Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Judgments About Emphasis in a Historical Context

The Lawrence Journal-World has a story today about the "top Methodist bishop" in Kansas:

"The Bible gives much more attention to poverty and its related issues than it does to sex," Scott Jones said, prompting applause from the audience of 140 pastors, activists and social workers gathered at a Methodist-sponsored conference....

Jones vowed to lead a church-based initiative aimed at reminding the state’s conservative politicians that as Christians, they ought to care less about issues such as banning gay marriage, and more about ensuring health care and justice for the poor.

“I am convinced that God cares deeply how we treat persons who are in need and that a faithful, holistic reading of the Bible will lead us to give a much higher degree of attention to issues of poverty than they have been getting in recent political debates.”

The state’s poor, Jones said, warrant the same level of compassion as do victims of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that struck South Asia late last year.

We hear this sort of argument a lot, especially from religious liberals, and the criticism is often directed at religious conservatives in particular. Sometimes the conservatives will even be named in the criticism (Jerry Falwell, etc.). I'm somebody who would give more emphasis to issues of sexuality in today's atmosphere, so the criticism from Scott Jones would be largely applicable to me, from his point of view.

The Bible does give a lot of attention to the poor and the appropriateness of our caring for them. So does our government. We spend many billions of dollars on various programs to assist the poor. And I personally contribute to ministries that are partly or entirely dedicated to helping the poor, as do many other conservatives. Jones' reference to the response to the recent natural disasters is a good illustration. Americans across the political spectrum gave large amounts of money and other forms of assistance to the people affected by those events.

In contrast, only a minority of Americans, though a large minority, have shown a high degree of concern about homosexual marriage. A larger percentage would vote against homosexual marriage, though they apparently aren't willing to do much more than that about it. I doubt that there are nearly as many discussions in American homes, around the dinner table or in other settings, about homosexual marriage as there are about various methods of helping the poor. Many American families help the poor in some way, whether through a local church, through a charity, or by some other means, and I doubt that even half as much effort goes into opposing homosexuality, fornication, and other sexual sins. Public schools and universities will encourage students to help the poor and may set up programs to give them an opportunity to do it, but you can be sure that they aren't doing the same to oppose homosexual marriage or to teach against un-Biblical forms of divorce, for example. How many of you who went to college can remember teachers taking up class time to speak about poverty, call for larger government programs to help the poor, criticize political conservatives for not doing enough, etc.? And how many of you can remember even half as much time being taken up in class to condemn fornication or warn against homosexual marriage? I went to Penn State, and I can remember a lot of discussions related to the poor. I can't recall a single class discussion related to sexual sin from a Biblical perspective.

In contrast, the Biblical authors weren't living in the wealthiest nation in world history, with a government spending many billions of dollars on the poor and the two major political parties arguing over the rate of increase for those programs. They weren't living in a nation where an event such as Hurricane Katrina would be followed by government spending and donations that far exceeded the amount of money needed, with news reports about people using such money for alcohol and strippers (see here and here). They weren't living at a time when many clergymen, universities, segments of the media, government officials, psychologists, scientists, and other elements of society were working together in such an effective way to try to bring about the acceptance of homosexuality and other sexual sins, with public opinion polls indicating that they were achieving a lot of success.

We can always make improvements in how we attempt to assist the poor, but there's already a general consensus about the need to help the poor, and there's widespread willingness to do it. But there isn't such a consensus about issues of sex, and there isn't such a widespread willingness to do what needs to be done. Giving more attention to sexual issues makes sense in our current environment.

People like Scott Jones are in large part addressing what people speak about in public settings. A lot more happens in life than what we hear people speaking about in public. We don't need to speak as much about helping the poor, because so many people are already in a high degree of agreement on that issue, and helping the poor is such an established part of how the average church, home, community, government, etc. operates. Scott Jones can pick any city he wants to pick in this nation, ask the people coming out of every church in that city on a Sunday morning what they think of issues of poverty and sexuality, and he'll find far more agreement and Biblical knowledge on the former issue than on the latter.