Fact-checking Scripture: “Those who do not work should not eat.”

Occasionally, a bit of scripture will float into public discourse, often in the context of politicians and civilians sorting through the implications of some bit of policy. The citations are as a rule fairly shallow, as one side or the other tries to leverage the moral authority of scripture. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit more interesting.

Which brings us to a Washington Post report by Caitlin Dewey:

One lawmaker is citing a godly reference to justify changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) recently quoted the New Testament to question the strength of current work requirements.

The biblical passage, 2 Thessalonians 3-10, was a rebuttal to one of the hearing’s expert witnesses, a representative of the Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON. (He referenced Leviticus.) It is also a familiar refrain to anyone who has watched past debates about SNAP.

House Republicans have historically cited the verse — “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” — as justification for cutting some adults’ SNAP benefits. Arrington referenced the verse in a discussion about increasing the work requirements for unemployed adults on the food stamp program. But critics say that advances a pernicious myth about the unemployed who receive SNAP.

Actually, the Congressman was really citing 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. That’s a flub, but a relatively minor one. Meanwhile, the MAZON witness—policy director Josh Protas—was offering a gloss on Leviticus 19, which directs Jews to set aside harvest gleanings for the landless poor to gather. This is how people stayed alive in those days.

The exchange illustrates the difficulties of using scripture in politics. Protas’ Leviticus citation has in part social applications: Jews are told explicitly not to cheat in their business dealings, not to exploit immigrants or guest workers, and to pay all workers the wages owed to them. But it also prohibits shaving a man’s temples or beard, which is why many ultra-Orthodox sport earlocks; getting a tattoo, or consulting “augurs” and “wizards.”

Opponents of the Levitical injunction to stone gay men to death argue that it’s inconsistent to keep that rule while ignoring prohibitions on eating shellfish or wearing mixed fibers. But the same difficulty applies here. Why should we pay attention to the command to feed the poor, but not the one that forbids eating fruit from a new tree until its fifth year?

Arrington doesn’t fare much better. For one thing, it would be easy to read his response as at the very least implicitly supersessionist: You can quote the Old Testament, but I have New Testament scripture! As Dewey points out, this bit from 2 Thessalonians is a favorite conservative justification for cutting social benefits. It’s also a gross misinterpretation of the passage:

The passage, written by Saint Paul, was not addressed to the poor or hungry generally, said the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor and the president of the faith-based anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. It was written to a specific sect of early Christians, who had abandoned many aspects of their regular lives because they believed the apocalypse was imminent.

“The sin is sloth, indolence, inactivity,” echoed Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school. “This is not an issue of inability. I don’t think it has been, in the history of the church.”

Here’s another relatively minor flub on Dewey’s part: Paul wasn’t writing to a “sect.” It was a particular church at Thessalonica, and he was writing to correct a mistake of his own creation. In 1 Thessalonians, he tells the church that Jesus will be coming soon. That encourages some of the members to give up their jobs in preparation for the parousia, living off the community while they wait. Those are the people Paul says should get back to work: Jesus may be coming, but not so quickly that you don’t have to contribute to society.

Perhaps Rep. Arrington knows of a widespread problem with people receiving SNAP benefits who refuse to work because they think the second coming is just around the corner, but I sort of doubt it.

I’m going to give the edge to Protas here. Generalizing away from specific passages, the unmistakable pattern in scripture is meaningful social care for the poor. That doesn’t command government intervention, of course, but neither does it rule it out.

Sadly, there’s another layer to consider here. Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemingway attacks this article as “anti-Christian.” While Dewey shows a lack of fluidity in talking about the Bible (there’s no such thing as “Judeo-Christian scripture”), I’m not exactly sure how an article that accurately represents a broadly-held interpretation of the relevant passage and how it’s used by one side of a political debate counts as “anti-Christian.” Maybe Hemingway thinks anything that doesn’t line up with the current Republican New Testament hermeneutic is an attack on the Christian faith? If so, it’s a revealing reflection on what she thinks about the authenticity of more liberal Christian faith, not to mention Albert Mohler.

None of this is to say that scripture shouldn’t be used in public debates. It does, after all, help to form the moral consciousness of the vast majority of Americans. There’s nothing inherently wrong with citing it or even wrangling over its proper interpretation. But the entire story illustrates just how difficult it can be to lift a passage from its context 2,000 or more years removed and wield it appropriately.

On a scale of 0-5 Satans, we rate Josh Protas’ statement a 0 as incomplete.

Caitlin Dewey gets half a Satan for accurate but glitchy reporting: 

Jodey Arrington gets two for probably sincerely-held but wrong (also hard-hearted) interpretation: 

And Mollie Hemingway receives three for partisan tendentiousness: 

(Featured image: from a Soviet propaganda poster. Lenin quoted 2 Thessalonians approvingly.)