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New Century, New Hope: Biblical Values for Renewing the World, 2005

The Biblical foundation for social and political values is the relationship with God we refer to as The Covenant. We read about its beginnings in Genesis 12. God approaches Abram and Sarai and recruits them to be a people who belong to God alone.

Now the LORD said to Abram,

"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

Genesis 12:1-3 (NRSV)

Thus they become a holy people. A people among whom only one thing matters: to trust God above everything else. Being holy has nothing to do with one's personal qualities. Capability, moral perfection and success are irrelevant.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

Romans 4:13

The Holiness comes from God; we inherit it by association. Our lives are held in trust for God's purposes.

That's not how much of the economic world works. The economic world looks for individual achievement and outstanding personal attributes. To become a saint by the world's standards, one has to excel in one's own person. Competition is the central rule of the game. Being the last one standing is the most important thing.
Being the only one standing is even better. In fundamentalist religious terms it comes out as making sure you get to heaven even if others have to go to hell. Finding some assurance of salvation is a big issue.

Salvation usually promises to be somewhere else than here in this messy world. In black-and-white religion, you get saved by doing the right things or believing the right things. God, however, is the creator of the universe. God can accomplish whatever God wants by way of materialism and power. God does not need us to do those things. What God seeks to accomplish with us is mutual belonging and inclusion. This is about relatedness, not behaviour.

I consider this to be one of the earliest creeds we know:

"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

Deut. 26:5

Our God is a relational God. Christianity is not a religion of solitary believers; it is a community called together.

We Christians confess faith in a God who is actually a community of three persons who are so completely bonded to each other that they are, in fact, one. We call that community the Trinity. God's Christian name is Father, Son, Holy Spirit. So God reaches out to humankind in order to include us in that mystical union. That's what the apostle Paul meant when he preached a sermon on the Areopagus;

"In [God] we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'"

Acts 17:28

God's sole purpose with Israel was to recruit a people whose lives would exist inside the very being of God, who would have no identity apart from that of belonging to God and each other. The goal is not to try and hold God in my heart as my personal advantage, but to know that I am held in God's heart as one of all God's children. God is a great womb birthing us into life in all its fullness.

Thanks to the ministry of the apostles Paul, Barnabas and Peter, that invitation to belong was extended beyond the Jewish people, to all nationalities.
Just as Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you." For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

Galatians 3:6-9

Therefore, any religion, any culture, any economic system, any legal system that does not include among the privileged those also who are the lowest, the least and the lost is not a just or righteous society. Grace and mercy toward all is the core feature of God's household. Having cannot take precedence over belonging.

This is a foreign concept in an individualistic society such as ours. Advertising and motivational literature in our society promotes the idea that you are what you make of yourself. If you have enough of the right stuff, you can become somebody. The right stuff includes:

the right opportunity,
the right strategy,
the right look,
the right attitude,
the right amount of capital or credit,
the right connections,
the right impressions.

The right stuff is to be used so that you can get other stuff:

post-menopausal babies,
radical makeovers,
geriatric sex drive,
early retirement,
the envy of others,
Our society is in pursuit of excellence, in pursuit of the habits of successful people and in pursuit of an image that portrays the confidence that you're worth it (Clairol®).

Compare a British soap opera like Coronation Street with a North American one like The Young and the Restless, or Days of our Lives. In the British soaps, the wealthy are suspect. To get that rich, you must be doing something underhanded. The same theme appears in the British comedy The Vicar of Dibley. In American soaps the wealthy are idolized. Yes, they're corrupt, but the corruption is portrayed as the struggle that gives life its meaning. Prevailing over a corrupt society is portrayed as a higher good than building a better society.

In contrast, the role of the people of God is to model an alternative society in the face of the rest of the world's societies. When God's people were in Babylon, afraid that their identity would be submerged into that great empire of military and material domination, the prophet we call First Isaiah promised them this:

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD'S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:1-4

The covenant with Israel, however, was more than simply a model for other nations to admire. After Saul the Pharisee was converted and took on the vocation of Paul, the apostle, his formerly Jewish view of the world was transformed.

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
'After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord--
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.'

Acts 15:12-18

So Paul preached to the Galatians:

"There is no longer Jew or Greek…for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Galatians 3:28

The background to all this is the story of Israel in Egypt. The last ten chapters of Genesis tell the story of how the Hebrews came to be living in Egypt. The sons of Jacob were jealous of their brother Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt. (Younger readers probably have seen the movie Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat) He eventually made his way into the office of the pharaoh and became the minister of agriculture. Under his leadership, the state began to buy up grain in anticipation of a pending famine. When the famine came, the people were forced to buy grain from the state. As money ran out, people were forced to sell their lands and personal property just to survive.

