Saturday, February 13, 2010

'Strict constructionism'

Lately I've been involved in some testy Facebook discussions about the health care bill now being debated on in Congress, and one of the complaints from its opponents is that it's "unconstitutional." On what grounds? Generally, the 10th Amendment, which reserves certain powers to individual states. The upshot is their fear of "government intrusion" -- at least, that's what they say.

I'm not so sure about that -- I suspect that they're trying to use the excuse of the law to maintain a sense of their own authority. With all their bellyaching about "too much government," I never hear about how they use the power and authority they have to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate.

Know who that reminds me of? The Pharisees.

To the uninitiated, they made up a lay school of Judaism in Jesus' day that prided itself on maintaining traditions that had been supposedly handed down from Moses and were seen as to go-to men when it came to religious commitment. Trouble was, to the 631 commands that were actually written in the Scriptures they added thousands more, making maintaining the religion itself more important than following God. In other words, they missed the point of the Law.

That's why Jesus locked horns with them regularly, exposing their alleged commitment as fraudulent. In one case they were so intent on discrediting Him they ended up even breaking the law (John 8 -- the woman "caught in adultery").

So what does this have to do with the present day? Well, let's consider the last 40 or 50 years or so, going back to the civil-rights movement. Early on, African-American activists in the South recognized the only path for overthrowing injustice as going through the Federal government, first with court decisions but later with Congressional legislation.

At that, many white Southern politicians, whose supporters already were conditioned to be suspicious of the feds, decided to play the "less government" card, using the legal terms "nullification" ("it doesn't apply to us") and "interposition" (state law superseding Federal law), particularly in Mississippi. Such resentment over the Federal government's "overreaching," and especially when it came to the "Great Society," became part and parcel of the modern conservative movement, which we see to this day.

Folks seem to miss that government exists to maintain order and administer justice, not simply to allow them to keep their status and their stuff. While the Scriptures aren't clear as to what kind of policies government should enact, it maintains a general sense of doing what's right by everyone, not just the people with money, organization or power.

When it comes to the poor, such people say, "Let the church handle it." Right now, however, the church can't. Most individual churches are too small, too poor and too myopic to do that job properly; one survey I ran across a few years ago noted that 97 percent of monies that the average church collects goes toward staff salaries or facility upkeep or expansion, with most of the rest to foreign missions. They also are generally divided by race, social class and theology, making the type of unity needed to be a comprehensive diaconal influence next to impossible. On top of that, the biggest problem the poor have, really, is access to resources -- jobs, education etc. -- that charity cannot solve. That's why you had the "Great Society" in the first place, and that's what the battle over health insurance is really about.

Besides, the church's first -- indeed, only -- mandate is to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which in the here-and-now represents an alternative way of living. That is to say, it has the commission to tell the world, "Here's how life is to be lived." The early church, completely shut out of the power structure, took that seriously, which is why even non-believers marveled and some even felt threatened because it just didn't "go along."

In the last 1,700 years, however, Christianity has achieved considerable political status, especially in the West. The question thus becomes, "Now that we have this authority, how do we use it for the glory of God?" I would answer that we Christians should use the power, including political, that we have for service -- not setting "principles" in stone.

No comments: