Monday, October 7, 2013

No Social Justice in the Bible?

Today I wanted to take the time to put together a defense of the proposition that the Bible does outline a proper role for government, and that this does include social justice.  I have been disturbed to find that many people in America have been led to believe that there is no concept of social justice in the Bible.  In fact, it is not totally uncommon to be faced with anger and cries of heresy at the mention of social justice in the Bible.

One of the things I have found in debates like these is that those who are "wrong" are simply missing some of the puzzle pieces.  We are often taught not to try to understand the viewpoints of our "enemies" by society, unfortunately.  This blinds us to the fact that our "enemies" actually have reasons for believing the things they do.  I think that a Christian attitude would be one of loving humility that approaches the "enemy" and asks him/her: "why do you believe the things you do?  What led you to the beliefs you hold?"

So in the interest in showing how this is also the case in the debate over a proper Biblical role of government, I will attempt to illustrate that the Bible does, in fact, present two main sides of the issue:
  1. The wrong way for government to behave
  2. The right way for government to behave
I think that those who deny that there is a theme of social justice in the Bible do so because they have focused so heavily on #1 that they've completely missed #2.  And, as history is so full of examples of how government has failed, it's not hard to sour on your perspective of its role and begin to wish for its absolute annihilation.  

One of the earliest examples in the Bible of a government that failed in its duties and provided an example of the wrong way for government to behave was the Egyptian government, which tyrannically enslaved Israel, even killing their male babies in order to keep their numbers under control.  Through this story, we get an early picture of how God is concerned with oppression:
Deut. 26:6-9
6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
But in this very same chapter, a few verses later, we see that God does not want His people to become so consumed in their individuality that they forget those among their own society who are needy:
Deut. 26:12
When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.
What's going on here is this: God is instructing the Israelites to care for those who are not caught in the "social safety net".  In the ancient Biblical times of this day, inheritance was law.  Family took care of family.  Grandma didn't go off to the retirement home in that day - she was cared for by her family.  What the verse above is doing is to point out the groups of people who fall through the cracks in a society that takes care of family - it's pointing out those who don't have family to take care of them.  Levites were the priests of the day, and thus their well-being depended on the gifts of the people.  Foreigners did not have family in the land of Israel, and neither did orphans or widows.  So this passage is instructing Israel to care for the people who fall through the social safety net.  And lest you think this was just a friendly suggestion, I suggest you go back a few chapters:
Deut. 14:28-29
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
The tithe was effectively Israel's tax system at this point in their society, and this above passage is stating that the purpose of their society's tax system was to care for those who fell through the cracks in a family-based social safety net system of society.  To add to this, Israel had what is called a "gleaning" law, which is summarized in this verse:
Lev. 19:9
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
This was a law.  Modern American "Conservatives" love to talk about the so-called "tyranny" of government, whenever government uses tax dollars to help those less fortunate.  But here I have just given two examples of Biblical laws that dictated that the Israelites must provide for the poor in their society.  If you think taxation and laws that dictate care for the unfortunate are tyrannical, perhaps Christianity is not the religion for you.

Not only was there laws to provide for the poor, but there was also law that instructed the Israelites not to take advantage of the poor through interest and unfair prices:
Leviticus 25:35-37
If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you.  Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you.  You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.
In Proverbs 31:8-9, King Lemuel is giving instruction on how a King should act:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.
This message of the proper role of government is reinforced in Jeremiah 22:3:
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
When rulers do not follow this code, it makes God really upset, as we see in Isaiah:
Isaiah 1:23
Your rulers are rebels,
    partners with thieves;
they all love bribes
    and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
    the widow’s case does not come before them.
Isaiah 10:1-3
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches? 
In these two passages, we see an intense feeling of angst over rulers who refuse to care for the unfortunate.  In the eyes of God, the way these rulers have treated the poor is actually thievery.  And to add insult to injury, these rulers have accepted bribes from the wealthy in return for making laws that benefit them.  This is something to keep in mind in the present American political culture, where politicians are bought through large campaign donations, and then lobby to create laws that benefit the wealthy over and against the lower and middle class. 

Another thing that ought to be realized by now is that widow, orphan and foreigner are Hebrew code words for those who fall through the cracks of the social safety net - because you'll see examples all throughout the rest of the Bible where the widow and the orphan appear in close proximity, and it's usually within the context of either talking about what a just ruler should do, or what and unjust ruler has not done (which is what qualified him for the "unjust" status).

Also, in Isaiah, we get a picture of how God feels about monopolies:
Isaiah 5:7-9
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Woe to you who add house to house
    and join field to field
till no space is left
    and you live alone in the land.

The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
"Surely the great houses will become desolate,
    the fine mansions left without occupants."
In this passage, we see a picture of the wealthy leveraging their wealth in order to take over the land and shut out those who are less fortunate, and the prophet Isaiah is pronouncing a judgment upon them.  In God's eyes' the entire nation should work together, as in a vineyard, but because the strong have taken over and oppressed the weak, the prophet declares that their estates will be crushed.

