'The Survival of the Fittest' | Sojourners

'The Survival of the Fittest'

Jesus was a political revolutionary—not the meek figure he is commonly portrayed as—whose teachings have been diluted, if not corrupted, by those in positions of power, writes Obery Hendricks, professor of biblical interpretation at New York Theological Seminary. Following is an excerpt from his new book, The Politics of Jesus.

Despite their very public professions of Christian faith, conservatives seem to owe their ideas and attitudes toward poverty more to the ideas of Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher, than to Jesus and the Bible. Although he lived and wrote in England, Spencer had great influence on American political thought in the last decades of the 19th century. A measure of his enduring influence is that his notion of the “survival of the fittest” remains an important part of our social lexicon (the phrase was coined by Spencer, not Charles Darwin).

Spencer argued that the pressures of impoverishment and constant struggling for subsistence were actually a positive thing that, in the end, would have a positive result: It would lead to human advancement, for the crucible of poverty would allow only the best from each generation to survive. Those with the most skill, intelligence, ingenuity, and tenacity would rise, while those of lesser talent, smarts, and character would fall by the wayside. In other words, only humanity’s strongest and “fittest” would survive. But in order to allow this superior caste to evolve naturally, Spencer reasoned, it was important that the poor be given no assistance at all. No matter how harsh their plight, no matter how many pressures and conditions were beyond their control, they should be allowed to rise or fall on their own.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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