Biblical Liberation from Liberalism

Townhall.com Michael Medved April 11, 2007

With the arrival of the eight day Passover Festival on Monday night, I was preparing some material for our family-reunion Seder meal (Diane and I will be together with all three of our children, plus my visiting father from Jerusalem) when I stumbled across one of the most important of all verses in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Leviticus 19:15 declares: “You shall not commit a perversion of justice: you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great, with righteousness shall you judge your fellow.”

About fifteen years ago I engaged in a memorable public debate with my friend Dennis Prager in which he rightly identified this passage as perhaps the most crucial conservative verse in the whole Bible.

It should, indeed, come as a revelation and a rebuke to all liberals that Holy Scripture identifies “favoring the poor” as “a perversion of justice.”

As I argued in my recent townhall column about the essence of liberalism (posted on March 21st), the outlook of the left insists upon favoring the poor and the unfortunate—and thereby injecting unfairness and discrimination into the very core of politics and government. Favoring the poor, like favoring the rich, brings unequal treatment based on status, not actions. Justice requires rewarding good behavior, no matter its source, and discouraging and punishing bad actions, no matter who performs them.

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Comments

  1. Jim Holman says:

    I don’t think Medved understands the passage in question. Leviticus 19:15 is talking about perverting justice as in a legal case through favoring the poor or the rich. Immediately before that Leviticus says “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.”

    In that sense the poor are “favored.” And that’s in addition to many other passages in the Old Testament in which the poor are favored.

    Medved quotes Rashi, but ignores an important word, which I have highlighted:

    “‘You shall not favor the poor’ means that you should not say that a wealthy man is obligated to help the poor, therefore it is proper for a judge to rule in favor of the poor litigant. Torah insists that justice be rendered honestly; as important as charity is, it must not interfere with justice.”

    Again, the context here deals with legal cases. In fact the verse in question begins with “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment.”

    Another version of Rashi says “you must not think, “This one is a poor man, and the rich man is required to support him; I will rule in his favor in this lawsuit, with the result that he be supported in a respectable way.”

    Medved also seems to be confused about the difference between the individual and the government. He says “The essential point is that it’s the individual that’s primarily commanded to display compassion and give charity, while the government, particularly in its judicial aspect, must judge actions, not persons.”

    But the Torah is the law. In other words, while individuals are commanded to care for the poor, they are commanded by the law with the force of the government behind it. Imagine a law today that said that farmers couldn’t harvest the corners of their fields so that poor people could harvest them. There would be outrage on the right. Socialism! Violation of property rights!

  2. While it may be true that a free market economy allows more people to live well than in a socialist system where most do not, I’m not sure Medved’s ideas translate well to policy here (although they may, on the surface, sound good).

    He states: “‘loving your neighbor’ doesn’t involve … punishing the productive in the name of helping the less fortunate.”

    What does that mean? At what level of taxation on someone making $300-500K a year does it stop being “reasonable” and become “punitive”? Isn’t it partially relative to the cost of living for that individual? In addition, is it “punitive” if those benefits go to, say, an Iraq war veteran who lost their arms? It would seem justice demands that someone who served their country and ended up with stumps deserves something from that same country, yes? Medved doesn’t really specify who should be and who shouldn’t be getting help, just that it shouldn’t be given to those who don’t deserve it (whatever that means).

    “‘loving your neighbor’ doesn’t involve … giving him special dispensation if he’s unlucky”

    Again, what does this mean? If someone is unfortunate enough to be born with some serious physical defect or ailment (which is indeed unlucky), how does Medved suggest this person continue living, assuming their relatives have run out of insurance and all other means have been exhausted? Do you suppose Mr. Medved would mind if he received hundreds of phone calls every week from people he doesn’t know asking for aid? Does he have the time and the means to verify who’s being honest and who’s just attempting to con him for extra money? Private individuals simply do not have a reliable way of preventing the type of abuse we’re trying to avoid!

    As I’ve stated before, I don’t believe there’s any reason that an able-bodied person who is not working who can be should receive government assistance. I also think we need to limit benefits to people who’ve been in this country for at least a certain amount of time (we may already, I don’t know). Most people (liberal and conservative alike) would, I think, agree with this. So where’s the problem?

    It would just be nice if some of those who wrote commentaries like these backed up their assertions with some sort of hard data and policy proposals instead of just trying to get people worked up over the idea of some welfare cheat who may or may not exist.

  3. Note 1. Jim writes:

    Medved also seems to be confused about the difference between the individual and the government. He says “The essential point is that it’s the individual that’s primarily commanded to display compassion and give charity, while the government, particularly in its judicial aspect, must judge actions, not persons.”

