Sometimes I do think that Christianity’s preaching of poverty is a vice, which has broken people like me – that I will never be right, never be happy, never know what is is to be loved or to enjoy human life, because I have been exposed to the message of Christ. I look on Protestantism – which has managed to overcome the Gospel fairly effectively – with a mixture of hatred and awe, as a result of these mixed feelings in myself. And Mormonism – well, Mormonism has really managed to get over the Christian discomfort with money. I’m quite certain that I’m intellectually right about Christ’s message on this one – but that would be cold comfort if it weren’t true in the end. At Princeton I remember a young undergraduate who would drive her red BMW convertible to the Evangelical Fellowship meetings. She came down pretty hard on a girl I was dating at the time, saying that she shouldn’t date me, because I was Catholic and hence not a Christian. I literally couldn’t believe at the time that a 20-year-old self-professed Christian could be driving around in a red convertible pontificating that St. Francis wasn’t a Christian. Mary, in giving birth to Christ, supposedly boasted that God was great because He was going to exclude precisely Princetonians with BMW convertibles. ”The hungry he has filled with good things, while the rich he hath sent empty away.” To this day, I have spent my life in a state of perpetual dis-ease, feeling that I am not hungry enough for God – that I will be numbered among the rich in the end. As I have said, this may be a virus. But once it is in the system it is very difficult to eradicate. My ex-wife said of me – and our biggest fights were always about our lifestyle (we had a cleaning lady, for goodness sake) – “I feel that you could leave me at any time for God.” And to some extent, God for me means poverty. If you prefer a different word, I will say simplicity, and nature. I know I am not alone in feeling this – it is a kind of perennial philosophy. You could almost translate “tawasuf” – the word describing the Sufis – as “poverty.”
In the Catholic wedding ceremony, there is one prayer that I have always found terrible and awful and moving – in fact it makes me cry every time: “Caritatis Dei testes sitis in mundo, ut quos afflicti et egeni benignos invenerint, in aeterna Dei tabernacula vos grati aliquando recipiant.” “May you be witnesses of God’s love in the world, so that the poor and afflicted who have found you kind may someday gratefully receive you into the eternal dwellings of God.” The poor here in this world have nothing, and live at the sufferance of the rich; but perhaps it will not always be so. Anyway, this is what I believe, and there is no poor person that I do not wonder if they would have any use for someone like me if they were standing at the door of heaven and I was approaching.
All this is prelude to talking about Mitt Romney and his impressive comment that forty-seven percent of people in this country have too little income to pay taxes, and as president “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” It is well worth looking at. As usual the statistics are bogus – for the most part non-taxpayers are people who are now old; they have no income and so pay no income tax. Many of them pay other kinds of taxes: real estate taxes, capital-gains taxes, etc. The number of course should point out to us that there are too many poor in our society – the number will only increase, the fewer guardians the poor have. Slaves do not pay taxes either, but that does not mean they are loafers. But that was not the point of the number. The point of the number was to make rich people feel that other people are leeching off of them; which indeed many rich people do feel. It appears to be some kind of guilt, coming from living off of others’ work, which results in misdirected hostility. This self-righteousness in the very people who live off of other people’s labor – there is no way a solitary individual can get rich, or even build himself a house, without the tools, muscle, or know-how of other people, and modern wealth is entirely the result of a complex society – is exactly the kind of thing that earned threat after threat from the “prince of peace” Jesus and his early disciples. The beatitudes are followed by a set of maledictions:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves on the day of slaughter.
“You have fattened yourselves on the day of slaughter.” The Bible can’t be accused of being overly subtle here. But like most things in plain sight, it remains hidden. We see only what we want to see.
Of course if I were a Christian who had the opportunity to be president the very people I would care most about would be the people who had nothing. It would be the forty-seven percent that would interest me most. Is this so very odd, really? ”It is not the well who need a doctor but the sick.”