When I meet somebody new, one of the first things they inquire about is what I do for a living. When I tell them (I’m a clergyperson), I almost always find myself deep in conversation about religion. They haven’t been to church in a long time, they will tell me right off the bat, and then proceed to defensively list the reasons why. They tell me why the Bible is wrong about certain things, or how Jesus never really existed, or they want my opinions on fasting, the efficacy of prayer, or other spiritual concerns they are having.
What nobody ever says is, “So you’re religious, what do you think about how Wall Street should be regulated?” They never ask if I think the Bible justifies wars of aggression or what my faith teaches me about the morality of greed, violence, and social inequity and what I might therefore think about the financial industry, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or health care reform, poverty or immigration. None of these, to the modern mind, are religious questions. Religion, in our modern day and time, is concerned only with spiritual matters. These are defined as private and relegated to the sphere of private opinion.
The separation of church and state in the United States does not mean that citizens cannot be shaped by their faith traditions. Nor does it mean that citizens will not be motivated by their faith to be involved in the civic life of their community and nation. This is not simply true of those people of faith concerned with denying reproductive rights or marriage equality, but includes progressive, liberal and other folks as well. War is a moral issue. So is poverty. “Values voters” include those of us concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable people in our society, those who want to protect our environment, those who advocate for equality.
As the progressive evangelical pastor Jim Wallis says, “Faith is always personal, but not private.” There are public consequences to faith, and people of faith have played essential roles in forming social change movements, including the anti-slavery and temperance movements, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Communities of faith are often at the center of local anti-poverty and hunger projects, reaching out into the community in a variety of ways to serve the needs of others.
The ancient world did not divide these up into separate spheres, and indeed saw no division between religious practice and civic society, spirituality and the public sphere, religion and the economic order. It was all of a piece. This is one of the reasons I look to ancient sources of wisdom, including Earth-centered and biblical traditions, which encourage a more holistic view of faith and practice. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of explicit ways in which the most marginal in society are to be protected, ways in which the most needy are to receive their just share of common resources
Here’s my take on the biblical witness.
The biblical narrative is one of a God who redeems a people, who rescues them from oppression. God leads a people, his people, out of slavery, inviting them into an adventure of moving outside the land of slave masters, of kings and emperors, beyond the land of kingdoms and empires. God delivers them out of oppression and into the Promised Land, promising them something better than they have known, a life of abundance in a land that flows with milk and honey. Out of the nations of the world, God forms a new kind of people, a holy nation that will be a guiding light to other peoples.
God makes an agreement with this people, a covenant. God is to be their only king and the Torah, God’s instructions, is to be the guidebook, the manual, to their common life. God instructs his people not only in how he is to be properly worshipped, and other “religious” matters. Much of the Torah is about the social order for this new society, including trade and farming and debt. God cares as much about his people’s material wellbeing as he does their spiritual wholeness. One could honor God, and the covenant with God, through how one treated one’s workers, how one collected a loan or negotiated a debt, how one harvested one’s field in a way that allows the poor to glean from it, how one was honest in business dealings, or how one treated foreigners, widows, orphans. These actions, among many others, were ways of being faithful to God.
The formative event for the ancient Hebrews was the exodus from slavery in Egypt. This liberation story informs the covenant God makes with them, and they with each other. Never again will they be enslaved, and no worker in their social order will be indentured forever. The covenant calls for periodic release of slaves and indentured workers, redistribution of property and cancellation of debts. In some sense, ancient Israel was to be an alternative to the imperial economies, such as the one in Egypt, which relied on domination, expropriation and war. The Hebrew nation was meant to be countercultural, distinct from the nations around it by its practices of freedom, social equity, mutual support and cooperation.
The covenant was enforced through a series of blessings and curses. God will bless the people if they carry out these instructions and abide by the covenant, and God will curse them if they do not. In the 27th and 28th chapters of Deuteronomy, we read a full list of blessings and curses: “Cursed is the man who moves his neighbor’s boundary stone! Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow! Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by not carrying them out!” (27: 17, 19, 26) Abiding by God’s covenant ensures a blessing on one’s barn and kneading trough, one’s crops and livestock.
“The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.” (28:12)
The Israelites established themselves in the hill country of Palestine. Theirs was a commonwealth of federated agricultural communities. Prophet-leaders, or judges, such as Samuel, interpreted the will of God for the people. The Israelites established themselves as distinct from the nations of the world, including not merely the peculiar holiness codes and dietary laws or the practice of circumcision, but also by not being governed by kings or warlords. God claims leadership of this people who are not to have kings the way other nations have. God is their only king.
Soon enough, however, the Israelites want to be like the other nations. They betray God’s desire for them to be a nation set apart, a nation unlike others in which God alone was ruler. The Israelites want a human king, a king they could see and revere. So they demand of Samuel a king.
“Samuel, do everything they want you to do. I am really the one they have rejected as their king. Ever since the day I rescued my people from Egypt, they have turned from me to worship idols. Now they are turning away from you. Do everything they ask, but warn them and tell them how a king will treat them.” (1 Samuel 8:7-8 CEV)
The people are told what it would mean to have a king: a king would make them his slaves and soldiers, servants of his palaces and of his wars. God reminds them of the things that kings do, with their invasions and war mongering, their domination and conquests, their empire building and centralizing of power, their taxation and military drafts. They want a king anyway. They abandon the vocation they have of being unlike other nations, of being a people ruled by God alone.
