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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

More on Justice

My former New Testament professor, Willard Swartley, wrote a letter to the Elkhart Truth giving a brief survey of biblical thought on social justice. He was responding to an earlier letter in the Truth arguing that government is stealing from the rich when it institutes a system of progressive taxation.

If the Bible is to believed governments do have a strong redistributionist tendency (my favorite biblical polemic on this is 1 Samuel 8, but scripture is filled with them), but since governments are almost always controlled by the wealthy (there's a big surprise), wealth is redistributed to those who are already wealthy (cf. the description of Jared Diamond's look at the economic development of civilizations as they emerge from hunter-gatherer societies). As Swartley notes, scripture is filled with obstacles to the redistribution of wealth (Chrysostom's rich stealing from the poor), introducing us to a God who, rather than justify the theft by rich from poor as with the pagan gods of ancient times, makes claims on the rich to share, and to remember that their property is not their own, but belongs to God. For the biblical mind, creation is meant to sustain and give joy to all God's creatures, not just a privileged few.

Not surprisingly, again if the Bible is to be believed, we ourselves live in redistributionist times. Democracy only goes so far in restraining this impulse in civilization. It should come as no surprise to us, again, especially those of us who read the Bible, that the increasing influence on money in politics has coincided with an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. A hard working so-called unskilled (I say so-called unskilled because I think God finds the notion rather offensive--God does not create unskilled labor) laborer cannot earn a living wage as wealth has been redistributed from labor to capital. Those who make money from money have fared far better over the last 40 years than those who make money from work of hands and mind. The biblically trained mind is very suspicious of this turn of events. The old canard that the poor are lazy is one of many convenient tropes the Bible exposes by which the wealthy justify themselves. Are there lazy poor people? Sure. But I am guessing no more than any other group. The notion that hard work automatically leads to wealth is absurd. The most hard working people I have ever known are among the poorest. I wonder why that is. The Bible has some ideas.

How did we get here? I mean how did we end up with "conservative Bible believing Christians" demonizing the poor, and venerating the wealthy? During the first gilded age, the iconic fundamentalist Christian politician was William Jennings Bryan, railing against the exploitation of the have nots by the haves of industry and Wall Street. During our most recent gilded age, which is still hanging on, the cry of Bryan's constituency is against the injustices inflicted upon the wealthy. How is it that a biblically shaped society can not only ignore the relentless biblical injunctions to care for, and see the image of God in, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and the alien, but turn it around and turn these into objects of scorn?

The pagan vital virtues which Nietzsche celebrated, honor, strength, power, pride, ruthlessness, winner-take -all competition, and the like are compelling to human beings. It is no surprise they die hard in the face of the biblical onslaught of mercy, forgiveness, honoring the weak, humility, and sacrificial love. Perhaps it is a resurgence of these values which brings us to this place. I should say that both political parties have led us on the redistributionist path, marching to the drum beat of those paying the hefty bills of politics, and controlling the airwaves.

Capitalism, feudalism, mercantilism, socialism, communism, colonialism, and any other human economic ideology, like all of human culture, is under God's judgment. It is easy to single it out because it is our system. But it has the capacity to enable humans to express goodness and evil. We are wrong either to demonize it or venerate it in black and white fashion, and are wise to address it through the biblical lens with all the subtlety of thought we can muster. The biblical economic models, such as the jubilee system, are impossible to impose on a modern economy. We must work with what we have. But as biblical people, work we must for the just ends which God intends for creation.


Bonnie said...

Wow, Phil!

"with all the subtlety of thought we can muster" challenges me and gives me hope for the journey! Exciting stuff.

Perhaps the convergence of your column with the "purple state" segment on promoting civil conversation with Lanny Davis and Michael Steele on Morning Joe this morning gives credence to the activity of morphogenic fields in our world? Radical? Amazing? --credit to Judy Cannato, "Radical Amazement".

Thank you for thought provoking, "keep the faith" entries.