Social Justice is a Confessional Issue according to the Hebrew Bible

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. It draws especially on the wonderful 2-volume work by Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period (WJK, 1994). I posted about this book once before: Amos, Micah, and Isaiah – A word much needed again today. Albertz gives a wonderful overview, helping us to peek behind the curtain at the historical development and social contexts that produced the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament / Tanakh. And in so doing, he brings a great deal of clarity to the texts’s political commitments.

The context for what I want to talk about here is the first half or so of the Persian or Second Temple period, after some of those who had been exiled to Babylon return to Judea. It was the aristocracy that was exiled; the average Israelite Joseph and Miriam were left to continue scratching out a living. Now some of those aristocrats are back, and everyone finds themselves under Persian rule. So, what happens?

Three groups emerged from this sociopolitical dynamic: you have all the poor folks, and then you have the wealthy folks (remember, the middle class is a relatively recent invention) divided into two camps—you have some who are happy to take advantage of collaboration with Persia in order to optimize their own wealth and power, and you have those who are committed to enacting solidarity throughout God’s covenant people and so put their wealth and power at the service of the poor. This is how Albertz describes the split:

The social crisis [of returning to the land, navigating relations with Persia, etc.] split the upper class of Judah into two camps, one which used it shrewdly and unsentimentally to its own advantage and was not very bothered about the social damage that it caused, and one which showed solidarity with brothers who were becoming poorer and at considerable financial sacrifice sought to protect them. So the dividing line was over the question of social commitment. (499)

Do I even need to connect the dots to our contemporary political scene? I hope not, but I will: on the one hand, you have the current president, his intimates and lackeys, who seem primarily interested in taking advantage of a social crisis to line their own pockets and are willing to get in bed (politically speaking) with hate groups in order to do so (and, of course, all the poor folks who support this faction because of misplaced patriotism and worse); on the other hand, you have some folks who are wealthy or at least generally financially secure who think that society should take care of its vulnerable members and are even willing to put their money where their mouths are (exhibit a / exhibit b).

The truly remarkable thing (or maybe not, given that Yahweh religion was liberationist from the beginning) is that back in the Judah in the Persian period, it was the second group that was able to assert its religious orthodoxy: “they elevated social solidarity to the status of a confessional question by which allegiance to Yahweh had to be decided” (499). In other words, those people in the first camp (then and now) have rejected God and God’s people through their lack of solidarity and unconcern for social justice. They are heretics, apostates, idolaters, “wicked” – pick your favorite derogatory term. And so successful was the second camp, the solidarity camp, that “there are no texts in which the so-called ‘wicked’ are authentically allowed to speak for themselves” (500). Those who would sociopolitically and economically marginalize others have in turn been marginalized in the scriptures. Serves them right.

So we don’t hear from the rich bloodsuckers in the scriptural texts. Know who we **do** hear from, though? That’s right—the poor. And if you thought that the solidarity camp among the wealthy were hard on the rich bloodsuckers, just wait.

Things look a bit different from the perspective of the poor. While the rich bloodsuckers and the solidarity camp battled it out for sociopolitical and religioscriptural supremacy (the solidarity camp lost the former but won the latter struggle), the poor experienced “deep alienation and hopelessness” since “what for the rich was a profitable business or a problem of social ethics was for the poor a massive existential threat” (503). They responded by clinging to and continuing to develop the prophetic tradition. This move was “born of the protest of the victims who refused to accept as God-given the humiliating economic pressures which cast them to the ground,” and the prophetic tradition “gave those who were robbed of their rights and their dignity a new dignity with a religious foundation” (506).

This reinvigorated prophetic tradition developed in stark terms: God’s liberation for the oppressed presupposes God’s judgment on the oppressors. You can’t have the former without the latter. Consequently, and not surprisingly, a gap existed between the solidarity party among the wealthy and the prophetic tradition of the poor. The latter was much more radical, as one would expect. It was not content with forms of solidarity that left the basic distinction between the wealthy and the poor intact even while removing the worst forms of degradation and deprivation. No, this reinvigorated prophetic tradition developed by and for the average Israelite Joseph and Miriam called for **structural** change. Furthermore, radical structural change was required for those who would function as true Israelites in covenant with God. Albertz summarizes:

So the lower-class circles could only hope that Yahweh himself would justify them and their prophetic theology by intervening, and would teach a lesson to their rich friends with their Torah or wisdom theology which, while well-meaning, did not go anything like far enough. Only when the rich recognized that Yahweh would completely do away with the unjust economic and social structures and completely take the side of the poor and the humble could they too, as the rich, unite with the community of the poor in the hallowing of God’s name. (507)

Oh yeah, don’t forget that the prophets are in the Hebrew Scriptures too. That bit about structural changes? Christians and Jews can't get away from that. So not only is social justice a confessional issue according to the Hebrew Bible, socialism is too because it calls for the systematic dismantling of unjust and exploitative capitalist structures that are predicated upon the assumption that the rich (i.e., those who control capital) are (somehow) entitled to more (surplus value, social product, etc.) than others.

There’s a song that I know from my evangelical youth, and I suspect you know it too:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

This is true, but so is this:

God’s a socialist, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.


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