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SJ in the OT: Government

Posted by Chris on September 25, 2008

Concerning the oppressed and the poor, the Bible has a universal rule and calling for government: treat them fairly and bring about justice in their favor. I will put together dual posts, one each for the message of the Old and New Testaments. Each will attempt to show God’s calling for government and how it applies to His people and those who are not His people.

In the Old Testament, there is a division between the Jews (God’s chosen people; Hebrew descendants of Isaac) and Gentiles (Generally enemies of God’s people; any number of ethnic groups and nation-states). In my limited political history understanding, Old Testament government, with the exception of the Jewish theocracy from Moses – Judges, generally takes the form of absolute monarchies– people led by kings and queens.  First, we will look at God’s commands for justice to the kings of Judah and Israel.

Judah: Jeremiah 22:2-5,8-9
Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah, who sits on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates.  Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.  For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people.  But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.

And many nations will pass by this city, and every man will say to his neighbor, Why has the Lord dealt thus with this great city?  And they will answer, Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and worshiped other gods and served them.

Israel:  Amos 2: 6-7
For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They well the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.

Amos 5:12-15
You deprive the poor of justice in the courts… the times are evil.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.

You can see that the Lord had strong words to the kings and officials of these nations.  God called the patriarchs of Israel into covenant with himself in order that the Lord would be their king.  When they demanded an earthly king, the Lord told them two things: 1) I’ll give you what you want– you want to be like other nations, and you better be careful, because earthly kings will do just that and steer you wrong; and 2) these kings are to lead you in my ways and commands– the covenant and the Law are still in place.

What was the Law?  It contained many things.  For some of my studies on the Law, go here.  The original covenant between God and his chosen people was with Abram, in Genesis 12: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  Israel was to be a channel of God’s blessing to all nations.  Now, the gentile nations worshiped idols and blatantly disregarded God’s law.  So Israel first needed to be a light to the nations.  By shining its light, it would bring other nations to God, that they could then be blessed.

Depriving the poor of justice… selling the righteous; failing to “deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed”– that is not exactly being a light!!  So the sins of God’s chosen people were double- not only did they violate God’s law, but they also broke covenant and failed to be a light to the nations. They deprived the earth of God’s blessing. Thus they bore not only responsibility for their own sins but also the sins of their gentile neighbors.  Speaking of which…


Israel’s failure did not excuse the gentiles from responsibility for justice.

Amos 1
For three sins of Gaza, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
Because she took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom,
I will send fire upon the walls of Gaza…

For three sins of Tyre, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom,
disregarding a treaty of brotherhood,
I will send fire upon the walls of Tyre…

For three sins of Ammon, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders,
I will set fire to the walls of Rabbah.

The lack of a good example did not excuse these nations and many others.  A really interesting thing is that God would use Gentile nations to carry out his judgment against other Gentile nations because of the failure of Israel!  Assyria is condemned for its “endless cruelty” in Nahum 3:19 and defeated by Babylon.  Furthermore, in the book of Habakkuk the prophet complains about the injustice and idolatry prevalent in Judah.  In response, God says that “I am raising up Babylonians… to seize dwelling places not their own.” He used Gentile nations to stop the injustice occuring in Israel itself!

This may seem cruel, but as a result of Judah’s exile to Babylon, it gets a fresh chance to renew the covenant.  While in Babylon, God instructs them to be a blessing:

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

People like Daniel find favor with the rulers and the Hebrews prosper spiritually, eventually with some returning to Jerusalem to repair the city wall and rebuild the temple.

In conclusion, the governments of the OT were expected to lead their people in pursuing justice in accordance with God’s law.  And Israel had a specific calling to also pursue justice in light of its covenant with God– that by doing so, it would be a light to the gentiles and bring blessing to the earth.  I believe that the NT contains a similar dynamic.  The next post will address the role of government in NT social justice and the role of Christians in regards to government.


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SJ in the OT: The 10 Commandments

Posted by Chris on August 13, 2007


There is a natural division in the 10 commandments, between commandments 4 and 5. The first four are spiritual in nature and the latter six give moral directions. Similarly, when Jesus affirms the two most important commands (1. to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and 2. to love your neighbor as yourself, Mt 22:36-40), you can find the same division– four concern our relationship with God, and six our relationship with each other.

