Friday, March 19, 2010

What I think of Jim Wallis...

Glenn Beck has some researchers getting him ready to lambast Jim Wallis sometime in the near future. I do not wish to contribute to the publicity that moment will generate for him both among supporters and opposers ("All publicity is good publicity"). So I thought I would share my personal feelings about Jim Wallis before the firestorm erupts again.

First, I think of Jim Wallis much the way I think of Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne. These are people who I feel take certain biblical teachings to an extreme. For example, I am not sure that--just because Jesus told one rich man that he should go and sell all that he had and give to the poor--we all must do the same today. I don't think Jesus would tell everyone that today and, in fact, Paul never tells any of his congregations to do that. Perhaps I am just making excuses for myself, but I think the application of these biblical passages is more complex than "God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me."

On the other hand, they are taking very literally a very significant portion of Scripture. My complaint is not that they are not following the Bible--I don't know how I would even argue that. Not only is the New Testament almost entirely negative toward money but it is often vehemently negative: "You cannot serve God and money," "The love of money is the root of all evil," "Woe to you rich for you have already received your reward." Frankly, I can't think of any Scriptures that say things like, "Always make economic decisions that are in your best interest and don't worry about the economic interests of others."

In other words, I think things are more complex than these guys make them out to be, yet their values are very Christ-like. I think I can argue that you can be a Christian and be wealthy today. I think I can defend this position, although I am not completely certain. But to be honest I can argue much more easily for John Wesley's position:

1) "Earn all you can"... We're ok there.
2) "Save all you can"... Here he didn't mean put it in a bank. He meant always buy the least expensive brand. Don't by the expensive car but the economical one.
3) "Give all you can"... Meaning he would not have approved of buying a yacht or a mansion. That's money you could give away.

Individuals like Jim Wallis are a little edgy, maybe a little impractical. I may disagree with their tactics, what they think we should do. But I will not criticize their values on the issue of poverty, since they are clearly biblical through and through.

I am thus a capitalist because I recognize sinful human nature, not because I am a Christian. The Christian value is to give to others, to consider the needs of others before your own. In this sense, I consider the Jim Wallises of the world to be very Christ-like but wrong about the implications of the current fallen state of the world. Capitalism is simply the system that works best in a fallen world, and a modified capitalism I believe can accomplish Wallis' goals better than what he would advocate.

But we need people like him, apparently. We apparently need these sorts of prophets to shake us from complacency. And they do tend to say shocking things. I don't personally like what I remember of Campolo's personality. He used to cuss in the middle of his talk and then say--you're more upset that I just cussed than you are about people who are starving in the world. Irritating and smug, as I remember. But of course he was right about many in his audiences. Many of them did have just as topsy turvy values as the Pharisees of Matthew 23:23.

Wallis sometimes points out that there are less than ten verses in the Bible about homosexuality but dozens on poverty. The observation does not of course deny that the consistent statements of the Bible in relation to homsexual sex are strongly negative. But he is absolutely correct in his observation. The Bible has vastly much more to say about wealth and the poor than about homosexual sex.

People like him remind us that capitalism is not a Christian value--it is based on acting in your own self-interest while Christianity is oriented around sacrificing for the best interests of others. Ayn Rand even wrote a book capturing this dynamic of capitalism--The Virtue of Selfishness. She argues in this book that it is actually morally wrong to act in the interest of others when it is not in your own self-interest. How twisted our minds have become if we somehow have convinced ourselves that this approach is the Christian one!

But capitalism is the system that works best given a fallen world. It is ironically the best path to human thriving in this world. If we can modify it just enough so that it does not run over the "little man," it can become the basis for an entire society to thrive, as we have to a large extent.

But don't confuse its values for Christian values. I expect to find a number of labels used against Wallis in the near future. I don't expect to find much Scripture.


Dick Norton said...

Jim Wallis would advocate that it is right for the majority to gang up on the minority, take their possessions and give them to the poor. That is the perversion of biblical teaching that I object to. I fully agree with your assessment of John Wesley's stance on money, and would like to see it preached more forcefully from our Wesleyan pulpits. An overriding, over-taxing government is, however, a dis-incentive to us Christians doing what Scripture demands of us.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Ken, a good post! And one with which I am in essential agreement.