The 10th Commandment

I posted this on my Facebook page Sunday:

I was elected (as the only candidate, the only elections I can win) senior warden of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. God help us all.

The funniest comments therefrom include:

  • Did you get all the other candidates thrown off the ballot by opening sealed documents and such?
  • You have come a long way from milk monitor….
  • Altar wine for everyone!
  • Give it a year, and they’ll be passing a recall petition around. This is Wisconsin, you know.

(The third comment, from a UW alum of my era, brings to mind an old saw: “Where there are four Episcopalians, there’s a fifth.” To the last I replied that depending on how things go, I might sign the recall-the-senior-warden petition myself.)

We’ve been members of our church for 12½ years, since our oldest son was a month old and his parents (one raised Catholic, the other raised Congregationalist) decided they needed to attend church more regularly than a single-digit number of times a year. The irony is that I had grandparents who were Episcopalians though I never discussed religion with them; my first Episcopalian experience was picking up a Book of Common Prayer at their house while idly watching TV, and my second was attending my grandfather’s funeral. Never could I have predicted then that less than two decades later our family would be as involved in our church as we are.

The Episcopal Church in the United States of America, spun off from the Church of England at the same time the 13 American colonies spun off themselves from Great Britain, is structured comparably to the federal government. (The Church of England and all Protestant churches are spinoffs from the Roman Catholic Church, of course; some describe ECUSA as “Protestant, Yet Catholic,” and we had a rector who described us as neither Catholic nor Protestant.) Churches choose their rectors or vicars; a diocese’s priests and laity representatives choose their bishops. The national church has a lay House of Deputies and a House of Bishops (made up of, yes, the church’s bishops), analogous to the House of Representatives and Senate. With my election as senior warden for the second time, I have something in common with Franklin Roosevelt, who was also senior warden of St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, N.Y.,  through his entire presidency. (Neither the U.S. nor St. James had term limits at the time.)

The way that the Episcopal Church chooses its leaders appeals to me, rather than having priests and bishops selected and assigned in a process over which you have absolutely no say. If God approved of dictatorships, He would not have given us free will. Another appeal is ECUSA’s three-sided foundation of Scripture, tradition and reason. (Our rector — think “pastor,” except that in this church the pastor is Jesus Christ —  compares Scripture to the big wheel on a tricycle.) In contrast to some denominations inside and outside Christianity, women have full roles in this church, including as priests and the current Presiding Bishop.

I don’t discuss politics at church except with those who wish to discuss it. (It’s a variation of Jesus Christ’s admonition to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.) I find interesting the number of Episcopalians I know who are political liberals yet theological conservatives. (Since I’m about to interject politics, those who object should move on to the 8 a.m. post.)

The Episcopal Church has been doing a curious dance around Occupy Wall Street. It’s safe to say church leadership is generally supportive of the Occupy ends, but not for one of Occupy’s means — occupying, literally, church property near the church known as Trinity Wall Street.

Religious supporters of the Occupy ________ movement(s) are, I think, misguided, not merely for secular political reasons. (No, I am not suggesting that only political conservatives can be Christians. I do notice, though, that most atheists are lefties; as someone on Facebook put it, conservative atheists don’t go to church, while “progressive” atheists want religion to go away entirely.)

I am not a theologian, but my reading of the Bible finds no mandate that the best way to care for the poor is to steal from those who are not poor, even those who are “rich.” In fact, I see no Biblical requirement that government or even society care for the poor; the responsibility of caring for the poor is on individuals. (Who can act collectively, but only by their own choice.) It would be grossly inappropriate for government to decide that the best way to respond to Christ’s admonition in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25 about rich men getting into heaven by making everyone poor. Economic equality is not only impossible (as proven in the worker’s paradises in the late Soviet Union and today’s China — countries that were and are officially atheist), it is immoral, as Rabbi Aryeh Spiro observes in the Wall Street Journal:

More than any other nation, the United States was founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific religious perspective. We call this the Judeo-Christian ethos, and within it resides a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor. …

The Bible’s proclamation that “Six days shall ye work” is its recognition that on a day-to-day basis work is the engine that brings about man’s inner state of personal responsibility. Work develops the qualities of accountability and urgency, including the need for comity with others as a means for the accomplishment of tasks. With work, he becomes imbued with the knowledge that he is to be productive and that his well-being is not an entitlement. And work keeps him away from the idleness that Proverbs warns leads inevitably to actions and attitudes injurious to himself and those around him.

Yet capitalism is not content with people only being laborers and holders of jobs, indistinguishable members of the masses punching in and out of mammoth factories or functioning as service employees in government agencies. Nor is the Bible. Unlike socialism, mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic. It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual. Because the Hebrew Bible sees us not simply as “workers” and members of the masses but, rather, as individuals, it heralds that characteristic which endows us with individuality: our creativity. …

The Bible speaks positively of payment and profit: “For why else should a man so labor but to receive reward?” Thus do laborers get paid wages for their hours of work and investors receive profit for their investment and risk.

The Bible is not a business-school manual. While it is comfortable with wealth creation and the need for speculation in economic markets, it has nothing to say about financial instruments and models such as private equity, hedge funds or other forms of monetary capitalization. What it does demand is honesty, fair weights and measures, respect for a borrower’s collateral, timely payments of wages, resisting usury, and empathy for those injured by life’s misfortunes and charity. …

No country has achieved such broad-based prosperity as has America, or invented as many useful things, or seen as many people achieve personal promise. This is not an accident. It is the direct result of centuries lived by the free-market ethos embodied in the Judeo-Christian outlook.

Many on the religious left criticize capitalism because all do not end up monetarily equal—or, as Churchill quipped, “all equally miserable.” But the Bible’s prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy’s saying that “Judges and officers … shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not … favor one over the other.” Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved. …

God begins the Ten Commandments with “I am the Lord your God” and concludes with “Thou shalt not envy your neighbor, not for his wife, nor his house, nor for any of his holdings.” Envy is corrosive to the individual and to those societies that embrace it. Nations that throw over capitalism for socialism have made an immoral choice.

Parallels to Spiro’s Old Testament points can be found in the New Testament, of course. (A pastor friend of ours points out that every verse in the Bible, including the aforementioned parable of the talents, is repeated elsewhere in the Bible at least once, except for John 3:16.) Matthew 25 brings readers the parable of the talents. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill,” which is how His two Great Commandments summarize the Ten Commandments.

This is not to apply secular politics to God. Religious people of all faiths and political worldviews should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel: “In every conflict between human beings both sides claim God is on their side. One side must be, and both sides may be wrong. I only pray we are on his side.”

9 thoughts on “The 10th Commandment

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