Social justice can be emphasized in the 10 commandments (The 10 C’s from here on out), despite its reputation as a code that is whipped out in order to condemn. Not that it does not condemn– it does a pretty good job, especially in light of the Sermon on the Mount (Jesus turns “Thou shall not murder” into “anyone who is angry with his brother is a murderer.”) To think about the 10 C’s through the social justice prism takes 2 things. First, time and creativity. Second, a suspension of disbelief/acceptance of certain beliefs about the nature of God. I’m going to take a stab at social justice-lizing the 10 C’s, one-by-one.
(Ex 20 you can find each in full)
1. You shall have no other Gods before me. All of these other blog posts point to a God that is passionate about equality, justice, generosity, caring for the poor, etc… ‘love’ and ‘good’ are defined by the actions of the Lord. Exalting other gods could only water down the message of social justice.
2. Do not make idols. One of the most popular applications I hear on the message of idolatry today is that of money. “You cannot serve both God and money” Jesus says (Mt 6:24) and “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Serving God includes working towards social justice; you cannot serve God and money; therefore, if you serve money you cannot work towards social justice. Folks, I believe we have a logical argument sighting.
3. You shall not use God’s name in vain. I assume that this extends beyond the literal curse word. Throughout history, oppressors have justified themselves by claiming the blessing of God in their acts. For example, African colonists who believed in the “Curse of Ham,” that God willed that they subject black-skinned humans, the descendants of Ham. Today: Christians that oppose interracial marriage for theological reasons (I’ll at least listen to practical reasons), other religions that institutionalize inequalities (I won’t name names, but think of the position of women).
4. Remember the Sabbath. See the posts on Sabbath and the Year of Jubilee.

Here is the natural divide.

5. Honor your mother and father. The first relationship anyone (should at least) has is with their parent(s). How that goes, what you learn there, will likely affect future relationships. There is a double-responsibility, moms and dads certainly have an effect. But in general, I would expect to see a correlation between the way someone treats their parents and the way they treat others. Generosity can be taught and nurtured first in this relationship.
6. Don’t murder. Besides the obvious, you can dig and see people who suffer violence, even death, from social injustices: dictators sending out death squads, corporations that have destroyed the homes of the poor who live in the wrong area, etc… Also, remember that Jesus called our anger murder. If you live with an attitude of anger towards a group of people, you cannot be reconciled with them, or help them, until that anger dissipates.
7. Do not commit adultery. In biblical times, adultery was usually the product of male behavior. A woman might commit adultery, but probably at advances begun by the male adulterer (David and Bathsheba). This highlights the unequal positions held by men and women in society, especially in the area of sex. This goes on today, not just with shamefully high rape statistics in the US, but even men raping their wives in other countries.
Another, more controversial pt: adultery, especially when defined as sex outside marriage, is what proliferates AIDS, for the most part. Many children die under 5 years of age without ever making the decision to have unsafe/unprotected sex. I’m not holding African adults to a higher standard than adults in the US, but unfortunately, other factors like malnutrition and the high levels of the disease make sex outside marriage an especially dangerous and potentially unjust practice for adults in AIDS-ridden areas.
8. Don’t steal. Probably the most applicable to the macro-causes of poverty, the social injustices cited by protestors: corporate greed; unfair trade practices; unequal schools; etc… I like to keep a certain distinction in mind, as a pro-capitalism, anti-rich/poor gap person: Wealth can be created, but money cannot. With technology, efficiency, business, we can create wealth on a macro-level. But a dollar bill cannot reproduce itself. If I have one dollar bill right now and want two, I must take it from someone else.
9. Do not bear false witness. Could’ve said lie, but it was put in courtroom terms. Makes me think of an unequal justice system (20 years in prison for armed robbery of a 7-11, fines for an executive who squanders the retirement of 10,000 people; the difference in prosecution of crack criminals vs. cocaine criminals).
Also brings to mind Jesus saying to remove the plank from your eye before removing the speck from your brother’s eye. Sure, a poor person might have some control over their position. But hey, who squanders more, them or the middle class family that buys a mountain house as soon as they finish paying off their own mortgage? A) save up for the luxuries, don’t get a loan. B) i’m not saying it’s wrong to have a mountain home, but i’m also not saying it’s wrong for a less affluent person to wear $100 sneakers. Seems about the same to me
10. Do not covet. Consumerism. Keeping up with the Joneses. The NY Times recently had an article on millionaires in Silicon Valley who feel impoverished. Mr Steger, who has a net worth of a mere $3.5 million, says “a few million doesn’t go as far as it used to…” Others add: “Here, the top 1 percent chases the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and the top one-tenth of 1 percent chases the top one-one-hundredth of 1 percent… You try not to get caught up in it, but it’s hard not to” and “We’re in such a rarefied environment, people here lose perspective on what the rest of the world looks like.” Do not make the mistake of thinking it is only millionaires that get caught up in this. I’ll look in the mirror for exhibit A.

When I first went to middle school I had some really dorky clothes. I got made fun of a bit. So I went out and got all new clothes. Over time, I developed an attitude that you had to be wearing name brand clothing or people would think less of you. It’s embarrasing to think I could ever be so stupid, vain or naive. But yea, that led to some not so positive thoughts about myself and others, some wasted money, and a refreshing rush of freedom when I finally broke out of that.