    But the Torah is the law. In other words, while individuals are commanded to care for the poor, they are commanded by the law with the force of the government behind it. Imagine a law today that said that farmers couldn’t harvest the corners of their fields so that poor people could harvest them. There would be outrage on the right. Socialism! Violation of property rights!

    This probably is the nub of Medved’s argument. The fact is, we have legislated on behalf of the poor with some disastrous results, much of it due to a romanticization of poverty mostly by the left. Yesterday I dropped off some cash to a single mother facing eviction. By all appearances she was a responsible mother, ie: kids were clean, house was clean, she worked, she was behind because she lost day care, etc.

    But, I also noticed that the kids all had different fathers. Clearly she is caught up in the cultural relativism that eroded the taboo against mutliple fatherless children. Maybe she made some mistakes. Maybe she has gotten herself straightened up. I don’t really know. Generally, apart from obvious drug dependency or such some thing, I don’t attach conditions to giving to someone in pressing need. Still, I see the value in the old taboos. It saved a lot of heartache and distress.

    The fact is that so much policy (cultural and political) from the sixties onward has been misguided and created a permanent dependency class. Again, poverty has become romanticized, and thus institutionalized, most often by people who themselves are not poor and have no real experience of the crushing, soul stultifying, conditions that poverty inflicts. They have no idea how their good intentions keep the poor mired in poverty for a lifetime.

    Further, those who give the most out of their corner of the field, are those most critical of the grandiose failures, while those who defend the failures give the least.

    Charity’s Political Divide

    The Right Cares

  4. Dean Scourtes says:

    Father: I think you are conflating two different situations.

    Yes, its true that in so far as tax and welfare laws discourage marriage and reward single parenthood they are having a somewhat counter-productive effect. I’m with you there.

    However that does not discredit ALL attempts by the government to alleviate poverty or free of us of our moral responsibility to assist the less fortunate of our neighbors. If something doesn’t work, and many a government solution has not, the right thing to do is fix it, not ignore the underlying problem. The Welfare Reform laws signed by President Clinton were enacted to address the very problems you described.

    Furthermore, during this period of gaping disparities between rich and poor, obscene CEO pay packages and income inequality greater today than at any time since 1928, can we take seriously Medved’s ridiculous whining about “punishing the successful”?

    Even if Medved were intrepreting the Bible passage correctly, how can we, as Christians believe that the very specific laws of the Leviticus, some dealing with ritual cleanliness and diet, others mandating stoning to death as punishment for certain offenses, overide and supercede the direct teachings of the founder of our faith – Jesus Christ? Wasn’t one of the very first questions faced by the early Christian Church concerning whether Gentile converts were bound to strictly observe the regulations of the Torah?

    Matthew 25 is very explicit and unambiguous – what we do for the least of our brothers, we do for Christ. Sounds like a favored class to me.

  5. Note 4. A couple of points. First, Clinton’s welfare reform (a good move) were a rollback of the Great Society programs. They’ve been successful too.

    Second, no one is arguing that our society should not help those in pressing need. Clearly it should. There is no problem here. Further, reform has to be humane. You don’t cut it off without fair warning. Also, there are some people who will require special care for a host of reasons, ie: mental illness, etc. They can and should be helped. (We’ll argue which type of help is best some other time.)

    As for punishing the successful, forget CEO salaries for the moment. Stockholders can take care of that. Think instead of the middle class, how 35% tax rates force mothers to work. Republicans used to understand this. These are the succesful that end up carrying a lot of the weight while the ultra rich (like the Kennedy’s) shelter their wealth in off-shore accounts.

    As for the Torah and Christianity, no, the questions facing the early Christians was obligatory circumcision (replaced by baptism — the seal of the New Covenant is the Holy Spirit), and “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood’ which still follow the Torah laws.

    Further, much in the Torah still carries authoritative force: Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, etc. Granted, some things are suspended, and the discussion of the relevance of the Torah in modern life and how it applies is fascinating (and requires some knowledge), but this notion that because some things no longer apply we should throw out the entire lot is nothing more than reading modern moral relativism back into the scriptures.

    I’m not saying you are doing this. But remember that Christ fullfills the Old Covenant which is not the same thing as saying the Old Testament is rendered irrelevant (Evangelical Protestants make this mistake all the time). In fact, the only way we can know who this Christ is that we worship, is if we know our scripture, which is to say the Old Testament. Put another way, unless you understand the Old Testament, you cannot understand the New Testament, and if you don’t understand the New Testament, then the Christ we worship becomes one of our own making.

    Matthew 25 is very explicit and unambiguous – what we do for the least of our brothers, we do for Christ. Sounds like a favored class to me.

    The poor of Matthew 25 are not a “class” Dean. That’s where the liberals get it wrong. That’s also why (secular) liberals don’t give much from their own pockets to the poor.

