Christmas Reflection: Mike Pence’s small god vs. Jesus’ Big God

Last Sunday, I offered an Advent reflection on the long history of what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, has called “the battle of the gods” that is mirrored in the biblical texts themselves. It’s a battle of the God of the Rich (like David and Solomon) against the God of the poor (like Yeshua himself).

Or as OpEdNews (OEN) editor-in-chief, Rob Kall reminded me: it’s a struggle between what I had previously called the small, exclusive, national god of empire versus the big all-embracing God of prophets both ancient and contemporary – like Gandhi, King, Badshah Kahn, and Dorothy Day. That Big God cares especially for the poor who happen to constitute the vast majority of people in the world. That deity’s spokespersons have harsh words for the rich.

Mike Pence’s small god

Apropos of all that, just three days before Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence, a self-proclaimed and especially fervent follower of Jesus, gave a revealing speech at a Turning Point USA event in West Palm Beach Florida. (Turning Point is a Republican group claiming a membership of more than 250,000 conservative students across 2000 U.S. campuses.) There, in terms lauding the Trump administration, Pence defended the small god of the rich – a national god who stands on the side of the wealthy. More than once, his audience enthusiastically responded “USA, USA, USA” as if our country’s borders constituted the full swath of divine concern.

In the course of his speech, Mr. Pence complained that his party’s opponents “. . . want to make rich people poor, and poor people more comfortable.”

He also alleged that “It was freedom not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world. It was freedom not socialism that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as a beacon of hope for all the world.”

Connecting his words specifically with Christmas, the vice-president urged his young audience to “take a moment to be still, and if you’re inclined, this is what we do at my house come Christmas morning, take a moment to reflect on the grace that came to mankind, wrapped in clothes (sic) and lying in a manger so many years ago.”

Though Mr. Pence’s words correctly invite us to reflect on what came to us in that manger so many years ago, they expressly contradict the God revealed in the original Christmas event – especially in relation to socialism and treatment of the poor.

Yeshua’s Big God

The contradiction becomes clear from consideration of the fundamental Christian belief celebrated across the world during the Christmas winter festival. It’s the belief that God elected to disclose divine reality precisely in conditions of extreme poverty. The revelation came in the child of poor parents who had been forced into a long dangerous journey for purposes of taxation by a hated imperial government in the dead of winter. Of course, we’re talking about the Jewish family from hovel-filled Nazareth, Yosef, Miryam, and their firstborn, Yeshua.

(Note that according to the belief in question, everything the God does is revelatory. So, it is significant in itself that the divine revelation did not take place in a palace, a temple, nor among wealthy aristocrats. Instead, it took place in a smelly, vermin infested barn where the child’s parents – too poor to pay for a hotel and refused lodging by locals – were compelled to give birth in dangerous extremely unsanitary conditions.)

Moreover, according to the story, the child in question:

  • Lived his entire life in poverty.
  • Barely escaped infanticide by the state and consequently lived for years as an immigrant asylum seeker in Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15).
  • As an adult, continued to be houseless (Luke 9:58, Matthew 8:20).
  • Even lacked money to pay taxes (Matthew 17: 24-27).
  • Ended up poorer still than when he began: on death row, stripped naked, a victim of torture and capital punishment by his era’ worldwide imperial state that evidently thought of him as a terrorist (as shown by his crucifixion – a method of execution reserved for insurgents).

Even more to the point and according to his own description, the entire point of Yeshua’s life’s work was to alleviate poverty. Quoting his people’s revered prophet Isaiah, here’s the way he described his very program in Luke 4: 16-22: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Please note that those words identify God’s Self – God’s very Spirit – as essentially concerned with the poor, with those blind to poverty’s existence, with prisoners and the oppressed. As Michael Hudson has pointed out in his magisterial . . . And Forgive Them Their Debts, Yeshua’s “good news” (his gospel) was about cancelling the loans of the heavily indebted peasants in the Master’s audience. As he said specifically, it was essentially about wealth redistribution (Luke 18: 22, 23, 28-30). No wonder he was so popular with those living on the edge.