The Ten Commandments have impacted societal morality for over 3000 years. They are from a different historical context, and many do not share the same precepts. But let’s not throw them out completely. Or at all.

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SJ in the OT: The Year of Jubilee

Posted by Chris on October 3, 2006


this builds on the entry dealing with the Sabbath Year, please read it first here

There is no evidence that either the Sabbath Year and especially the Year of Jubilee were ever practiced regularly, or even once, by the Israelites. A lack of evidence, along with the accusations of the prophets of the Old Testament, would suggest that it was far from the minds of those Hebrews in control in the pre-Roman Jewish society. The concept is not alien to others, however. Gospel songs call for the Jubilee and the Roman Catholic Church instituted its own involving “a period of remission from the penal consequences of sin” which included giving a “Jubilee indulgence” (source: some dictionaries). Once you understand what the Jubilee is, the idea of a “Jubilee indulgence” is a bit of an oxymoron.

A lot is going on in Leviticus 25 (and Deuteronomy 15), detailing what the Jubilee prescribed for the people of the Law. I’d recommend you read it for yourself: here’s a link! I don’t want to take up space quoting it all. The basic gist is that it was like a Super Sabbath Year. After seven Sabbaths (49 years), the 50th year was the Jubilee. It takes the social justice commands of the Sabbath to a whole ‘nother level, including things like releasing fellow Hebrew slaves and returning land to those who were given it as in inheritance when God divided up the Promised Land among the 12 tribes. These things were done without repayment, of course.

Here are some of the things that have spoken to me very strongly in this text (there is by far much more than what I’ll write):

1) The Year of Jubilee is not anti-capitalist. I am a capitalist. I believe in the positive effect of competition and acknowledge that people act out of self-interest, like any good capitalist. But I am a Keynesian capitalist, not a neo-liberal. In other words, I believe there should be government regulations in the economy, not a total free market.

Leviticus 25 assumes that people would buy and sell land (v14), worry about their businesses/fields (20-22), sell homes (29), and engage in banking/lending practices (36-37). Only a few things are prohibited, such as lending at interest to fellow Hebrews (37) and selling pastureland (34). This is not without parallel in our society (regulations on interest rates, not allowing people to sell their organs or bodies). Then, the Jubilee prescribes regulation on these things. These regulations certainly go farther than we are used to but are not completely unheard of. For example, the highly debated estate tax is a form of redistributing wealth acquired during a person’s life back into the community at large.

2) Conduct our business with a certain integrity. When any of the transactions I listed earlier were to take place, they would be done “on the basis of the number of years since [or remaining until] the Jubilee.” (15) Thus, capitalist transactions would not increasingly cause a gap between the rich and poor, as we have now. Sider writes that the Jubilee was “…an institutionalized mechanism to prevent the kind of economic divisions where a few people would possess all the capital while others had no productive resources.”

I’m not suggesting Jubilee is the solution, but it does present a standard. Do not profit off selling to people in their time of need. I do not think we have to follow this strictly and not sell food above its cost or to not charge any interest—we don’t just grow things in a field and carry them to the market now. However, I’ll argue that this seriously indicts predatory lenders. Payday loan stores, used car lots that lend to people with poor credit at high interest, mortgage lenders that have confusing pay structures that often end up in repossession. They prey on the poor. Also, jacking up the price of bread or water after a hurricane is another obvious example. That is a business practice lacking in Biblical integrity. And there are many others.

3) Redistribution is a Biblical concept. Specifically of land, homes, and businesses. The land that was given as an inheritance to an Israelite clan represented every aspect of their livelihood. They raised their kids there; worked/ran a business there; lived in a dwelling; received much of their education on their own property. Far too often today, people, and specifically poor people, either don’t even have the luxury of these thigns, and if they do, have it on someone else’s terms. I honestly believe in the need for those who have acquire large chunks of land, usually at someone else’s expense (even if it was several hundred years ago), to give or sell some of it away to those who are landless. I don’t suggest we enforce this like in Zimbabwe (google “Zimbabwe land redistribution”). There’s no magic formula of how or how much. But there is a dignity in people that demands it.

I also think it makes practical sense. The owners of decrepit city housing rarely live there themselves and have no incentive to take care of their property. The people living there have less incentive to care about their community when they have no ownership. Ownership is a prerequisite for many community improvements.

4) The larger issue of redistribution is ownership. God owns the land. In explaining the Jubilee system, God says in verse 23 that “the land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” Psalm 24:1 declares that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

Redistribution under the Jubilee meant land going back to whom GOD gave it. Sider writes this: “It was the poor family’s right to recover their inherited land at the jubilee. Returning the land was not a charitable courtesy that the wealthy might extend if they pleased.” Today, we are still mere tenants of the land and have the same responsibility to perform our role as stewards in a way that honors God. Perkins believes that justice is “being good stewards of God’s earth and resources… our working to make these resources open and available to all of God’s creatures.”