  6. Michael Bauman says:

    Dean, your economic determinism pops up yet again. How do you know that “the least” may not be your Bishop or your priest, or your wife or that you might be “the least” who needs ministring to. We are so engrossed in the things we do that we don’t even pay attention to the one right in front of us who is so down trodden and in pain. As the rich man with Lazurus at his door that he passed by each day.

    Government always reflects and embodies the will of the governed. If even 10% of those who claim to be Christian would really act like it in our own hearts and with the people who are closest to us, the rest would take care of itself.

  7. However that does not discredit ALL attempts by the government to alleviate poverty or free of us of our moral responsibility to assist the less fortunate of our neighbors. If something doesn’t work, and many a government solution has not, the right thing to do is fix it, not ignore the underlying problem. The Welfare Reform laws signed by President Clinton were enacted to address the very problems you described.

    If you think back to the discussion of Hayek, a modicum of government assistance to the poor is not the problem. The problem arises when the government attempts to stamp out poverty, not merely alleviate some of the suffering. The Great Society programs and the New Deal were attempts to apply war-time social engineering and controls to peace time social ills. The government actively seized control of large segments of society in the name of eliminating poverty. The results for both liberty and economic growth have been less than overwhelming. No one seriously argues against some government assistance, the question is the extent of those programs, the overall cost, and the possible deleterious social consequences.

    What you also have to understand is that ‘obscene CEO pay’ is a direct result of a government-created structure. Corporations exist by government mandate. The government created the legal framework which creates the very agency-principal problem that results in mediocre CEOs earning huge payouts while they drive companies into the dirt.

    Many, many libertarians actually oppose the idea of the corporation. Not only does limited liability encourage poor decision-making, but also the separation of ownership from control encourages the fleecing of shareholders. The typical idea that libertarians and traditionalist conservatives are somehow pro-corporation is not true. Corporations are collectivist models that practically guarantee abuses.

    The solution from the Left, however, is to try and improve the model and make it more accountable. The result has been to discourage the use of the corporate model and the growth of ‘private companies.’ By trying to make the corporation more ‘responsive’ the Left may be in the process of killing it off.

    That is not necessarily a bad thing.

  8. Note 7. Glen writes:

    Corporations are collectivist models that practically guarantee abuses.

    OTOH, by separating control and ownership, the corporate structure has also fostered risk taking that would otherwise not be possible. If everyone who wanted to bring a product to market faced foreclosure on his home and other personal assets if he failed, a lot of the innovation we see would dry up.

  9. Michael Bauman says:

    Any economic system is “collectivist” by nature and invites abuses. Only the virtue and character of the people doing the activity prevents abuses. Only intelligent oversight corrects abuses.

  10. Dean Scourtes says:
  11. Note 10. Dean, do you know anything about the Marxist takeover in Russia? You seem to think it was a populist rebellion.

    As for the rest, it’s a jumble of assertions wrapped in a moral pose proving — what? The argument is not clear.

  12. Dean Scourtes says:

    I suppose I did intepret the the January 1905 demonstration as a Populist Movement, although Father Gapon was more of a labor leader than he was a Priest, and certainly more radical Marxist groups were also active at the the time waiting for their chance to pounce. Did the failure of more mainstream non-Marxist labor groups to win concessions from the Tsar, radicalize workers and give the Marxists an opening? Could Tzar Nicholas have averted the Communist revolution by moving faster to democratize Russia and address the living conditions of workers.

    To be clearer and more succinct, my point is that in order to save Capitalism, you have to protect it against it’s own worst excesses, and that if you want to invite revolution the best thing to do is ignore those excesses. We want an economy that is dynamic and competitive, while at the same time not leaving too many people behind. If too many people are left behind than the possibility of a populist backlash increases.

    Clearly more economic risk is being shifted to the US middle-class, as the US economy as a whole, moves into a period of heightened risk as well. Does the failure of current conservative economic policy to address the economic anxieties of the middle-class heighten the possibility of a populist backlash? Should there be some greater guidance and steering from government to make sure we make the right investments in reseach and development, technology, education and infrastructure to keep our economy competitive in the future? Those are the questions I think the conservative side needs to ponder.

  13. #12

    Huh? Czarist Russia was “Capitalist”?

    Central planning does not work, whether by communist committees, church leaders, or czars.

  14. Note 12. Uh, Dean, Lenin took power by force when he sent armed men into the Dumas. Lenin aborted Russia’s fragile democratization.

  15. Vasilios says:

    Michael supports closing of Orthodox Churches in Jerusalem to be demolished and remade into israeli government buildings…to listen to his advice is to destroy the CHURCH, shame!