taking the words of Jesus seriously

The authors of the Bible did not write with a constitutional democracy in mind. Nevertheless scripture offers guidance that can be useful to us in our own present situation.  Though the Bible has nothing to say about electing officials and candidates for public office, it does offer insights about characteristics of good leaders and traits that constitute bad ones.  Scripture speaks of the behaviors that are affirmed in national leaders; such as, they “give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4).  But there are also characteristics that are condemned as unworthy of leaders.

In one suggestive passage we find the advice given to Moses as he sought people to whom he could delegate authority to serve as judges over the Israelites.  He was told to select those who “fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain” (Exodus 18:21).  “Hate dishonest gain” is the translation found in the Revised Standard Version and New International Version. The King James Version prefers hate “covetousness.”

That word has found a favored place in the lexicon of conservatives. It is used as a foil against those who protest the greed of the rich who close their hearts and who are inclined to close the national coffers to the needs of the poor. The poor and those who support their interests are accused of being “covetous” toward the rich, desiring to take from the rich to give to the poor.  Obviously the Bible views covetousness seriously enough as a sin for it to be given a place in the Ten Commandments.

But there is nothing in scripture to suggest that covetousness is a problem particular to the poor, much less those who seek to use whatever ability and influence they have to improve the lot of the less advantaged. To the contrary, more often than not it is the strong and wealthy labeled as covetous. So in Micah chapter two we find that it is those with power who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house” (vs. 1-2). Covetousness seems to be the inevitable precondition for theft and so it is a particularly bad trait in national leaders. “A ruler who lacks understanding is a great oppressor, but he who hates covetousness will prolong his days” (Proverbs 28:16 NKJV).

What bearing does this have on our present situation? “[W]e are currently governed by men who love covetousness,” claims Douglas Wilson an aggressive advocate for the views of the religious right. He – and a host of others – points to King Ahab as an example of an evil, covetous ruler. And King Ahab is certainly a leader who deserves condemnation. He provides an example of what a leader should absolutely not be.  But those among the religious right miss the real nature of his deplorable covetousness.

The key story is found in 1 Kings 21:1-16. King Ahab wanted the vineyard of a devout man named Naboth that was conveniently located right next to the palace where he wanted to plant a garden. The king offered Naboth money or a better vineyard for the land. Naboth turned down the offer. Jezebel the queen urged Ahab to take more drastic action. She came up with a scheme to get rid of Naboth by finding false witness to bring a trumped up charge against him for which he was executed. This cleared the way for the king to take possession of the land.

What lesson does this story have for us? Quite a number of bloggers on the religious right have in one way or another maintained, “In Ahab’s day [kings] simply plundered the property; today they call it taxes.” Some have also claimed that the story offers a wholesale rejection of the practice of imminent domain, wherein private property is taken – and justly compensated for – by a government entity for a necessary public purpose.  This power is granted to the federal government by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But are these really the most relevant and legitimate lessons of this story? To answer that question we need to look at the aim of King Ahab. He sought Naboth’s vineyard to make it his own private property. He targeted the property of this man with the sole intention of personal gain. It was the selfish whim of the king that led him to take for himself the property of another, having an innocent man killed to achieve his ends.

This episode in scripture is most definitely not an example of anything similar to either taxation or the practice of imminent domain. King Ahab had no desire to advance the public good. He was not putting into place a policy for the government to get the revenue necessary for public works or the improvement of his society or to aid the poor or defend the nation. His action was all about enriching the already rich, namely King Ahab himself.

To claim, “Rulers always want the property of others – sometimes merely for self –aggrandizement, often so that they can hand it out to their supporters to gain their loyalty”, is an overstatement. To go even further and to maintain that a government that seeks to address the needs of the poor with tax revenue is like King Ahab while the richest few percent in the nation who are called upon to pay more taxes constitute “the Naboths of America” falls into the realm of the ridiculous.

A leader who is covetous in a way remotely analogous to King Ahab is one who will personally and directly benefit from the policies he or she seeks to enact. Naturally all politicians who pursue policies that are broadly viewed as helpful to the nation will benefit politically. This is not the issue. The covetous leader is one who will gain materially from the policies he or she promotes.

What kind of policies might those be? It is important to remember that on average those who become President and those in Congress are considerably wealthier than the ordinary citizen. Consequently, policies that are the most materially beneficial to the rich also reward the politicians. So where might we more legitimately look for covetousness?

  1. It is notable that the ten wealthiest members in Congress, each with a net worth of over 100 million dollars – seven of them Democrats, three Republicans – all voted to extend the Bush tax cuts. Those with pre-tax earnings between $50,000 and $75,000 receive about only $1,034 in tax cuts.  Those making an annual income of over a million dollars a year on average see more than an additional $74,000 a year in their pockets, according to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation. For the richest members of Congress, that comes to a quarter million dollars a year and up. There are some who are currently proposing even more tax cuts that will disproportionately benefit the rich. Could it be that this is evidence of covetousness?
  2. Effortless income, which comes from dividends and capital gains, is taxed at only 15%. This is the source of most of the income for the wealthy, including rich politicians. Regular income, the sort that well over 90% of people work to earn, is taxed at a higher rate. By allowing the wealthy to have their primary income taxed at a lower rate it enables them to avoid some $59 billion in taxes per year. That loss of revenue has to be made up elsewhere, in part by people who have only earned income.  And, again, wealthy politicians benefit from this policy. Could it be that this is evidence of covetousness?
  3. Disproportionately the wealthy – again including many politicians – benefit through their stock investments from major corporations whose profits are bolstered by corporate welfare. Over 50% more is spent by the government on corporate welfare than on traditional social welfare, according to a recent Cato Institute study. Major Banks, the largest of the agricultural companies, defense contractors and big oil companies have benefited the most.

Some of the companies receiving corporate welfare are among the dozens of major corporations that have made billions of dollars in profits and not only paid no federal taxes for several years but received subsidies from the government. Many elected leaders reap rewards, not just through investments in these companies but through the campaign contributions they give. Could it be that this is evidence of covetousness?

We do, indeed, need to be wary of covetous leaders. But covetous leaders are not the politicians who call for the over-privileged to pay more taxes so the poor and weak will stand a chance of staying out of abject poverty and still others will be less likely of falling into bankruptcy. Rather the covetous leaders are the ones who materially benefit from the policies they advance as they protect the interests of the rich. Too many on the religious right are looking in exactly the wrong direction for covetous leaders to chastise.

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Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”

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