John Winthrop, American Prophet
“Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity..
John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote these prophetic words in 1630. We may not know who he is, but we feel his influence in our culture every day. He’s the one who wrote (in the same document):
“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
It was Winthrop who instilled in us the idea that we are God’s chosen people.
But as his words above indicate, he also recognized that we faced the same dangers as the Israelites. Just because we were (in his view) chosen did not mean we were automatically good. He warned of worshiping and serving other gods, namely pleasure and profits.
Here we are in the 21st century, nearly 400 years after Winthrop wrote. Our national religion is capitalism. We rank ourselves by our income and our wealth. We shame the poor for not working hard enough. Our heroes are not martyrs or saints, but wealthy people: politicians, businesspeople, movie stars, and sports figures. Yet, at the same time, real economic advancement is more difficult than ever, and the percentage of people living in poverty is greater than at any time since 1965. Some 32% of those living in poverty have jobs. Yet we continue to cut taxes and complain about the burden of the poor, while the tax revenue we do collect goes overwhelmingly to the military.
I don’t think that’s what Winthrop had in mind. Take, for example, this except:
Question: What rule shall a man observe in giving in respect of the measure?
Answer: If the time and occasion be ordinary he is to give out of his abundance. Let him lay aside as God hath blessed him. If the time and occasion be extraordinary, he must be ruled by them; taking this withal, that then a man cannot likely do too much, especially if he may leave himself and his family under probable means of comfortable subsistence.
In other words, in ordinary times, we are to share our abundance freely with others, but not to the extent that he jeopardizes his family’s “comfortable subsistence.” In extraordinary times, we must do more, ruled by the need of others and not by our own needs. “A man cannot likely do too much.”
Winthrop’s position was based in the Bible, but his emphasis on charity stemmed from very pragmatic concerns: he saw that extreme divisions in wealth caused a destructive division in society. Those who were wealthy tended to look down on the poor, and the poor tended to resent the rich.
Fast forward to today: That’s pretty much what has happened.
In Winthrop’s day, and for the next 200 years, towns gave fuel, food, and money to their poor. It wasn’t until the 1850s that hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Potato Famine in Ireland overwhelmed this system, and states became more involved. And yes, the Irish were hated just as much then as Muslims are today. Yet few would look back now and argue that we shouldn’t have helped them.
Now we live in a world in which half the population lives on $8 a day or less. Compare that to the median income of $75 per day per person for Americans. (Yes, this is adjusted to reflect pricing differences between countries, giving an “apples-to-apples” comparison.) No longer do the poor in America look like the poor everywhere else, in eorther numbers of quality of life, as they did in Winthrop’s day. We are the wealthy. What are we going to do about it?
If Winthrop was right, we have a covenant that calls for charity. Otherwise, we will lose this land.