the characteristics, views of, and details about the low-power people they encounter, and are less empathetic overall... Those primed for high power automatically projected their own view outward, while those primed for low power automatically adopted the viewpoint of others.”
In essence, we lose our humanity.
“When feeling of power is induced in people, they are less likely to take others’ view-points and more likely to center thinking on themselves. The result is reduced ability to comprehend how others think, see, and feel. Power, among other things, induces blindness toward others.”
Look no further than the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment for further proof.
To quote Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel, “The more we regard our success as our own doing, the less responsibility we feel for those who fall behind.”
The core tenant of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ and his teachings. Thus, if we refuse Christ’s core request - to take care of the poor - then we have no right to call ourselves Christians.
Otherwise, the greed that accompanies great wealth lays the foundation for our hypocrisy.
Political hypocrites have bankrupted modern Christianity to the point where only one actively lives by Christ’s message, and that’s a socialist Jew - proving you needn’t be Christian nor conservative to have morals.
We merely need empathy to dictate our ideology, not the other way around.
America wasn’t always so shameful.
In the 1950s/60s, my grandparents’ generation grew up in an era defined by civic engagement, where success meant a thriving community, not individual gain.
From FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society, the American ethos was a shared moral responsibility, and alleviating poverty was a civic duty.
Then, Richard Nixon divided the country along racial lines to win white votes. No longer would Americans feel responsible for those left behind. They would come to think of them as undeserving leeches
Ronald Reagan perpetuated this ‘poverty of character’ myth – that destitution was somehow deserved, neglecting to attribute it to the failure of government, society, or poor circumstance.
By convincing us to blame the poor for their poverty, we would feel no moral responsibility to help them, thereby allowing his administration to slash federal spending on social programs to give his corporate cronies tax breaks. This created dynasties out of the leisure class while poverty and the national debt skyrocketed.
In the 1970s/80s, Republican strategists also began pandering to evangelical Christians. Their fundamentalism merged with conservative ideology into the Christian Right. To drive them to the polls, ideologues manufactured a ‘culture war' that would pit religious intolerance against any type of social progress.
As a result, Christianity has been bastardized by Republicans, who contort scripture into a rationale for rejecting Christ’s teachings. They smear such morality as “wasteful government spending,” or “bleeding-heart liberalism,” or confined it to “the role of the church.”
They exploit the Christian Bible for causes Jesus never weighed in on, such as abortion, same sex marriage, illegal immigration, gun rights, charter schools, drug use, market deregulation, military spending, the skin color of Santa, and even Starbucks’ holiday cups.
What did Jesus preach?
He said explicitly we have a responsibility to pay our taxes, but we wouldn’t know it by listening to any Bible-thumping congressman.
“Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” —Matthew 22:19-21
Jesus was no anti-tax crusader, nor was he a capitalist.
This is why Pope Francis stated it’s better to be an atheist than a greedy Christian.
In fact, the Bible is pretty clear on the matter:
"Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority — Romans 13:6-7
Christ’s primary message was simple, specific, and consistent: take care of the poor and shun material wealth – two concepts Republicans outright reject and Christian conservatives willfully ignore.
Another result of this political perversion is the racism of modern-day Christians. After decades of research, psychologists have discovered the more religious someone is, the more prejudiced he will be.
“the most pertinent finding was that strongly religious Americans tend to be the most racist, moderately religious Americans tend to be less racist, and yet the group of Americans found to be the least racist of all are secular Americans, particularly those espousing an agnostic orientation.”
For these reasons, Generation X began pulling away from organized religion, followed by Millennials.
This is why the world’s fastest growing religion is now secularism – the second largest religious group in North America, making up a quarter of the US population.
And Catholics lead the pack:
“If you gathered all the ex-Catholics in the United States, they would form the country's second-largest religion, with nearly 23 million "members." Only the Catholic Church itself is larger.”
Perhaps the mass exodus from organized religion comes down to how little charity churches perform.
The Economist estimated that the Catholic church’s annual spending in 2010 was around $170 billion. However, only $4.7 billion was distributed to the poor (the smallest slice of church spending), of which 62% came from the state and federal government.
For comparison, in the US alone, the Catholic Church’s rape and molestation lawsuits include more than $3 billion in settlements over the past 15 years.
This is even bleaker when you consider Catholic-affiliated charity amounts to 17% of all funds spent by nonprofits on social services.
“According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal spending on means-tested programs and tax credits totaled $588 billion in 2012, more than triple what the private sector spent. Catholic charity seems to account for 17 percent to 34 percent of all nonprofit social-service charity.”
The Methodist church provides even less - only 1/28 of what Wal-Mart gives in food aid per year. And that’s double what the Mormon church has given in the last quarter century. The Latter Day Saints give a measly 0.7% of annual income to charitable causes, but at least they believe in charity, unlike the church of Scientology.
Forbes ranks the largest U.S. charities, and none are churches:
- United Way Worldwide
- Task Force for Global Health
- Feeding America
- The Salvation Army
- YMCA of the USA
If organized religion no longer fulfills its mission statement, then why should the government continue to subsidize it with an annual 70 billion dollars?
If churches were at least held to the standards of other non-profits, this would generate $16.75 billion in tax revenue per year.
To remain tax exempt, shouldn’t they be doing Christ’s work?
Consider there are at least 350,000 religious congregations in the U.S. Over 300,000 are Protestant, 24,000 are Catholic and Orthodox, and around 12,000 are Non-Christian.
