The Political Dichotomy of the Bible
Having attended a Catholic high school (and as a current enrollee at a Catholic university), I've often been encouraged to consider challenges society faces through the lens of the Bible. While in no way do I believe should this document should be the be-all-end-all law of the land, I think individuals who associate themselves with Christianity in general can look to the Bible for political inspiration and guidance. You don't even have to be religious to contemplate the many lifel essons the Bible has to offer on morality, virtue, and faith.
If we acknowledge that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental human rights that the Founding Fathers fought the British crown to gain — something I discussed in a previous article on republicanism — then it follows that the end goal of government is to protect those individual rights.
This brings me to ask you to consider the Bible and the lessons it can provide on political philosophy and rights. Many others before me have argued that the Good Book is a call for social justice, reiterating how Jesus focused on compassion for the poor. Matthew 20:16 is a concrete reference for the social-justice crowd, which I think provides a compelling argument and is an interesting interpretation of the New Testament.
But I disagree with those who argue that the Bible is a text that calls on big government for social change, equality, and fairness. Government has been notorious for its inefficiency and for creating more inequality among men. In laying out my argument, I'd like readers to briefly consider the dichotomy of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the themes offered in both parts of the text.
So, let's start with the Old Testament and focus on its first five books. It is widely agreed upon that the Old Testament stresses the supremacy of God: It continually reiterates that He is the source of all power, morality, and law. Stories of divine intervention, God's might, and prophets are abundant. All of these verses are important to the solemn God-fearing nature of the Old Testament. But, I think the story that epitomizes the Old Testament is the handing down of the Ten Commandments. God passing on his moral law to man is extremely significant, as it defines how we need to go about treating each other. Eight out of the ten describe things we cannot do, while only two commandments list things we should do. We are told what not to do, rather than what to do.
That quick examination of the Old Testament allows us to now focus on the New Testament. The coming of Christ signifies a social change — but how exactly should we interpret that change? I believe the New Testament can be understood as a foundation for modern libertarian thought, contrary to the popular liberal social-justice context that has already been mentioned.
First off, it should be noted that the social justice theories surrounding Jesus and the Apostles cannot be ignored or taken for granted. Many of those who say taxes should be raised on those who are well off to help the poor often reference (directly or implicitly) Christ's compassion and love for the most vulnerable. The Render unto Caesar verse is one popular citation for this interpretation of the Bible, but in the context of the New Testament as a whole, it leaves many people unsatisfied and not completely convinced. I believe readers of the Bible should focus on two major lessons in the New Testament as guidance for reaching a modern libertarian's philosophical perspective: free will and the Golden Rule.
What do Christian academics have to say about free will? From my limited experience in school, I have been taught that Adam and Eve metaphorically represent the origin of man's free will. Adam chose to take Eve's advice, to disobey God, and to eat the forbidden fruit. As humans, we by definition are not infallible. Free will allows us to make right or wrong decisions on our own, and we must live with those consequences. Just as Jesus didn't tell me that second Chipotle burrito would be too much to handle last Friday after work, government isn't able to (and shouldn't) hold our hands and make social or economic decisions for us. No one knows how to live your life better than you do.
Jesus encompasses the idea of free will when he says, "Give up your possessions and come follow me." At first glance, this quote may seem to counter the point I'm trying to make, and I'd like to address that. One may argue that the statement was a command, but it's plain to see that the quote wasn't made in an Old Testament-style authoritarian manner. Jesus was not demanding that people follow him, he was making a suggestion.
Jesus did not demand that all men give up their belongings, he only encouraged it. His audience could make their own choices. Now, if we trace this logic of free will to the present, we will find the philosophy of libertarianism. People should be able to eat, drink, smoke, study, work, and live in however manner they deem is best for themselves, so long as they do not "break your leg or pick your pocket." The Bible (arguably) wasn't ready for this logical extension of free will to be applied to marriage, but society has shown that it is ready to work for true marriage equality. Again, I'm emphasizing the importance of free will and the Golden Rule in the spirit of the Bible as whole. It's not hard to nit-pick and find quotes that shouldn't be taken literally or things that are just weird.
Second, the New Testament incorporates the Golden Rule, otherwise known as the "ethic of reciprocity." We've been taught since we were kids to "treat others like you want to be treated," which generally means with respect, dignity, and human decency. As read in Matthew 7:12, Jesus is encouraging men to be tolerant and accept the practices of others.
It is also important to note that neither the Golden Rule nor free will apply solely to Christians. Modern libertarian thought emphasizes treating all people as individuals with unalienable rights, rather than viewing others simply as a cog in some collective wheel.
This brings me to my final point — one last look at the dichotomy between the authoritarian "don't do that" Old Testament and the use of persuasion in the New Testament. In this article I have described how one can epitomize the Old Testament with the Ten Commandments and the New Testament with free will and the Golden Rule. This is symbolic of the nature of government 2000 years ago versus what we have( or should have) today. Many individuals would replace "free will" in the previous sentence with "social justice," but as I have explained, I believe free will and voluntary human interaction will best work toward resolving the problems society faces, not some bloated bureaucracy.
Of course, no one is arguing that we should get rid of "thou shall not kill" laws or completely forget about similar lessons to those mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Government needs to keep protecting life, liberty, and property, as Jefferson explained, but his argument relied on laws of nature, not on religion.
In order to achieve a more free society in the future, we should look to Jesus and the New Testament for guidance on how we should treat others, view our relationship to government, or attempt to alleviate the troubles of the world. We should not, however, be obliged to sacrifice our individual rights to conform to one particular moral code at the point of a gun (or threat of an eternity in Hell). So, before you criticize the "greed" of the private sector or rush to give government more power to be abused, consider the amazing things voluntary human action can do. Consider free will and the Golden Rule. Consider the libertarian perspective. Consider the lessons Jesus taught the world.
Update: The headline on this story was changed per the author's request.