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From The Word

Doing Justice Because Christ is Coming Again

by Stephen Charles Mott

The white haired veteran of Martin Luther King's marches on racism and a pioneer for civil rights in his own stead opened what would become a stirring address on confronting racism. His opening was less auspicious, however. He appealed to his audience that to be effective in responding to racism as Christian believers, they should set aside the teaching of the Second Coming of Christ.

He reminded the audience of the tele-evangelists who frequently cite this promise while resisting social change. Their hope was a basis for passivity as they wait Christ's return.

This attempt at motivating our people to social action surrenders the doctrine of Christ's coming again in glory to those who have inadequately applied it. The problem of the conservative Christians who have been criticized on this score is not that they take seriously the Second Coming of Christ, but rather that they understand incompletely the mission that we are to be doing as we wait.

The Second Coming has not led Fundamentalists to passivity but rather has been a powerful spur to global missions. I have seen working class Fundamentalist Christians actually lower their standard of living because of sacrificial giving to missions. A significant part of their motivation was to hasten the coming of Christ, who will come only after the Gospel is preached in every nation (Matt. 24:14), and to be found faithful when Christ returns. For them, hope in the Second Coming is a spur to do the mission of Christ. The problem is their not perceiving that the mission includes social justice as well as evangelism.

The Scriptures connect Christ's Second Coming to social obedience. In Luke 12 the parable on being found faithful when the master returns (vv. 35-48) directly follows the most powerful teaching about possessions in the Bible (vv. 13-34). In this passage Jesus declares that life does not consist in acquiring more than the essentials of life, represented by the food and clothing (vv. 15, 22-23). In contrast to the rich farmer who built barns to retain what he did not need, Jesus' standard is to give what is beyond our needs to the poor (vv. 16-21, 33-34). The giving to the poor shows that the concern is not an ethic of private purity but a social ethic in which possessions are linked to a world in which many people are deprived of the basics of life.

Jesus immediately ties this imperative to mission. There is no break in Luke. In contrast to the casual dress of private life, they are to be ready for public action with a belt around their waist (v. 35). The following parable gives the reason. The servants will want to be diligent at their tasks when their master returns from his journey. Because Jesus' return will be unexpected (cf. v. 40), his followers must always be alert to be carrying out the tasks which he has assigned them to do while he is gone (v. 43, 47). According to Luke 12, the way to be alert for the return of Christ is care for the poor grounded on a lifestyle of mere sufficiency.

Instead of taking from the people doctrines of faith which are precious to them, our task is to show how these beliefs point to social justice. One of these is the diligence and urgency in action which they receive in their hope for the return of their dear Lord and Saviour.

From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

When Prayers for Justice Are Overheard

The book of Psalms contains powerful social justice materials. We learn of the character of God as one "who executes justice for the oppressed" (146:7). God acts against exploiters "so that those from earth may strike terror no more" (10:18). The responsibility of the political ruler is to "defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor" (72:4).

The Psalms also help us to understand the situations of injustice. In origin and in repeated practice, they were acts of worship. They include actual pleas for justice and assurances in worship that it would be granted.

The ancient world was an oral society. Even when by oneself, one read a text aloud. Similarly, even when praying alone, a person prayed out loud. This is why Eli thought that Hannah was drunk when she was praying (1 Sam. 1:13). He saw her lips moving, but he could not hear her.

In a exceptionally insightful essay, Professor Gerald Sheppard demonstrates the social dynamics that praying aloud created in the prayers for justice of the Psalms (in The Bible and Liberation, 1993). Prayers for justice were often overheard or reported to the perpetrator of the injustice. The person offering the prayer would assume that. What impact would this have? Pursuing this question helps us to discern element of justice today and to be sensitive to the intertwining of worship and social justice. It also provides a valuable perspective in utilizing the Psalms.

The enemies responsible for injustice in the Psalms were not only absentee landlords in distant cities. Professor Sheppard notes that the "enemies" often belonged to the same social setting as the one offering the prayer. We often are bothered by the threats and the cries for judgment in the prayers of the Psalms. We can understand them better when we realize that they are assumed to be "overheard and pertain also to family violence, sexual abuse, and internecine conflict that are common today" (p. 385). Amidst economic injustices, which is also reflected in the prayers, such abuse within families and between previous friends and neighbors increase.