Subsequently and besides:

  • Yeshua spent his life setting up free field health clinics, feeding the hungry gratis whether from his own people (Mark 6: 30-44) or not (Mark 8: 1-21), while rehabilitating the citizenship of the socially despised and marginalized.
  • After his death, his followers demonstrated their understanding of his teaching by adopting a style of living that embodied a form of Christian socialism, not to say communism. Again, it centered on wealth redistribution. As Luke describes it in his Acts of the Apostles: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need” (Acts 2:44).
  • The Christian Testament’s only description of the final judgment completely bases it on sharing resources with the houseless, hungry and naked, as well as with those the state has imprisoned, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
  • Those who neglected such people suffer ipso facto exclusion from eternal joy, because “. . . whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 45).
  • During his life, Yeshua had extremely harsh words for the rich for whom the final judgment would be so negative. He said, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6: 24-26). Such words understandably give hope to the poor and should make us who are well-off examine our consciences at this Christmas season.

Conclusion

Such introspection was entirely absent from Mr. Pence’s reflections before his young impressionable audience. Instead, what he said amounted to a defense of the small god of the rich whom Yeshua’s teachings (just reviewed) show has everything to do with comforting the already comfortable while denigrating the poor.

Instead, Yeshua’s authentic teachings constitute a message of hope and encouragement precisely for the poor and hungry while making the rest of us salvifically uneasy.

So, Christmas properly understood is not a time for self-congratulation nor for overlooking what was revealed in a prophet’s life bookended by houselessness and capital punishment.

It is a call to free health care along with housing and food for everyone. It’s a summons to debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution, socialism, and eliminating poverty as well as empire and differentiating wealth.

That’s the good news of Christmas – for the poor, not for Mr. Pence and the rest of us.

David and Solomon’s Crime Family Was No Better than Trump’s

Readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent: 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16; Psalms 89: 2-5, 27, 29; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 38

In terms of teaching theology and elucidating the Bible, I’m happy for our nation’s experience of Donald Trump. Otherwise, not so much.

The reason for my contentment is Mr. Trump’s blatant exploitation of religion and his ability to persuade so many people of faith that he is a man of God. Think of his now infamous Bible posing in front of DC’s St. John’s Church after having police clear the area of Black Lives Matter protesters.  

The event clearly illustrated a perennial religious dynamic that is essential for critical thinkers to understand. I’m referring to what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, calls the “battle of the gods.”

The Battle of the Gods

The combat in question pits the God of the rich against the God of the poor. Specific to our readings on this fourth Sunday of Advent, it sets the God of Moses against the God of King David’s crime family. Yes, his crime family.

To begin with, the God of the poor set free a motley group of slaves from Egypt and instituted Moses’ order that favored them rather than their Egyptian slavers. Its “preferential option” prioritized the interests of widows, orphans, and resident non-Hebrews living in Israel. Covenant law eventually forgave the debts of impoverished Hebrews every fifty years. In the process, it disadvantaged landlords and bankers. It made no provision for reestablishing the royal class that had made the lives of slaves so miserable in Egyptian captivity.

Then about a thousand years before the birth of Yeshua, all of that changed. Israel’s upper classes decided to reinstitute an order reminiscent of Egypt. It had the rich lording power over the poor, taxing them heavily, instituting forced labor, and sending Israel’s young men to fight and die in gratuitous wars of conquest as conscripts in a standing army.

Saul was Israel’s first king. He was succeeded by King David and then by his son, Solomon. Both father and son were ruthless womanizers committed to increasing their own wealth and power at the expense of the poor. Theirs was truly a crime family masquerading as God’s beloved appointees.

Family dysfunctions included internecine murders and wars, incestuous rape (2nd Samuel 13) and lasting vendettas. David’s deathbed will and testament was worthy of any Mafia don (I Kings 2: 2-12). However, to achieve the power for which they thirsted, both David and Solomon had to convince their subjects that they were indeed men of God.

That called for fabricated visions and assurances from the divine. Both David and Solomon assisted by their court prophets and scribes enthusiastically obliged. And so, David made sure it was recorded that he was a man “after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). Meanwhile, Solomon’s own court historians portrayed him as the wisest man who ever lived (I Kings 3: 11-15).

