Justice Reviews & Misc

God Has Strong Opinions! – Economic Justice in the Bible

Economic justice holds a prominent place in the Bible. We should accept that fact, and honor it in understanding and in practice.

Economic Justice in Scripture and SocietyEconomic justice really IS a major spiritual issue.

What we need today are theologians who understand the working of today’s economies as well as Isaiah understood his in his day. (Over 100 years ago Peter Taylor Forsyth, a prominent British Congregationalist theologian, expressed that opinion. I’ve lost the source.)

Oh really!?
Yes. In truth Isaiah was a critical commenter on economic habits of his day. Here is a small sampling of his warnings (and one from Jeremiah) about social justice / economic justice issues:

(Isa 1:15-17)
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
(Isa 58:6-7)
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
(Jeremiah 5:26-29, NRSV)
For the wicked are found among my people.
They lie in wait like hunters; destroyers, they catch humans.
Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord,
and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

The Way of Abundance: Economic Justice

The Way of Abundance: Economic Justice in Scripture and Society, Edith Rasell’s

I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, (Jeremiah 9:24) The Lord loves righteousness and justice. (Psalm 33:5)
very thorough recent book (2022), shows the connections between economic justice and Scripture. And Rasell is both an economics PhD and an ordained minster (UCC); so she might have a pretty good clue.

If Rasell is right, and she surely is, the connection is very strong. At least, the connection between the Biblical documents and economics is very strong.

Theologians per se are a different matter.

Sadly, there are plenty of theologies that largely ignore economics, for various reasons.

Too often the reason is ignorance; but in many cases it’s because they have deliberately, persistently surrendered to greed as god.  This greed often masquerades behind “the invisible hand of the market.”  Greed is a powerful idol in our social and political life. This idolatry of the economy as now functioning or of the economy as functioning increasingly on behalf of the wealthy is a fundamental principle that cannot be fussed with, cannot even be questioned, without strong resistance.

For they of course do not want to acknowledge this idolatry of their false god. So they keep their god-talk and Bible-talk pretty well away from anything like economic justice or more broadly social justice. That means, as we shall see, studiously ignoring (or discounting) large Bible themes.

Mammon has triumphed in those circles.

That’s not surprising. Humans love their personal wealth, if they have any. And if they don’t have much they love the idea. They often will willingly corrupt any civil or religious authorities, and oppress or destroy any individuals or groups, in the pursuit or protection of personal (or in-group) wealth or of institutions that promise access to and protection of wealth for them.

Therefore there are lots of deeply dishonest, greedy, dangerous personalities in very high places in our society, including “Christian” (or religious) places. Those nasty attitudes and behaviors are what their mammon-god demands of them – even if they quote the Bible (quite selectively) now and then.

The Introduction to Rasell’s Book is a Very Good Outline of the Issues (16pp)

Here’s the outline of her “Introduction” with a few of my comments (and quotes from the book, with some of the Scriptures she references).

A. (Development of Economic Patterns & Biblical Responses)

We will see that as the economy changed over time and a growing share of Israelites lacked the material resources necessary to thrive, the biblical teachings on economic justice responded by providing much greater protections of the vulnerable (etc). (p xi)

This is a very helpful realization. The economy changed, and the prophets and other leaders demonstrated inspiration and great carefulness of insight in applying the justice-heart of their God to the current, developing situations. She explains this in enough detail in the first three chapters so that we get a fairly clear picture.

B. God and Our Material World

1. The Earth is the Lord’s

– We have to acknowledge that the cosmos was created not by us, but by some power we don’t understand; let’s call it God. All we have comes from God. We are wholly dependent upon the resources of the natural world. (p xii)
– To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. (Deuteronomy 10:14)
– “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” (1 Corinthians 10:26)

Let’s accept this as reality. It’s wise to hold to an honest description of our context like this; it puts “economics” in perspective.

2. God Gives Us Abundant Material Resources

– The creation of the earth was a gift of abundance from God. (p xiii)
– For Jesus, God’s reign was like a rich banquet given by a king, with abundant food for the bodies and spirits of people who often had too little. (p xii)
– (God’s desire and purpose are that the humans thrive.)
They will flourish like the grain,
they will blossom like the vine. (Hos 14:7b)

3. God Cares about All Aspects of Life

In the exodus from bondage in Egypt, God saved bodies as well as souls. Jesus fed and healed bodies … (p xiv)

4. God’s Intentions for God’s Resources

The creator of the cosmos … has given us a paradise of abundance. We thwart God’s purposes when some of our neighbors receive too small a share of God’s resources and fail to thrive as God intends. (p xiv-xv)

5. God requires Justice

– I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, (Jeremiah 9:24)
– The Lord loves righteousness and justice. (Psalm 33:5)
– Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
love and faithfulness go before you. (Psalm 89:14)
– The King is mighty, he loves justice. (Psalm 99:4)

[Please note that such explicit, unambiguous Bible selections emphasizing social / economic justice FAR, FAR exceed the few references often applied to LGBTQ issues – and those are not only few, but also ambiguous, or taken out of context, or misapplied. Let us please start to give honest priority in our lives to actual Biblical priorities.]

– God’s love for all requires social justice for all, enacted by all. (p xv)

Here she moves into how we actually run, or should run, things.