Joseph's people lived under the patronage of his personal privilege, so they were unaffected during his tenure. Eventually he died. That's in Genesis. Then, when we move to the book of Exodus, this verse occurs:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

Exodus 1:8

Now the Hebrews found themselves also dispossessed by the state. Without property and means of raising food, they became workers indebted to the state. Soon they became the victims of racism and religious discrimination. Racism expanded into genocide; giving birth was forbidden. The story of Moses begins with his mother and sister hatching a plan to have him adopted by the daughter of pharaoh and nursed by his own mother.

Even though Moses is raised as an Egyptian prince, he cannot avoid seeing the injustice in the way his people are treated. He renounces his Egyptian upbringing and privilege to become a Hebrew liberator. This doesn't happen easily or immediately.

Moses has gone into self-chosen exile and is living happily as a shepherd. But God calls him and refuses to take "No" for an answer. People cannot be abandoned when systemic injustice is underway. Simply to escape oneself is not good enough. Justice must be made available to all or it is not justice.

Moses is not required to act totally alone. His brother Aaron and sister Miriam join him. In the prophetic tradition of Israel, like-minded people form alternative communities out of which the spokespersons are empowered. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were not solitary individualists like the western heroes of American movies. They were the spokespersons for communities of dissent. People got together and did their own thinking. When it was time to say something, the poet, the preacher and the story-teller were recruited.

So, together Moses, Aaron and Miriam discover that, big and powerful as Egypt is, it is not invincible. The story of the plagues is a symbol of how creation itself rebels when God's desire for inclusivity is violated. Giant powers have a way of fouling their own nest so that it is no longer suitable for supporting even their own life. In our part of history, we experience these plagues as antibiotic-resistant bacteria, industrial pollution, radioactive waste, urban decay, recurring engagement in wars and ecological devastation. A country or a corporation that cares nothing for justice toward outsiders will eventually be unjust to its own people too.

So the Israelites are reminded that when they build a society, it is to be a society that is different from all that. There will be major changes to the systems by which people are overworked, impoverished and deprived of dignity.

…the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Exodus 20:10-11

Acquisition and achievement are not to be ends in themselves. They are intended to be the resources for community. The goal is to have time for family and community

Life is intended to include contemplation, art and conversation. In the musical play, Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings If I were a rich man.

Being rich, for Tevye, includes the opportunity for Sabbath:

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.

However, even socially redemptive theologies can become nothing more than the mere practice of religion.

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"

Luke 13:11-16

Jesus understood the Sabbath to be a concept about society. It was not merely an individual religious practice. It was about how society releases people from bondage to social systems. Where did he get that?

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month--on the day of atonement--you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.

Leviticus 25:8-13

If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. But if there is not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned.

Leviticus 25:25-28

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.

Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow's garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.

Deut. 24:10-19, 22

This is about Egypt. This is about not repeating Egypt. Egypt is the symbol of domination, colonialism, exploitation, hierarchy and vested interests. In Egypt the state, the church and the military are in it together. The state makes the rules, the military enforces them and the church makes them a sacred duty. Babylon is another version of Egypt. So is Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the symbol of Israel seeking to create its own Egypt:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, "…appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations." But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to govern us." Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only--you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them."
So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day."
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, "No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Up until that time, Israel had been a tribal confederation. There was no national government, only regional judges and familial ties. It was a very distributive form of leadership and social organization. But they wanted to centralize, increase the critical mass of their budget and their army, and begin their own program of colonialism. But it produced a replica of Egypt, and they began to foul their own nest. It was not only their enemies and competitors against whom they used their consolidated power, but also their own people. That's when the record of prophetic record utterances becomes most eloquent:

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.
Therefore thus says the LORD:
Now, I am devising against this family an evil
from which you cannot remove your necks;
and you shall not walk haughtily,
for it will be an evil time. [So they say] "one should not preach of such things;
disgrace will not overtake us."

Micah 2:1-3, 6

"O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.

Micah 6:3-4

We can't make direct connections too easily with ancient Israel. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, somewhat like Iran is now. Government was based on religion and religious leaders led the government. The kind of separation of church and state we have in Canada requires us to function in a secular climate. At the same time, the rise of the ideological Right in North America carries with it a coalition of religious and secular agendas. The conservative Right has done a much better job of compromising its disagreements in order to form a united front against so-called progressives. Religion is allowed to have its political say among conservatives in a way that it does not among progressives. Nevertheless, Micah's dream of a God-ordained alternative still arouses me and challenges the church.

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD'S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines
and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

Micah 4:1-4

What this all means is that nothing created is holy in itself. Holiness is what is inherited when anything, even disaster, is devoted to the service of God's intentional relatedness. In the 1970s a lot of church people engaged in Marxist analysis as a system to critique social economics. To this day, Canadians have a love affair with Cuba and Fidel Castro. But the social model Jesus inherited goes beyond Marxism both in the intensity of its critique and in its comprehensive and radical call to full inclusivity. Nothing is holy in itself, not even love of neighbour. But when anything is done in order to accomplish the goal that all people might live and move and have their being in God, then even a pointless death has a future. So, Jesus taught:

"You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Mark 10:42-45

+ Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop

All Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version © 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA

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