The Most Important Passage in the Bible, at Least When It Comes to Politics
What’s the single most crucial passage in the Bible for economics and politics? Which statement on God’s part has the most enduring such meaning for us today? (Don’t worry, I’ll cite more than one bible verse. But let’s start with the most important.) To put it another way, which divine assertion binds earthly life in our current state after redemption, but before the Second Coming and New Jerusalem?
I know there are many to choose from. But we need one that’s categorical, perennially relevant, and able to keep us anchored, in the face of our passions and hubris. We need one that held for Abraham, then Moses, and then for both Peter and Paul. One whose insights guided St. Edward the Confessor, George Washington, and Mother Teresa alike. A verse that can help us see how to live day to day, educate our children, and vote in 2020.
Sorry, No Tolkien
I’m sure some candidates are racing through your head. If you’re Catholic, like me, most of them probably come from The Silmarillion (OT) or The Lord of the Rings (NT). And then you have to step back and remind yourself that they aren’t technically scriptures. (More’s the pity.) So nothing about Numenor or the Shire will fit the bill.
But I do have a candidate for perennial proof text. Here it is:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3: 17-19)
Now that’s trifle long for a maxim, but the context is important. Let’s snip it a bit, offer the actionable part of the passage: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” I’ll call it the Sweat of Your Face (SYF) Principle. St. Paul reiterated it for New Testament audiences this way: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess. 3: 10)
Lions as Friendly as Beagles
That’s quite a contrast with the situation Adam and Eve had gotten used to, with fruit falling out of trees into their hands, and lions as friendly to man as beagles. No longer were humans immune to the chaos that’s found in nature, invulnerable to harm and living at peace with each other, Creation, and God. Now we face “thorns and thistles” and are “dust” which shall “return” to the dust. That’s SYF, my friends.
Jesus coming and dying for our sins didn’t reverse any of that. The tangible effects of the Fall are still wholly with us. On a few occasions, to convince His onlookers of His authority and also out of pity, Jesus chose to reverse an illness here, raise a dead person there, or annul the toil and scarcity people face by multiplying their food. But that’s not why He came.
He himself endured hunger and pain, even death and burial. We too must face countless crosses in this life, and at the end death’s bitter gall. He promises us at the end of time a new heaven and earth, which will be like Eden but better. But we don’t get it now.
Can We Sneak Back into Eden?
We carry on as man always has, delaying death and struggling against scarcity. We must and should try to mitigate suffering as we can, via our own willing sacrifices and personal acts of charity. Of course, we should build political and economic systems that maximize people’s chance to live longer, happier lives of less privation. We do that out of goodwill toward our fellow man, and hope for our children.
We even try through the Church to build up the Kingdom of God, a community of prayer and loving support that speaks to the world of Jesus.
Pretending that we can fight, or build, or bioengineer our way back into Eden? That’s an alluring but monstrous perversion of Christianity. I wrote about this in more depth back in 2009. I observed that “most of the project of secular modernity could be summed up as the technological and ideological crusade to [sneak back into Eden] — and shove the pesky business of the Fall and the Redemption down the memory hole.”
You Have a Right to … Thorns and Thistles
How does this core principle, the stubbornness of the Fall, apply to politics? It’s fearfully simple. Whenever a churchman (whether it’s Pope Francis or some Woke youth pastor) asserts that people have a “right” to something, apply this principle and see if it’s really true.
Does everyone, just by virtue of getting born, have a “right” to the best healthcare available? Even if he hasn’t accumulated the wealth, via work (his own, his parents’ or his benefactors’) to actually pay the nurses and doctors who’ll offer it? If the answer is “yes,” then the state has the duty to force other people to give it to him. Either by enslaving doctors and nurses, or seizing wealth to pay them. That turns the hours other people spent earning that very same wealth into … forced labor, when you think about it.
Does everyone have a “right” to a college education? Again, if he does, then the state must get busy threatening other citizens with imprisonment if they won’t pay the taxes to fund it.
Did I have the “right” to attend Yale University, even though my broke blue-collar parents (mom was a compulsive gambler) could only pay 10% of the annual cost? In fact, the answer was no. If I’d had such a right, then the Feds would have informed Yale of that fact, and guaranteed it. I only gained that “right” because Yale was rich and generous enough to choose to fund it. I’m grateful it did.
These rights, to all the good things of life, were Adam and Eve’s, of course. They lost them via the Fall. Since then we have lived with scarcity and trade-offs, thorns and thistles. Every good thing you hand to one person to whom you do not owe it (as we owe our children or elderly parents), you either provide yourself via sacrifice (Christianity) or you seize from someone who did have a right to it (Socialism).
The Paths of Christ and of Antichrist
We might decide as a society that people with a lot of accumulated wealth, either earned or inherited from those who earned it, don’t need so much stuff. So it’s okay to seize it. They’ll barely notice what’s missing. Or else it suits the common good to assure a bare minimum to everyone, to avoid crime and revolution. And maybe that’s good public policy. But let’s not pretend we’re giving people back their “rights” to unearned stuff.
That’s not the teaching of Christ, but of The Grand Inquisitor, the antichrist painted in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In that story, Jesus returns to earth, to Spain, and faces arrest by the Inquisition. The head of that body, an elderly cardinal, the writer paints anachronistically as a socialist.
Christ sits silent as the Inquisitor explains what the Savior “got wrong” in His earthly mission. He should have obeyed the temptation of Satan in the desert. He should have turned stones to bread, and handed them out to the people. Then they would have worshiped Him, with no need for that messy cross.
Since Christ lacked the good sense to do that, the Inquisitor explains, it’s up to man to “correct” him. So the Church will unite with the State, to convince the ignorant masses that they have the “right” to bread and circuses. They will learn to worship the institutions that provide them, instead of Jesus who wouldn’t.
And that’s all you need to know for the 2020 elections.