A modern misconception that has been taught (dare I say: propagandized?) is that the reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed was due to sexual sin.  But the prophet Ezekiel paints a different picture:
Ezekiel 16:49-50
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. 
In the prophet Amos, we find that when society does not live by the code of justice I've been outlining, God wants nothing to do with them.  He becomes sick of them, and finds their worship services to be sickening:
Amos 5:21-24
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
Perhaps one of the strongest cases for social justice is the Year of Jubilee, the laws for which can be found in Leviticus 25.  The purpose of this law was to break up monopolies and redeem debts.  The chapter outlines a system where family members will redeem debts, but if no family is able to do this, they will simply be released from their debt.  And lest you protest and say "but Geoff, that was Old Testament!  We don't live by Old Testament law any more!"  Well, I got news for you - take a look at Jesus' first sermon:
Luke 4:18-19
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The "year of the Lord's favor" is another way of saying "the year of Jubilee."  In Jesus' day, the rural provinces were struggling to survive.  Rome would tax them, and all of those tax dollars would go towards building extravagant architecture in their cities, but none of it would help the outer towns and villages.  On top of this, the local government of Israel - the Herodians and the priestly class of the Temple - would impose their own taxes on the Israelites, none of which would be used to benefit the common people.  Jesus is pointing out in his first message that God cares about the poor and the oppressed, and then Jesus affirms the practice of Jubilee and gently hints that maybe it's time to put it back into practice.  

This is an interesting concept to consider in light of the economic crash of 2008.  When the banks crashed in 2008, money was given directly to the banks to bail them out, because they were "too big to fail."  But where did all that money go?  Straight into the pockets of the rich - into big, fat bonus checks!  But what caused the problems in the first place?  Mortgages were going sour - more and more homes were falling to foreclosure, and the whole system crashed.  But what if the "bail out" money had been given directly to the people who were facing foreclosure - to those poor souls who were worried about how they would be able to find a roof to put over their heads?  Wouldn't this have taken care of both problems at once?  The lower and middle class would have received a boost, and in saving the loans that faced foreclosure, the banks would have been saved as well.  And to put this into perspective, studies have shown that American inequality may be worse than the inequality that Rome faced in Jesus' day!

Care for the poor was a very common theme in Jesus' messages!  And when he encourages his listeners to care for the poor, it often comes with a promise of blessing as well.  In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus instructs his audience to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind to banquets - invite those who are not able to repay your kindness.  And he promises that those who do will be blessed, and will be repaid through the resurrection.  In Luke 12:33, Jesus instructs his audience to sell their possessions and give to the poor.  In Matthew 6:24, Jesus tells us that no man can serve both God and money.  In a longer sermon in Luke 6, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in verse 20, but proclaims a less cheery message for the rich in verses 24-26:
But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
But then in verse 38, Jesus turns around and states that if you give, you will be blessed:
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Some might try to argue that the instructions of Jesus only applied to people, not governing authorities.  First of all, I would say that one issue with this is that modern government strives for democracy, and in democracy, the government is the people.  As President Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address: "government of the people, by the people, for the people."  But along with this, it is important to note that even while early Christians were standing against the tyranny of Roman rule through non-violence, the apostle Paul affirms the role of government in Romans 13:1-7:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
I hope that what I have done here is to provide a glimpse into a pattern that is seen all throughout the Bible (note that the passages I've provided are only a piece of the pie - not the whole thing).  Whenever government is mentioned, we see that there is a wrong way to govern, and a right way to govern.  When we focus too much on some of the passages that affirm government, we end up supporting the status quo of the oppression of the weak.  But when we focus too heavily on the passages that speak negatively of the oppressive ways of government, we can also lose sight of the fact that the Bible affirms a proper role for government, which is to protect the people and care for the unfortunate.  There are some extreme voices in America who will try to say that any taxes whatsoever are thievery by the government, and every man should be left to be an individual.  But this is not the Biblical model.  The Biblical model shows society working together, with members taking care of each other for the greater good.  The Bible prizes altruism and generosity, and shows that God blesses those who care for the poor.  Even in the face of one of the most tyrannical governments in all of history, Paul affirms the institution of government.

4 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you decided to write on this topic.
    [Conservative] Americans really need to hear this more often.
    It's amazing how much the bible is misused and misread.
    Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Juan! Yes, it's disturbing how often we let our politics inform how we read the Bible, and how they cause us to ignore what's there. I wonder how much of my own views still need to be questioned sometimes.

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  2. That is great elaborated Work you have done here. I really enjoyed this, even though I am not a Christian. You meta-biblically proved that the fear of God can lead to social justice. You also proved that freedom exist after the laws. That means one when he/she respects the laws.

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    1. Thank you! To clarify, however, I do not think it is necessary to FEAR God (in the sense that most modern minds think - the original sense of the language in such verses as "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" was more along the lines of "awe" or "respect"). Rather, I think it is much more healthy to live without any fear, but rather to love God and thus seek to live accordingly.

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