Sunday, 12 June 2011

How Peter Hitchens gets the Bible to agree with him

Blessed are the Spongers? That's not what St Paul said, Archbishop

That is Peter Hitchens, writing in the Daily Mail. And he goes on to criticise Rowan William's recent article in the New Statesman:

Why is it so bad to draw a line between the deserving and the undeserving poor? I have searched the Sermon on the Mount for the words 'Blessed are the Spongers' and I cannot find them - or anything remotely like them. So why does the Archbishop of Canterbury speak as if it was obvious that we should treat people who can work, but won't, in the same way as we treat those who are truly in need?

As Dr Williams has decided to take up political commentating, I think I shall do a little bit of Archbishoping. Here beginneth the first lesson: In St Paul's first epistle to Timothy, Chapter 5, we read: 'If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.' And in his second epistle to the Thessalonians, St Paul rubs it in, in that way he has: 'This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.' This seems pretty clear to me, and a dozen generations before my own knew these words by heart and lived according to them. They gave to charity and supported the helpless and needy with all their might. But they scorned those who sought to live off others when they had no need to. Our Welfare State took much the same line until Harold Wilson 'reformed' it in the Sixties.

Hitchens, of course, is proof texting like mad. To "proof text" is to take Biblical texts out of context, denude them of their original significance, and present them in such a way that it looks like they prop up your own argument. Stripped of the language of the King James version, no doubt used by Hitchens to provide some kind of pretentiousness to ancient wisdom, a modern translation from the original Greek (the New Testament was written in Greek) reads:

But if any do not take care of their relatives, especially the members of their own family, they have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)

What matters is the context that Hitchens has wrenched this from. The author of the letter (whether it is Paul is debatable) is addressing the matter of widows, and who should provide for them. It is not a general matter about working for one's family, but quite specific. If a widow needs financial support, where should that support come from. The letter says that if the widow has children or grandchildren, they should look after her - as part of a Christian community, not as part of a rule for the rest of the Roman pagan community in general. It is not giving a general rule that - as Hitchens tries to wrench an interpretation - people should work and not sponge off society:

Show respect for widows who really are all alone. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should learn first to carry out their religious duties toward their own family and in this way repay their parents and grandparents, because that is what pleases God. A widow who is all alone, with no one to take care of her, has placed her hope in God and continues to pray and ask him for his help night and day... Give them these instructions, so that no one will find fault with them. But if any do not take care of their relatives, especially the members of their own family, they have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever.
(1 Timothy 5:3-8)

Of course, the letter was written at a time when there was no Welfare State. That's indeed the background against which we see the passage that Hitchens quotes from Thessalonians. But what kind of society was it in which people might become freeloaders? While Hitchens rants on about "we are at heart a Christian nation and people" and says "they really have to get out of their heads the idea that the Welfare State must be unconditionally defended", it is worth looking at the kind of society which Paul is addressing in that letter:

The group of believers was one in mind and heart. None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all. There was no one in the group who was in need. Those who owned fields or houses would sell them, bring the money received from the sale, and turn it over to the apostles; and the money was distributed according to the needs of the people. And so it was that Joseph, a Levite born in Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means "One who Encourages"), sold a field he owned, brought the money, and turned it over to the apostles.
(Acts 4:32-37)

Now if Hitchens wants the kind of society that the early Christians adopted, well and good, and I look forward to seeing him selling his fields and houses and turn it over to Christian Aid for distribution. There is also a rather salutary story about people to tried to keep something back, and perhaps a lesson might be drawn about tax evasion by the rich here, or the way in which some rich people want to be seen to be doing good, but don't do so in any way that seriously inconveniences their own lifestyle.

But there was a man named Ananias, who with his wife Sapphira sold some property that belonged to them. But with his wife's agreement he kept part of the money for himself and turned the rest over to the apostles. Peter said to him, "Ananias, why did you let Satan take control of you and make you lie to the Holy Spirit by keeping part of the money you received for the property? Before you sold the property, it belonged to you; and after you sold it, the money was yours. Why, then, did you decide to do such a thing? You have not lied to people---you have lied to God!" As soon as Ananias heard this, he fell down dead; and all who heard about it were terrified. (Acts 5:1-10)

Now - to be absolutely clear - I'm not advocating that society should be modeled on that kind of early Christian communitarian model, with everything in common. For a start, that was a decision taken among the believing community, and clearly to impose that as a model for the whole of society would bring in a theocratic dictatorship, which would be a great evil. Also, historically, for some reason, it doesn't seemed to have survived for long, perhaps because of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

But if Hitchens is bleating on about "giving to charity", and quoting the New Testament, I think he should at least let us see the kind of society described there - that held things in common - was all about; he should see that just as much as those who sponged off this society, there was also criticism of those who held back their own wealth for themselves, and who thought that a token "giving to charity" was all that it meant to be part of such a society.

That such articles occur in the Daily Mail, alongside criticism of Rowan Williams is not surprising; the same paper has another article entitled "Rowan Williams is a profoundly divisive Leftie". No one really wants to listen to what he says and understand the thrust of his argument; they just take the bits they want to attack. I notice they haven't addressed another of his key points about "the bafflement and indignation that the present government is facing over its proposals for reform in health and education. With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context."

Democratic mandate, anyone? Or is how well a government acts in accordance with its mandate, and how far it can go from that when elected and in power not a proper subject for debate? Or should Daily Mail readers not be introduced to this kind of debate, because "nothing has changed", as one of the officials after the Anschluss said in "The Sound of Music"?

What Hitchen's really wants is for the New Testament to support his views, and when he makes the distinction between the "hard working poor" and "near neighbours living lives of shameless idleness on their money"; no doubt, in his view, there are many such.

When Rowan Williams says that political debate about cut-backs is "not helped by a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, nor by the steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system", he is noting that there is a profound hermeneutic of suspicion which sees a large proportion of the poor as somehow "undeserving", and is prepared to take any opportunity, in the name of cost-cutting, to make it harder for poorer people to be supported.

It is a shift in perception to seeing people as "undeserving" unless they can prove otherwise, more detailed forms for the means testing to ensure that no one is milking the system - and as in Jersey - the call for people to call in about suspected "benefit cheats" among their neighbours, and - as over here - be able to do it anonymously.

That is the kind of strategy that grinds people down, and I know people in Jersey who are on income support who have been told to get more than a part time job, but the jobs are just not available. They are being steadily crushed by the bureaucratic machine. The older system, of a Parish welfare system, where the Constable, together with elderly Miss Havershams, vetted and probed applicants, could also be strict, but it was also flexible; the new legislation seems to have increasingly lost that flexibility.

Hitchens clearly sees the poor as objects of charity. Rowan Williams, in his article, takes a quite different position, he asks us to look at the "theological strand to be retrieved that is not about 'the poor' as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates - like the flow of blood - is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility."

It appears that what Hitchens really wants is a kind of ossified Christianity, a kind of benevolent paternalism, which used to be part of the fabric of English society:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Unfortunately, the New Testament reveals a very different kind of community behind its texts about work and support.


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