Saturday, August 4, 2012

Attacking Success

One of the soundbites that's been pitched out this political silly season has been catching in my craw whenever I hear it.  Both political parties are responsible for some pretty egregious allegations...the "Romney hates dogs" one being particularly silly...but this one echoes interestingly in my pastorly ears.

This is the charge, leveled by Romney and the GOP, that Obama is "attacking success" when suggesting that perhaps some forms of profit-maximization aren't good for the country, or suggesting that those who have profited most in our society might just have to pony up a bit more so we can keep our collective [stuff] together.

The rich and the powerful are unquestionably materially successful.  Success is good.  In fact, their success is both evidence of and the key to our being successful as a nation.  To argue that the powerful have some larger responsibility for supporting the necessary infrastructure of the nation subverts something basic about America.

Or so that line of argumentation goes.

Herein should lie a problem for conservatives.  Some conservatives, at least.

The Ayn Rand folks'll get along just fine, but the Jesus folk?

It's a bit more difficult.

That's not to say that equating material success with goodness isn't done in certain quarters of the Christian world.  It's a staple of the Word Faith Prosperity Gospel movement, for example.  But "success" in financial dealings or in material well-being has never been and will never be a Christian measure of ethical well-being or national integrity.

You won't, for instance, get any more pungent attacks on wealth than you find in the prophets.   Isaiah rails against the Jerusalem elite who took the bulk of Judah's wealth and threw their culture out of balance.  So does Amos.  So does Jeremiah.   The concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few has been a big deal since Samuel prophesied about the nature of royalty, or the writers of Torah put in all that debt-forgiveness year-of-Jubilee stuff in the name of preserving the integrity of the Covenant against permanent systemic imbalances.

And that's just the Judeo-part of the whole Judeo-Christian equation.

Then there's Jesus.  Lord have mercy, did he seem to have a problem with the implications of material success.   Oh, we do rationalize our way around those sayings, that "camel through the eye of a needle" and "gaining the world but losing your soul" stuff.  Not to mention the whole "you cannot serve God and mammon" bit.  Or the cross.

Pesky, pesky Jesus.

And then there's Paul.  Paul, well, he doesn't seem to buy into the whole shiny thing.  What matters is integrity in faith, which is proved not by evidence of material success, but by perseverance in the face of suffering and challenge.  That's the whole point of Paul's diatribe against the "super-apostles" in 2 Corinthians, who shone and sparkled and "succeeded" with all the high-gloss-buffed self-confidence of a Manhattan socialite.

In the Greco-Roman world, Christians were often attacked as "sapping the vitality" of the high-energy pagan imperial/commercial synergy.   I'm not sure they used the word "synergy," but they would have if they'd known it.

But what is clear is that the True Gospel challenge to material succeedification remains the stumbling block it has always been.