With the recent passage into law of the Republican 2017 tax reform bill, I find myself saddened by an example of legislation that so clearly privileges the wealthiest among the nation’s citizenry. In part, my sadness concerns the civic failure of this bill to secure the economic well-being of any but the already comfortably affluent. An even deeper source of my sorrow, however, relates to the spiritual impoverishment of this legislation.
Here I employ the term “spiritual” to define any attempt, religious or otherwise, to live out in concrete patterns of behavior the experience of a reality understood to be ultimate in some way. The GOP tax reform law has spiritual significance in this sense, since it gives expression to a particular experience of reality and seeks to embody that reality in the form of concrete attitudes and behavior. The reality taken as ultimate in this legislation is the preservation and enhancement of elite status over and against others in community. In short, what is deemed of ultimate concern is the repudiation of common life in favor of securing the power and privilege of the economically and socially entitled few.
We have been this way before; it is the way of our original sin, both the ancient and modern ultimate concern that shapes our sensibilities and behavior within community: “Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34). While accompanying Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, the disciples regress to the familiar reality that they take for granted as ultimate: The life that truly is worth living is the life of rising above others, whether in terms of economic, social, gender or racial categories. The spirituality of the disciples is a vision of elite status which shapes their behavior accordingly. They argued, plotted and above all sought the elite status of greatness.
The lesson that Jesus repeatedly tries to impart to the disciples is animated by an altogether different spirituality, namely the reality of God’s kingdom that both then and now is embodied in behavior that generously and compassionately cultivates community. “Serve one another” is the advice Jesus gives them; simply serve one another. In other words, don’t aspire to be elite lords. It is advice that Jesus himself enacts, whether by attending to a bleeding woman on the way to the home of a socially prominent synagogue ruler, or looking to children as the pedagogical counterpoint to the disciples’ obsession with status.
The behavior modeled by Jesus simultaneously uncovers and indicts our deepest fears. The fear that without ceaseless acquisition one’s life will spiral into insecurity; the fear that loss of esteem and status will start one on a path to ordinariness and invisibility in a culture that views both as a kind of premature death; and above all else, the fear of encountering others who prompt us to confront the vulnerability and weakness in ourselves.
The way modeled by Jesus also confronts us with an uncomfortable question: Do we really believe in and enact concretely in our lives a spirituality of looking to the interests of others or, like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, do we fall victim to selfish ambition and aspire to elite status, despite all the tragic consequences for common life that way entails?
Kevin B. McCruden, Ph.D., is a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University.