If it’s the Church’s responsibility to help the needy, instead of government’s, like Republicans tell us, why are there over 500,000 homeless people in the U.S. on any given day? And why do over one million people have need of a homeless shelter in any given year? (And this says nothing of the 43 million Americans living in poverty.)
What could be done to prevent such staggering homeless rates?
According to the homeless, they rely on the very programs conservatives defund:
- 34% employment assistance
- 31% rental assistance
- 28% drug or alcohol counseling
- 19% mental health services
These numbers are particularly dismal because they represent a reversal of decades of progress.
By the 1960s, LBJ’s Great Society programs saw homelessness decline by such wide margins, researchers thought it would be nonexistent by the 1970s.
When Star Trek debuted in 1966, it’s easy to imagine how Gene Roddenberry envisioned just such a world - one where poverty was obsolete, and with it, crime and inequality.
Instead of erasing poverty, the Reagan and Nixon administrations dumped the mentally ill onto our streets, increased inequality, and created the very conditions for poverty to thrive. This was bank for the 1%, but particularly devastating to American youths.
“The new homeless were much younger, more likely to be minority group members, suffering from greater poverty, and with access to poorer sleeping quarters. In addition, homeless women and families appeared in significant numbers. However, there were also points of similarity, especially high levels of mental illness and substance abuse.”
This is what happens when political leaders condemn the poor as moochers rather than acknowledge their needs.
This is what happens when we don’t do Jesus’ work, nor bother voting the way Jesus would – which is quite literally the absolute LEAST we could do:
- vote for universal healthcare
- vote for social welfare programs
- vote against tax cuts for the wealthy.
In recent studies, the majority of Americans vastly underestimate how bad our inequality has become. Up to 92% of us believe – and prefer – a more equal distribution of wealth.
Unfortunately, that can only be found in socialist countries like Sweden.
Instead, we live in a country more like Russia – and this was before they elected our president.
America got to this point because a tiny 1% of wealthy interests co-opted our government. Their henchmen on both sides of the aisle still pretend social mobility is within reach, denying the greatest inequality since the Great Depression.
If the devil can quote scripture to serve his purpose, then we must ask ourselves:
- For what purpose are we really voting?
- Why do we support initiatives that defy Christ?
- Why do we use the Bible to rationalize bigotry, but not charity?
- Why do we use the Bible to justify greed, but not taxation?
- Why do we vote for candidates who talk of family values and moral principles, yet walk away from social programs that would support both?
- Why do we deny birth control to women under the guise of ‘religious liberty,’ but see no problem funding erectile dysfunction medication for men too old to start a family?
- Why would a so-called Christian nation be the world’s largest single seller of arms and munitions on the planet?
- Why would our federal government spend more than half its tax dollars on past, current, and future military operations, when this is the least productive and least sustainable way to build an economy?
- How can we claim to be Christian yet support Donald Trump and his Republican opportunists whose ungodly behavior, from narcissism to psychopathy, renders them incapable of remorse, reflection, or redemption?
Even if the myth of poverty-stricken moochers were as true as the inherited racial poverty of our inner-cities, why do Christians choose to believe a myth that punishes the poor instead of subscribing to a story that could help them?
Perhaps it’s time to admit why American Christians really vote conservative: race and greed.
We are so racist, we don’t want our tax dollars taking care of poor minorities. Instead of embracing them as our neighbors, like Jesus instructed, we prefer to see them as parasites – one more convenient justification for our failure to follow His word.
When we excuse such behavior with our single-minded self-righteousness, as on the issue of abortion, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister cautions we are anything but “pro-life”:
“all humans must be enabled to live as human beings — with dignity and decency — or the rest of us are no longer fully human beings ourselves... As we prepare to cut one-third of the social services of this country, as we intend to balance the US budget on the backs of women and children for the sake of the affluent and the privileged and ignore the effect budget cuts will make on the lives around us, we have no right to call ourselves pro-life...The fact is that the immorality of gross social injustice will eventually, surely, affect all our lives...Our morality, in fact, depends on what we do for the poor, the elderly, the children, the men who find themselves caught in an industrial-era job in a computer-era world, the women without health care to sustain them, without day care services to enable them to raise their children, without the equal pay, the decent pay — not the minimum pay — it takes to support a child, and without the government aid it takes to have a life, have the medical care they need and get an education that will get all of them out of the pit into which they have fallen while we all, citizens and government alike, uphold them as they climb...Jesus is very clear: “Cry not for your favorite charity. Cry for yourself and your children,” because the way things are going in the Cabinet appointments designed to upend the progress made in ecology, social welfare, global alliances, global peace, renewable energy, new age job creation and compulsory education, the excrement of our injustice will rise to our own doorsteps soon.”
If the value of one’s life is measured by the ability to improve the life of the less fortunate, then the vast majority of us will be denied entry into any version of heaven.
Christ instructed us to care for the poor; if we refuse our responsibility, would He still consider us Christian?
Maybe the term “Christian” has been so exploited by political heresy, it no longer holds any meaning.
Maybe, it’s become another product label to signal an association instead of embodying it, like Family Values, Civil Rights, Religious Liberty, or Fox News.
Perhaps Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert said it best: “Jesus is a Liberal Democrat."
”If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Maybe it’s time for America to admit the inevitable: we just don’t want to do it.