Central to the ruse was a reframing of Moses’ Sinai Covenant to favor the newly emergent royalty and their hangers-on rather than the poor. That’s what we find in this Sunday’s first reading from 2nd Samuel. There, David and his court prophet, Nathan, conspire to change the beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant from the poor and oppressed to the royals. In this way, the covenant becomes not a divine promise to protect widows and orphans, but to assure a lasting dynasty for David’s crime family. Put otherwise, the Covenant of Moses was replaced by the Covenant of David.

The great prophets of Judah and Israel rebelled against such palace distortions of faith.

Some tried to work within the new system holding kings’ feet to the fire, reminding them of their obligations towards the weak and vulnerable. Others gave up on the royals and called them out for their self-serving cruelty and corruption.

The great prophets celebrated during this advent season, John the Baptist and his disciple Yeshua of Nazareth, fell into the latter category. They had no use for the royals, the temple priests, their lawyers and apologists. They reserved special abhorrence for their country’s Roman occupiers.

Evidently, Yeshua inherited all of that from his mother, Miryam. She and her husband, Yosef, gave all of their children revolutionary names (Matthew 13: 55-56). Yeshua was named after the great liberator Joshua. The evangelist called “Luke” recorded Miryam as singing a fierce revolutionary song calling for the dethronement of the rich and mighty everywhere (Luke 1: 46-55).

All of that is reflected in today’s readings. What follows are my “translations.” You can find them here to see if I got them right.

Readings for 4th Sunday of Advent   

2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16: The wily King David conspired with his court prophet, Nathan to persuade their people that God was on his side. The strategy was to build a magnificent temple (actually about the size of a middling parish church today) and then to claim a well-publicized “vision.” There, according to Nathan’s testimony, David’s battlefield accomplishments would be celebrated by God himself. But even more importantly, his country’s constitution (called “The Covenant”) would be subtly changed from centering on the welfare of widows, orphans, and immigrants, to assuring that David’s crime family would stay in power forever. 

Psalms 89: 2-5, 27, 29: The arrangement was then celebrated in song (Psalm 89) praising the goodness of God for establishing David’s throne “for all generations.”

Romans 16: 25-27: Paul’s allegiance, however, was not to any earthly king, but to what Yeshua proclaimed as the Kingdom of God. It embraced the welfare of “all nations.” Following Yeshua, Paul’s understanding re-established the pre-Davidic Covenant (favoring those widows, orphans, and immigrants) which David’s Covenant (in its hijacked form) had attempted to replace.

Luke 1: 38: Vaguely following the example of David, Luke’s early church made up a visionary tale about Yeshua’s very conception. There, the angel Gabriel secures Mary’s permission to have the Holy Spirit impregnate her. The resulting child will be great, the angel said, and (like David) initiate a kingdom to which “there will be no end.” However, Yeshua’s New Covenant would once again centralize not the royal class, but Yahweh’s beloved widows, orphans, and immigrants. As Mary would say beginning eight verses later (LK 1: 46-55), it would “take down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble.” So much for palace crime family conspiracies.

Conclusion

So, portraying the Trumps, or Bushes, or Clintons or Kennedys or Obamas as “crime families” is not at all far-fetched or somehow unchristian. On the contrary, insofar as any of them neglect the poor – the widows, orphans, immigrants, asylum seekers, or victims of their wars – they are just that. They’re like the criminal family of David and Solomon.

Yes, they go to church, invoke God’s blessings on America at the end of every formal speech, and even attend “prayer breakfasts.” But like David and Solomon (and most of the kings portrayed in the Bible), they are really in bed with the rich and powerful, with the bankers and corporate heads, and with compliant pastors, priests and court prophet equivalents. At best, they are completely disinterested in the spiritual descendants of Egypt’s slaves. At worst, they are actual enemies of workers, widows, orphans, immigrants as well as of those who side with the unemployed, houseless, and those without medical care.

In summary, this fourth Sunday of Advent provides a stark reminder to critical thinking people of faith. It tells us not to be seduced by Bible-waving presidents or by pastors who endorse them and their God of the rich.

Neither Yeshua whose birthday we are about to celebrate nor his cousin John nor his revolutionary mother had anything to do with that God. Before him, they were all complete atheists. So should we be.

Their God was the God of Moses, not of David. Their God was precisely the one rejected by the rich and the powerful – the One who Miryam said “puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble,” who “fills the hungry with good things, while the rich he sends empty away” (Luke 1: 53).