The most obvious consequence of the prayers is eliciting God's protection. Professor Sheppard notes that the prayers also seek a response from others in the community who will overhear them. "The righteous will surround me" (Psalm 142:7). The prayer undermines the potential of hidden injustices by theenemy because friends who would respond in justice become alerted to the presence of the enemy. When people fail to pick up such communal responsibility, the suppliant rightly complains, "My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off" (Ps. 38:11, cf. v. 19).

The overheard prayer for justice often contains an indictment or a threat. The threat might be an effort to persuade the enemy to change his or her actions. "It is not enemies . . . who deal insolently with me--I could hide from them. But it is you, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company" (Psalm 55:12-13).

This prayer of Psalm 55 can be an empowering resource today for victims of violence associated with addiction, child abuse, date rape, or wife abuse, Professor Sheppard states. "The one praying is challenged to become fairly articulate to God about the injustice in order to name it and to instruct those who stand nearby, even when the enemy may be included in that group" (p. 388). Professor Sheppard concludes, such prayer serves its proper function of summoning God to act while articulating reality and nurturing courage to persevere. It provokes change even in the conduct of the one who prays.

From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

The People of God and the Social Justice of the Ancient Near East

Social justice in ancient Israel centered on defense of the poor. "Did not your father do justice and what is right? Then it was well with him. He carried out justice for the cause of the poor and needy: then it was well" (Jer. 22: 15-16). This typical approach in the Bible stands in contrast to other understandings to justice , such as the perspective that everyone should be treated the same without respect for burdens emerging from racism or poverty. This assumption is expressed in the attack on affirmative action and in the argument that even the wealthiest families should receive the child tax credit.

Justice in which the poor were the object was not unique in Israel but was widespread in the ancient Near East. Years ago Hendrik Bolkestein compared the view of the eastern Mediterranean with that of the Greek and Roman world. In the latter justice was a matter between citizens as citizens; the slaves were ignored. In the Near East, where there was an immense army of the poor and a small number of great landed proprietors, the focus of justice was directly and exclusively upon the poor (Wohltätigkeit und Armenpflege im vorchristlichen Altertum (1939).

The perception that Israel's view of justice, which centered upon the oppressed, was widely shared in its cultural world has two important implications. The first addresses those who are reluctant to apply biblical justice to contemporary politics. Some question how one can apply to the secular world a concept which is found in the special revelation of the Bible and among the people of God. Can such a justice be understood apart from God's people and does it belong there? The answer is that in the time of the Hebrew Scriptures this justice already was widespread among peoples separate from biblical faith. Now that the inspiration of Scripture discloses that this type of justice is God's will, there is no reason not to continue to apply it in politics and economics.

The second helpful result is that the ancient Near East provides a standard of comparison through which we can recognize special developments in the biblical materials that we might otherwise ignore. For example, Norman Porteous ("The Care of the Poor in the Old Testament," in Living the Mystery) noted that there are two ways in which there was no parallel to how the concern for the poor was carried out in Israel. The first is the way it was related to the concern of the covenant God. The most important characteristic of the Israelite concept of the poor is that Yahweh is the the ultimate defender of the poor. The second is the elaborate way in which the concern for the poor is carried out in the Hebrew law codes.

More recently, Leon Epsztein has perceptively extended this comparison (Social Justice in the Ancient Near East and the People of the Bible, 1986): In Israel more importance is placed on human life than property; the protection of those who are at the greatest disadvantage is based not only on charity but also on a feeling of humility derived from Israel's history of having been a recipient of just deliverance; and because there is only one God who is over all, there can be no discrimination which would take advantage of the weak or favor the mighty.

Epsztein notes the quest for social justice came to a halt in Mesopotamia. The covenant with God in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, commanded action as well as faith, and accordingly made human behavior a factor which affected people's fate. As a result the quest for social justice was pursued by the people of the Bible almost without interruption down to our own day.

