The Road to Hell is Paved with Definitions
If we don't see ourselves as "rich" or "angry" or "oppressive", how will we ever change?
I had a long chat with my therapist the other day, which culminated in her explaining that she thought one of the feelings I’ve been classifying as “anxiety” might be more accurately labeled “anger”.
Her point, of course, wasn’t to divide emotions into little boxes, each with a clear and objective name. She wanted me to rethink which tools I was using to deal with the emotion (more accurately, my body’s physical response to the emotion) — I had been struggling to get the secret therapy “dealing with anxiety” toolset to work, and she thought the “dealing with anger” toolset might apply better1.
I don’t like to think of myself as a person who gets particularly angry, especially in situations I feel I have no right to be, so getting used to this has been a bit of a roller coaster of acceptance. And like every other way I’ve had to struggle to grow personally, I now find myself acutely (and to some extent hypocritically) attuned to the “not realizing a definition applies to you because it would make you uncomfortable” flaw in everyone else.
The most salient case I can think of is (of course) the Christian perspective on wealth. The bible states clearly and unambiguously that it is wrong for “the rich” to oppress, neglect, or otherwise mistreat “the poor.”
But it actually runs deeper than that. To use Evangelical terminology, this requirement of holistic justice for “the poor” and “the stranger” is a salvation issue. (For those of you who grew up outside my churchisphere, this means it’s something that directly affects who gets to go to heaven and who goes to hell.)
This is a really, really big deal. There aren’t a lot of issues like this, especially in Evangelical traditions — faith in Jesus is the only one I can think of with a similarly robust scriptural witness. If you believe the Bible teaches the existence of a permanent and suffering-filled hell, you also have to believe rich Christians who mistreat the poor go there because that’s what all of the most explicit hellfire passages in the Bible say2!
But we quickly run into the same definitional issue, because we so often read words like “oppression” and “neglect” as if they were just abstract bad things rather then specific sins we could look for in our own lives. Just as I was missing out because I assumed “anger-related” therapy tricks were for “other people”, it’s far too easy to assume the sorts of social injustice the bible criticizes are purely the work of sinister villains rather than something you or I might be guilty of.
This is understandable because the bible’s definition of “mistreatment of the marginalized” is almost terrifyingly broad. It includes keeping two coats when you could have given one of them away and failing to include “outsiders” in your social groups. It includes any failure to unreservedly embrace immigrants and refugees and makes no exceptions based on their legal status. It gives your marginalized neighbors a cause of action against you for anything they need that you withhold from them, and it includes both systemic legal injustices and regressive tax codes.
But still these terms are very abstract and open to misinterpretation, so let’s be really, really explicit. Failing (if you can afford it) to give sacrificially to fight poverty is a mortal sin. Fighting for the United States (or other similar countries) to accept fewer immigrants or refugees is a mortal sin. Calling ICE on somebody who isn’t a danger to others is a mortal sin. Valuing American lives over the lives of people in other countries is a mortal sin. Failing to invite your community’s immigrants and refugees and homeless population into your social circle is a mortal sin.
Rejecting the entire umbrella of “Critical Race Theory” so you don’t have to think about systemic injustice is a mortal sin. Ignoring the deficit when it comes to passing tax cuts for the rich but suddenly caring when we spend money on health care and climate change is a mortal sin. Claiming to preach the gospel of Jesus while avoiding its implications for “controversial” subjects like racism and inequality is a mortal sin. Basking in your self-image as “a good person” for caring about other people even though you don’t actually do anything to help is a mortal sin.
Now of course, once we’ve recognized the depth of our sin (both personally and nationally), there’s space for a more grace-filled approach because repenting of some of these is really, really hard. (Others are pretty straightforward — if you’re currently lobbying the government not to accept refugees, I’d imagine you could just, like, stop doing that?) I am not trying to say that you’re going to hell if you have ever ordered pizza with money you could have spent on malaria nets.
But if we really let the text speak, surely it is at least asking us to make a real effort to change! You won’t be able to simply give up every material comfort you have (at least not unless you have a lot more willpower than I do.) But if you’re at least as well-off as I am, maybe you could start by giving something? And you’ll never know everything there is to know about systemic injustice or eliminate every unconscious bias — but maybe you could start by reading something and seriously examining yourself?
We’ll never be able to fully embody the spirit of the hundreds of biblical texts calling out the sins of the rich, just as therapy (anger-related or otherwise) will probably never fully eliminate my depression.
But perhaps we can start by admitting where we stand.
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I hope it will! It’s too early to be sure.
See Matthew 25, Luke 16:19-31, Mark 10, Matthew 13 (particularly 13:22), Matthew 7:21, Luke 3 (particularly 3:11), and parallels. See also the Revelation 18, noting that Babylon is code for the Roman Empire, which was Christian by the time of its fall, and the consistent teaching of the Old Testament prophets (particularly Amos 5, Micah 6, Isaiah 10 and 58, etc.) as well as the Torah (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:7-9).