What follows is a succession of kings, from Saul to David to Solomon, a long line of kings, some of them good some of them not so good. Wars with the surrounding peoples are fought, a capital city is built and the wandering Ark of the Covenant, representing the presence of God, is installed in an elaborate temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. A priesthood is established and ceremonies of sacrifice take place in the temple.
And yet God’s dream for his people, for his world, his creation, is not forgotten. God does not abandon his vision and plan. God makes sure that for every king, there is a prophet. For every national ruler, there is somebody who reminds the king and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with him. The Hebrew prophets are the counterpoint to the Hebrew kings and lords, God’s way of countering and questioning the habits of nations, conquerors, and empires. The prophetic voice reminds the people of their covenant with God: God will bless, prosper and defend the nation if the people create a society of justice, righteousness and abundance. God withdraws his blessing in the absence of justice. The prophets are constantly calling the people back to faithfulness with God. Come back to the Lord, they say, and do what he wants us to do. Sacrifices and elaborate ceremonies are not what God desires. God desires justice, mercy and intimacy with his people.
The Hebrew prophets were the critics on the margins, the thorn in the side of every ruler. They proclaim justice and a redeemed world of peace and plenty. They pull wild stunts, display signs and wonders, engage in guerrilla theatre. They provoke the status quo. They interrupt business as usual. They call on the people to be unlike other nations—to abandon the ways of war and empire, to abandon unfairness, exploitation, and greed. They call to mind the covenant with God, recalling God’s vision.
Jesus of Nazareth appears as one in line with the Hebrew prophets. Jesus’ basic message is to change one’s thinking, one’s consciousness, for the direct rule of God was arriving and taking place here and now (“repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”) In line with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus was calling the people back to being ruled by God and God alone. In line with the Hebrew prophets, he reminded the rulers and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with God, although, Jesus’s followers universalized this message for all peoples. Jesus was promoting a way of thinking about God and being in relation with God outside the official sacrificial system controlled by the religious elite, the Temple elite that was collaborating with the Roman Empire. This was an unauthorized, unmediated relationship with God. One’s relationship with others was similarly re-imagined. The lines that divide people can be traversed, boundaries that separate people can be crossed – national, ethnic, sexual, religious – these are false divisions that keep people from seeing “that of God” in their neighbor. The change in how one orders one’s thinking and one’s relationships (shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice) revolutionizes the social order, the political order.
The metaphors that Jesus used for this transformation, the changed relationships with God and neighbor, were political. He did not talk about the family of God, nor did he talk about the school of God. He talked about the kingdom of God. Having a direct, unmediated, intimate relationship with the living God and the resulting transformations of daily life put oneself in the kingdom of God, God’s order and rule. The titles that Jesus was associated with – messiah, Christ, son of God, savior, lord – are political titles. The language his followers used – kingdom, gospel, assembly (“church”) – were all taken from the Hebrew and Roman political lexicon. This is political language. And it is clear from the gospels that Jesus was proclaiming a new order, a different kingdom, a counter-realm of peace, mutuality, cooperation, justice. My kingdom, Jesus tells the Roman governor, is unlike the world’s kingdoms. If it were like them, my followers would have violently opposed my arrest. (John 18:36) My kingdom is not worldly, not armed, not violent.
Jesus was renewing the covenant of God and the covenantal relationship with neighbor. He reminded his listeners of God’s blessings and curses, reminded them of God’s liberating power to bring them out of slavery and into a life of abundance. His listeners suffered a number of Roman military conquests, and were increasingly taxed and indebted. Not only were they responsible for paying a tithe to the collaborationist Temple elite, and the Roman tribute as well, in Jesus’ lifetime, Galileans also needed to fund the Herod who was now located in their region. They were exhausting their reserves, borrowing from the wealthy at high interest rates, and increasingly at risk for having their property seized or foreclosed upon. Jesus’ blessings and curses speak to the desperate economic circumstances of his listeners and followers. His blessings and curses evoke those in the Torah, and were meant to bring his listeners into line with the original covenant.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.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.” (Luke 6:20-26)
Much of what Jesus said and did was around what people do with their resources. Many of Jesus’ parables as well as stories about him involve debt and talents, wage earners and unfair bosses and vineyard laborers, taxes and coins, bread and credit. The prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray petitions for sufficient food and cancellation of debts. He taught first and foremost that all that we have ultimately belongs to God. God is the Creator and we simply stewards of God’s creation. The person who believes that they have created or earned their own wealth displaces God as lord of all. Jesus also teaches that our resources are to be used for the benefit of all, for the common good. He consistently privileges the needy—those who are marginal; he calls us to look to such persons when deciding how to best use our resources. Will our actions increase the livelihood of the least of these? Will our actions help or harm the least of these?
The covenant to which Jesus called his listeners back is one of fundamental concern for the neighbor, for the wellbeing of the entire community, the entire household of God. They are to ensure, as acts of faith, that all have access to the resources needed for an abundant life, and that all fully participate in the life of the community.
It is particularly exasperating to me how much of the political force of the biblical vision of economic justice and peace has been drained of its power by the religious status quo. This is particularly true of Jesus, who was especially confrontational toward the powers that be (one did not get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for anything less). His teachings and actions have been so spiritualized their actual, full-bodied meaning in his cultural and historical context are almost lost. I hope that all who take the Bible seriously (if not literally) are able to read and hear the voice within its pages that calls for the re-ordering of our communal household to embody the divine care and concern for the most needy and vulnerable, that describes a vision of the world redeemed—the world at peace with all peoples living in security and plenty, that calls for a social order marked by mutuality, cooperation, justice, and that sings a joyful song of a new day in which the hungry are filled with good things and rulers are brought down from their thrones. May that day come soon!