This is one of those blog posts that I write more for me than for you so that I can get the noise out of my head and write fiction. It's boring and long, and if you want to skip it, I won't be offended.
For those of you who only know me through my Los Nefilim novellas, you may or may not know about my novel Miserere. I learned a lot about Christianity while writing Miserere--facts that my Evangelical upbringing neglected, and I talk about that a little more here and here. The upshot of it is that I have heard the Bible twisted to suit the needs of everyone from Jerry Falwell to Jim and Tammy Faye Baker to Joel Osteen.
In order to determine the truth from the lies, I studied the Bible to learn what it really said, because context is important. That philosophy served me well when I analyzed case law, where I discovered early on that the best way to argue against a fact was to thoroughly understand your opponent's argument. I learned to think like the opposition in order to use their own arguments against them.
Even in doing so, I never underestimated the opposition. Nor did I rely on obfuscation to make my points. Words can only be twisted so far before they no longer resemble the truth, and flimsy polemics can easily be blown apart.
Which brings me to Erick Erickson, whose name sounds flashy, like a stage name. Erickson is a speaker, which means he has a good shtick and people pay him money to hear him flap his gums about whatever. He uses Romans 1.16 in his Twitter bio, which states: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
Not being ashamed of the gospel and actually understanding what the gospel means are two very different things. Erickson is one of those false prophets Jesus warned his disciples about in Matthew 7.15 when he said, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves."
Erickson is pushing a growing Evangelical philosophy of self-sufficiency and selfishness. This is not new. Christianity has long wrestled with the issue of Christ's poverty and what it meant for both the church and his followers. Umberto Eco had great fun showing the ridiculousness of the arguments for wealth in his novel The Name of the Rose.
Likewise, Diarmaid MacCulloch points out in A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years that the "Beatitudes' have remained as a subversive tug at the sleeve for churchmen in the centuries during which they have had too much worldly comfort." Whether it's the Vatican or the Evangelical rich and famous, the clergy is notorious for seeking ways to justify their own worldly comfort.
As more people, such as Erickson, have advocated dropping public assistance for the poor, they falsely base their rationales on scripture. Many more people, myself included, have begun to refute these false claims with references to Matthew 25.31-46. In this passage, Jesus speaks to the Great Judgment and how he will judge the dead:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand, and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' [Emphasis mine.]
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcome you, or anked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.'
Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'
Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'
Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' [Emphasis mine.]
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
*"members of my family" translated from the Greek "these my brothers"
Based on people quoting this portion of Matthew, Erick Erickson unleashed the following tweet:
In Matt 25, when Jesus talks about caring for “the least of these,” he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians.— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) March 17, 2017
The foremost point in deconstructing this particular tweet is that Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew, so it seems rather disingenuous for Erickson to claim that Jesus was speaking of "fellow Christians" in the passage. It also speaks to his ignorance on the subject.
Erickson rejects Jesus's teaching that we should care for people less fortunate than ourselves. He seeks to deflect Jesus's words from the poor, the sick, the imprisoned to Christians in general, which is a monumental conceit, and one that is easily dismantled with a thorough look at the scriptural evidence.
Both in Matthew 25.31-46 and previously in Matthew 5, during the Sermon on the Mount, and again in Luke's shorter version of the Beatitudes in Luke 6.20-26, Jesus repeatedly exhorts his followers to seek humility and to treat one another as they wish to be treated. We can add to these scriptures the weight of Jesus's other teachings to support the view that Jesus did, in fact, consider the poor, the sick, the imprisoned as "the least of these."
This is not a message that is congruent with attracting and hoarding one's own wealth, or demonizing the poor and sick as societal leeches. However, that has not stopped people like Erickson in the past. These men have long relied on their white male privilege to aid their credibility. They usually say whatever they please and no one contradicts them in their many Biblical misinterpretations.
And I understand that a lot of younger people are so turned off by "Christians" like Erickson, they reject even looking at religious texts. I know exactly how they feel, because I used to be the same way. However, the reason the Ericksons of the world have been winning this war on words is because no one has stood against them in the past.
Yet resistance to Erickson's twisted narrative is imperative, because Erickson, and people like him, seek to shift all moral responsibility for their actions from themselves to a divinity. In doing so, they are attempting to absolve themselves of the ramifications of their actions.
"Jesus said the poor will always be with us," said Roger Marshall in an attempt to deflect responsibility for Trumpcare from himself and back to a distant faceless deity. He, too, was misquoting a passage in Matthew and reapplying it to his personal point of view. The general implication from these men is: God doesn't care, so why should I? And blaming God becomes a crutch for weak reasoning.
In his study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christian ethics, Larry L. Rasmussen notes:
Man, using his autonomous reason, can and does answer the questions of life; man can and does interpret natural and social processes, all without the tutelage of a divinity, without God as the working hypothesis. Further, man is accountable for the use of his reason and its behavioral expression.
Human beings are responsible for their actions; otherwise, there would be no need for judgment, divine or otherwise. To say, on the one hand, that God gave us free will and we will be judged on our actions based on our proper usage of free will, and then, on the other hand, say that we are helplessly adhering to scripture, because we are to follow God blindly is at best a paradox, at worst a lie.
This is why, from a moral standpoint, it is necessary for Christians to resist people such as Erickson and Marshall, who are determined to hijack Christianity for their own personal gain. And make no mistake about it: all of these men, who are twisting theological viewpoints in order to enrich themselves, are seeking to push the dire ramifications of their policies as far from their personal lives as possible.
It is our responsibility as Christians to correct and resist this false narrative whenever and wherever it arises. Nor should we allow ourselves to be pulled into the fiction that being poor or sick is a personal decision, because both are circumstances often beyond a person's control. The moral decision as to whether or not to help those less fortunate than ourselves is our own, and we must hold ourselves and those in power accountable for their actions.