Wicked Theology

Let's be honest. All Christians interpret Scripture in conversation with their social and political commitments.
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Last week a local religious leader asked my opinion of a blog post by Denny Burk, a professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's Boyce College. Full disclosure: I happen to be an alumnus of that seminary, and like most alumni of my era, I'm embarrassed by the narrowly fundamentalist direction the school has taken. Applying his expertise in a nefarious way, Burk argues that when Jesus imagines judgment according to how we treat "the least of these" (Matthew 25:40, 46), he means not poor people in general but fellow Christians who face mistreatment when sharing their faith and pursuing the path of righteousness.

By the time Burk's blog reached me, it was being used to argue against a Christian obligation to help the needy. I cannot say whether that is what Burk intended. He explicitly acknowledges that Christians should care for the poor. However, the overall gist of his post displaces the poor in favor of Christian culture warriors. That's how people took it, and that's wicked theology.

Let's take a moment to unpack Burk's argument before we reflect on its larger significance. The literary context is the parable of the sheep and the goats, found only in Matthew 25:31-46. Burk argues correctly that in Matthew, when Jesus employs terms like "brothers," "sisters," "little ones," and "the least of these," he usually means his followers and not people in general. But Burk is devoted to the kind of wicked theology that twists Scripture in the service of the culture wars. Having briefly acknowledged that, "Yes, the Bible teaches about our obligation to care for the poor," he goes on to identify "the least of these" as being about... well, here's what he does:

[The parable is] about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It's about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It's about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals.

By some sleight of hand we've moved from Christians suffering poverty and persecution - like martyred believers in contemporary Syria and Iraq - to the rejection of door-to-door missionaries and the expectation that Christian businesses not discriminate against the LGBT community. There's of course no warrant for elevating neighborhood evangelists and anti-gay entrepreneurs to the status of martyrs, apart from Burk's culture wars agenda. Of course, by now we've left the poor far behind.

Not surprisingly, the right wing Acton Institute cited Burk's blog with approval and a small Twitter feud began. Somehow the blog reached my friend.

Denny Burk is just one of many theologians and biblical scholars whose gospel is twisted by right wing politics. It's hard to find evidence that Burk cares much about the poor, at least not by searching his blog and his publications. He's far more interested in promoting the subordination of women to men, in attacking the LGBT community, and apparently in unpacking the doctrine of hell. He's written books on all those topics.

Let's be honest. All Christians interpret Scripture in conversation with their social and political commitments. I do too. However, it's a great perversion to twist Jesus' message into petty political resentment. It is especially wicked to twist Jesus' teachings to promote the social privilege of one's own group. Jesus rejected all claims to privilege, and his concern for the poor literally jumps off the page at any Bible reader. His support for business that discriminates against anyone, no matter how they live? Zero.

How clear is Jesus about treatment of the poor? According to Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by describing it as good news for the poor and release to prisoners (4:18). He tells one parable about a rich man who neglects his poor neighbor and winds up in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). He criticizes the religious authorities of his day for impoverishing poor widows (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4).

And let's look at Burk's argument. It's technically correct about the passage he's discussing. But Matthew's gospel also commands Jesus' followers to make no distinction between fellow disciples and others. "Love your enemies," remember (5:44)? It's Matthew's Jesus who wants his followers to give to every beggar they confront (5:42). Matthew includes the story of the would-be disciple who turns away when Jesus requires him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, followed by Jesus' lament that it is extremely difficult for the rich to enter God's reign (19:21-24). Burk acknowledges an obligation to the poor, but he does not emphasize it. Jesus emphasized the poor. In contrast, Burk abandons the poor to score cheap political points.

Burk also neglects the single most distinctive feature of Matthew's gospel: Matthew presents Jesus as a faithful interpreter of Israel's law. Jesus is entirely Jewish. He calls his followers to practice the law in its entirety (5:17-20), to become "perfect" or "complete" in following the law (5:48), and to exceed even the scribes and Pharisees in their observance of the law (23:2-3). Indeed, a primary criticism of the scribes and Pharisees is that they devote themselves to technicalities while neglecting "the weightier matters of the law" - namely, justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). How better to characterize Burk's blog post than to say it pursues technicalities at the expense of justice?

Jesus' Jewishness accounts for his vision of justice. Israel's law condemns the exploitation of laborers, provides for regular redistribution of property ownership, forbids exploitative lending, and requires setting aside resources for the poor and for sojourners. Israel's prophets cried out against religious observance that neglects the poor and condemned those who acquire luxury by exploiting powerless people. As reflected in the gospels, Jesus' social vision is entirely Jewish in these respects.

You hear wicked theology from time to time. I've had friends tell me the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30; see Luke 19:12-27) promotes capitalism. Of course, capitalism hadn't even been conceived of in Jesus' day, but that doesn't stop wicked theology. Wicked theology takes Jesus' saying, "The poor you always have with you," as a warrant to ignore the problem of poverty. I've even had a friend argue that since Jesus did not command governments to provide a social safety net, Christian citizens ought not support one. Let's think that one through: right-wingers take the Bible's silence on modern social welfare programs as evidence Christians should support limited government. These arguments are just a wicked twist on the gospel message, making mountains out of molehills and ignoring the whole.

Wicked theology is not going away. Not that long ago, Jerry Falwell announced that God is pro-war in promoting an invasion of Iraq. Not long before that, he defended segregation. Wicked theology basically amounts to providing biblical cover - a pretense - for systems of inequality and exploitation. We need to call it when we see it.

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