5) The Year of Jubilee is liberation! Say this to yourself 10 times fast. It is easy to see it as a burden, not a privilege, to give up ownership of something and put it in the hands of someone else. It might be even more difficult to keep what you have but call God its rightful owner and put God in charge of your resources. But Jubilee is liberty. In Leviticus 25, it is liberty for the servants and slaves from their servitude; for the land from farming; for poorer families from renting and working others’ land. But is it not also liberty for the giver? There is a need to constantly cut the cord that so quickly forms between ourselves and our stuff, net worth, and possessions. In my very limited experience, when I am struggling with stewardship, what liberates me is not adding to my savings account, but giving from my plenty. Generosity does not have a positive correlation with financial comfort and financial freedom. If you want freedom, be generous and declare a Jubilee of some kind in your own life.

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SJ in the OT: The Sabbath Year

Posted by Chris on September 23, 2006


Leviticus 25 is one of my favorite chapters in all the Scriptures. It contains one of the most powerful, challenging, awesomely radical calls for social justice that has ever been recorded. It addresses two concepts: the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee. I will focus first on the Sabbath Year.

Did you know the Sabbath is more than just another name for Saturday or Sunday? Have you always wondered if NFL players were sinning by having all of their games, and thus, “working” on the Sabbath? If God would rest on the seventh day and call it holy, shouldn’t this Sabbath have more significance? It does!

A book could be written on the significance of the Sabbath. It has many different facets and implications for our lives and is implemented in different ways. For Christians, it is usually celebrated on Sunday, or the Lord’s Day, in honor of the resurrection of Christ. For the Hebrews wandering in the desert, it was the day they were not to go out and gather manna. For some Jews, it remains a weekly holy day. For most full-time workers, it means a weekend off. But there are applications specifically for social justice as well, beyond making sure that poor people get time off from work. This is a Biblical idea, by the way- see the 10 Commandments. I wonder if the people who are most concerned with us all knowing the 10 Commandments take to heart the 4th commandment’s call that people be given a rest.

In any event, Leviticus 25 says three important things about the Sabbath Year, which like the day is every seventh year.
1) The land itself is to observe a Sabbath. (Lev 25:2-5) This is a piece of agricultural wisdom. Farmers rotate crops and even let fields lie fallow to ensure the field is fruitful for years to come. The social justice aspect is an application I believe can be made in the economic relationships between rich and poor nations. Too often, third-world countries have been forced into cash-crop systems and sacrificed their ability to produce food for themselves. We must not endorse and should disapprove of this practice as a general policy for entire nations. Unfortunately, much of the harm is already done and seemingly irreversible. Economies have been ravaged, people have starved, rainforest has disappeared, and for what? Poor, relatively unproductive agricultural practices that allowed your tea and coffee to cost a few cents cheaper. Arguably, the value of the land has been destroyed—not only was it an unjust decision, but a bad economic decision if you see

2) During this year of rest for the land, it would continue to produce from past seeds and through God’s hand (Lev 25:20). This yield was to be set aside as food for the landowner as well as for his servants, hired workers, and any other temporary residents who lived there that year, as well as food for animals. (Lev 25:6-7) So many things could be said. Do not hoard, but trust God for provision so that you are not afraid to allow others to eat from your fields. Be generous with your servants (in our context, I’d argue employees) and neighbors who have less. Don’t have a litmus test of status or longevity as to who is allowed to sit at your banqueting table. The most important take-away is that God called the Israelites to intentionally and regularly step back and live as equals and ensure the health and happiness of all.

3) Finally, the Sabbath Year is the foundation of something even more powerful—the Year of Jubilee. (Lev 25:8)
Before you go all “this is welfare” on me, take heed. Jesus Christ affirmed these concepts in Matthew 12. He and his disciples walked through the fields, hungry and homeless, and picked some heads of grain for food. They were also challenged by unbelieving Pharisees. It is not charity; it is God-commanded justice.

Next I will address the Year of Jubilee!

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Social Justice in the Bible (Intro)

Posted by Chris on August 12, 2006

I will be attempting to write a series of hopefully short, concise, but powerful commentaries on certain passages and concepts in the Bible that have really spoken to me about social justice. Some will address our lifestyles and convictions, some contain practical advice, all are utopian and far beyond anything we can do by our own means. To shorten the titles, they will be divided into SJ in the OT (Social Justice in the Old Testament) and SJ in the NT (New Testament) as well as being broken down into each concept.

I firmly believe that what the Bible says about social justice, in both the Old and New Testaments, has implications for us today and is the most valuable source that all of humanity could use to approach living in the most equal and healthy society possible.

See the categories list on the side of the page.

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