From The Word

The Sharp Edge of the Golden Rule

by Stephen Charles Mott

The Golden Rule of Jesus can become commonplace. We can slip into an attitude of seeing it as a prosaic piece of wisdom that Jesus quoted. Something like a saying of Benjamin Franklin.

Indeed some have suggested that the saying goes little beyond the ethic of reciprocity that characterized the Greek and Roman world of Jesus' time. "I return good to you when you do good to me in hopes of receiving further good from you." "Everything that you want people to do to you, you also do so to them" (Matt. 7:12). In this interpretation the first phrase is the dominant thought. To get good from other people, we do good to them.

If this should be the interpretation of this saying then it would be an incidental piece of wisdom that Jesus is quoting. It would not be central to his thought. In the same Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Jesus explicitly condemns such thinking: "When you give to charity do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In this way give to charity in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will award you in secret" (Matt. 6:3-4). Those who follow this interpretation indeed would say that the radical and distinctive ethic of Jesus is found instead in his teaching on the love for the enemy (Matt. 5:43-48).

For Matthew, however, the Golden Rule is the key to the right interpretation of the whole Law: "For this is the Law and the Prophets" (7:12). Matthew follows it with Jesus' command to enter the narrow gate, discovered by few (vv. 13-14).

In one other place, Matthew speaks of a principle which provides the measure of every requirement of the Law. It may give a clue to the correct interpretation of the Golden Rule. The whole Law and Prophets "hang" on the Great Commandment, to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves (22:40). The standard for how much to love our neighbor is the powerful depth of our own self-seeking.

Likewise in the Golden Rule what we want people to do for us is not cited as the goal of what we do. Instead it is a measure of what is to done. The good to be done to others is nothing less than our understanding of our own self, of what we need and want. The nature of the Golden Rule as a guage perhaps is clearer in Luke's version. Luke presents the first clause as a comparison, "Just as you want people to do to you" (6:31).

In any case the interpretation of the Golden Rule as reciprocity is destroyed by the context into which Luke places it. It is found in the middle of Jesus' teaching of love for the enemy (6:27-36). Explicitly, we are to "do good and lend without expecting anything in return" and then our "reward will be great" and we "will be children of the Most High" (v. 35). For Jesus, the reward for our action does not come from other people's actions in response to ours; it comes from God, in heaven.

What follows in Luke 6:35 is what Paul Ricoeur (New Testament Studies 36 [1990]) says undermines more than anything else the interpretation of the Golden Rule as equivalence and establishes it rather as an ethic of superabundance. "Because God is kind to those who are ungrateful and evil. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful." As Ricoeur rephrases it, "Because it has been given to you, go and do likewise."

Such a basis of ethics Ricoeur rightly notes will bring a motive of compassion into our codes of social justice. For example, the harshness and stereotyping in much of the current rhetoric of welfare reform would be challenged by that perspective.

From The Word

Violence and Social Justice

by Stephen Charles Mott

The interconnection of violence and injustice is significant for strategy in dealing with violence. It is not that the two are inseparable. Many perpetrators of violence are not victims of social injustice or conditioned by environments in which it is rampant. The spread of child and wife abuse across all socio-economic layers is a case in point. Yet the link with injustice is such that in many communities violence cannot treated in isolation from the economic privation and status discrimination. One can understand the biblical perspective that "the effect of justice shall be peace" (Isa. 32:17).

Biblically, "violence" is not merely any application of physical injury or the taking of life. It tends to be found in one of two forms. The first is physical force which is employed by the economically strong that victimizes the weak. The second is excessive brutality, cruelty, or murder of innocent persons. Proverbs 21:7 () states the link between violence and injustice: "the violence of the wicked will sweep them away because they refuse to do what is just."

In the Older Testament, violence (h>a\ma\s) is frequently tied to economic and social oppression. Amos 3:10 speaks of "those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds." The image is of those who use their power to annex the production of the peasants by illegal and forceful means. The command not to "do wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place" (Jer. 22:3) similarly brings together various forms of exploitation, not necessarily illegal, some of which use of physical force against the weakest economic groups. In Psalm 72 the recipients of "oppression and violence" are the poor, the weak, and the needy (vv. 12-14). The perpetrators are described as rich and powerful (Ezek. 7:11, 24; Amos 6:12).