– (a quote from Walter Brueggemann) “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom and to return it to them … There are certain entitlements that cannot be mocked.” (p xvi)
– God’s desire for all people and creation to thrive is to happen through a just distribution of God’s material resources. (p xvi)
– But what distribution is just … These questions take us … into economics. (p xvi)

C. What Is The Economy?

– The economic system … includes … the [human-made] rules, laws, regulations, practices, and customs that govern this system. (pxvii)

It’s worth emphasizing that all these things have been developed by humans. And as Naomi Klein points out, what is made by humans can be adjusted by humans.

– Quoting Rasell again: All these issues and many others are shaped by the economic policies, laws, and regulations that govern – and determine the fairness of – our economic system. (p xvii)
If God desires abundant life for all, then … this is the purpose of the economy … it must be intentionally shaped through public policy and oversight to achieve this goal. (p xviii)

See Also on PC
Naomi Klein: We Must Make Uncomfortable Alliances
Are Matters of Economics Moral Issues – Spiritual Issues? Isaiah Pushes It!
Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public. Why Resist It? Is It Possible We Hate Loving Our Neighbors?

D. Biblical Teaching on a Just Economy

1. God’s Vision

– The biblical story describes a quest by a group of people who, beginning thousands of years ago, sought to discern and live out God’s will not only for their individual lives but also for their life together, their society. (p xviii)
– … an ongoing conversation between a God continuing to create and redeem and a people attentive to God’s presence in their midst. (p xix)

2. The Law as Gift

– The psalmists describe the law as perfect, good, right, wonderful, righteous, true, sweet, sure, life-giving, and a lamp providing guidance to one’s feet (Pss 1, 19, 119). (p xix)

3. Evolution of the Law

– God’s vision of economic justice – as embodied in the biblical teaching – is unchanging across the centuries … But the specific instructions that would transform an unjust economy into one of greater justice are continually altered as a society’s economic circumstances change. (p xx)
– The biblical editors did not try to impose uniformity on the law or the biblical narrative. (p xxi)
We seek God’s revelation in our task to discern God’s law for today. (p xxi)

4. The Prophets

– To challenge an unjust distribution of material resources and the structures … that enabled such an economic system was, and continues to be, a controversial, contested, and risky activity. The prophets suffered for their words. (pxxi)

5. Jesus’s Teachings

– Jesus fully upheld the laws concerning the economy and economic justice … Jesus also followed in the tradition of making new interpretations … ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …

6. Paul and the Law

– Paul assumes there is a ‘common divine law for all humanity, with one version written in the promises and traditions of the Jews and the other version unwritten but in the hearts and conscience of the Gentiles.’ All the followers of Jesus, both Jews and gentiles, are to follow God’s law of justice. (pxxiii) (quoting Borg and Crossan)

7. Consequences, Not Judgment and Punishment

This is so important! And so obvious. And so regularly ignored.

– God encourages our cooperation and compliance through enticement, not punishment. God is a teacher and guide, a shepherd, and a lover who wants a relationship, not a punisher or judge searching out our faults.
– … laws governing our world predict dire consequences. These outcomes are not God’s punishment but the consequences of our unwise actions and failures to fully respond to God’s enticement. (p xxiv)

It is an elementary observation that we have no use for a God (or whatever authority) who is focused only on criticizing us. That is a cheap and easy habit to acquire, or to find in others around us! But we need a true and reliable Source of Love, Attention, Cultivation. Those things are not well expressed through a focus on criticizing that which is always and so easily criticizable. We need “Good News”!

E. Overview of the Book

Three chapters explore stages of economic development in Bible history.
Chapter four outlines elements of a just economy. This chapter is quite brief, and very valuable!
Chapter five evaluates the US economy in that light.
Chapter six discusses changes needed.

– … the belief that the God of the cosmos, the God of love and justice, desires human thriving and the thriving of all creation.
This view is common to all the major faiths. (pxxv)

F. A Note on Methodology

Summary:

a) The biblical instruction – the law, oracles of the prophets, and teaching of Jesus – that provided the road map to guide society from economic injustice to justice changed over time to reflect new economic realities.
b) But God’s vision of economic justice and the characteristics of a just economy remained unchanged. (p xxvi)

I’d suggest that 2 brief sections of this book are well worth getting hold of and reading carefully – the “Introduction” (16pp) and Chapter 4, “Elements of a Just Economy,” (8pp). But note: they may well stimulate a hunger to delve more deeply.

3 Wise Quotes from the Book

In a highly unequal society
children from all backgrounds, on average, do less well in school than their counterparts in more equal societies.
People of all socioeconomic levels, on average, have worse health than those living in more equal societies.
A high degree of inequality brings
heightened anxiety about social status,
an increased focus on consumerism,
competition for status,
higher levels of stress,
more mental illness,
and less social cohesion and support for the common good. (p 117)
“For us well-off Christians, sin is not principally personal or sexual;
rather, it is our refusal to acknowledge our terror at the prospect
of the systemic economic changes needed for
the just and sustainable distribution of the world’s economic goods to all people
and other creatures.” (p 92, quoting Sally McFague’s 2001 book, “Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril”)
Our story is of a God who seeks us endlessly
and wants us to respond by placing God and God’s vision before all else,
a God whose desire is for us to thrive
and to do so in loving relationship with the Creator,
our neighbors,
and all creation. (p 250)

__________

See Also on PC
Jesus Named Wicked Ways (9 Examples) – We Can’t Hide
Follow Micah; Be Christian Activists When Possible. Call Out Evil Doers, Who Hurt Us Because They Can.

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