Violence frequently accompanies the perversion of legal processes in the context of oppression of the weak. "I see violence and strife in the city . . . . Oppression and fraud do not depart from its market place" (Ps. 55:9-11). Social repression occurs both in the use of force and by means of fraud and false testimony in court.

The connection of violence to the market and trade (cf. also Ezek. 28:16) (along with Amos's relating violence to the practices which led to the expropriation of the peasants' lands) shows that the unjust structures also could be called violent. In trade powerful economic groups could physically destroy the goods or equipment of weaker rivals.

The prophetic denunciation of violence side by side with economic, social, and judicial injustice gives indication that efforts to deal with violence without addressing other forms of exploitation in a community will be limited in their effect. The kind of violence faced in the Hebrew communities was an expression of the distorted behavior that follows the temptation provided by the gross maldistribution of resources. Micah 2:1-2 states that the wicked are able to take possession of other people's fields because "it is in their power."

The attitudinal, cultural, and psychological aspects of violence must be addressed, to be sure, as well as the weapons that make it easy. The prophetic approach indicates, however, that economic and social disparity and disempowerment must be faced if we desire civil tranquility.

From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

Roots of Equality in Early Israel

The growing inequality in American society has been expressed in the rapidly growing wealth of the richest few and the declining real income of the poor and working class. It raises the issue of equality in biblical values. I have heard unequivocal claims that there is nothing in the Bible about equality. This is an appropriate time to review the normative claims for equality in the Bible. In this column we will consider aspects of equality in earliest Israel.

A major development in the sociological understanding of ancient Israel in the past two decades has been the proposal that pre-monarchic Israel was a society of unusual equality, which the Scriptures present as an ideal which had been lost.

Norman Gottwald argued in The Tribes of Yahweh (1979)that the people united by faith in Yahweh formed an egalitarian social system in the midst of stratified societies. The extended families were on an approximate par in production and consumption. It was Yahweh's will that there be a social system in which suffering and disempowerment would be rectified not so much by charitable deeds to individuals as by assuring the ongoing stability of a functionally effective egalitarian social system.

Carol Meyers (Discovering Eve, 1988) finds in this period a division of labor which approached parity between the sexes that resulted, if not in equality, at least a mutual dependence grounded in ethical dignity in the covenant with Yahweh. Meyers, like Gottwald, finds a deterioration of the earlier equality in the later monarchy. As walled cities replaced pioneer villages and centralized distribution systems developed, male dominance appeared.

That Scripture itself presents the pre-monarchic period as normatively superior to the monarchic needs to be more firmly established. The sociological descriptions of the equality of early Israel are nevertheless valuable for identifying egalitarian elements in the clearly normative materials of the Hebrew Scripture.

The sabbatical years with the cancelling of debts and the year of Jubilee with the return of land are institutions at the heart of duties to the poor. Elie Munk rightly noted that "the point of departure of the system of social economy of Judaism is the equal division of land among all its inhabitants" (La justice sociale en Israël, 1948, p. 75). Equality was established in general conditions rather in personal positions. Inequalities themselves were not prevented. They arose from different qualities of soil, personal capacities and effort, and the caprice of nature. Opposing classes with extreme contrasts in the distribution of wealth were opposed, however. The personal inequality, moreover, was not advocated or given normative support.

The one indivisible God provided a powerful basis for one indivisible people. The equality in the land was grounded in the person of Yahweh. The land distribution was to be respected because it had been portioned out by Yahweh (Deut. 19:14). The land belonged to Yahweh. They were only sojourners on it. The consequence demanded in practice was that the patrimony in land given to every extended family was to be preserved (Lev. 25:23-24). To the international wisdom protecting family boundaries, the Hebrew Scriptures added a divine basis: The families "have a powerful guardian who will take up their cause against you" (Prov. 23:10-11).

This voice is needed once more in an age when intentional changes in the general conditions have taken the form of tax breaks for the wealthy, increasing profits for the few through the restriction of labor costs, and the undercutting of public provisions for the needy.

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