You are hereThe Power of Biblical Social-ism
The Power of Biblical Social-ism
The recent article by Jim Wallis on “Faith Priorities” really prompted me to think about some of the important issues raised by Wallis, which are really issues that come up often in every election cycle. They are especially highlighted this year because of the economic downturn the world is experiencing as a result of the melting financial markets. It is also a good time for me to yet again try to promote what I believe to be a Biblical way of living, the kind of active social living which Jesus would have liked his followers to pursue and promote.Socialism, as having been traditionally defined since the Industrial Revolution, has involved an active criticism of the wealthy, an advocacy for the redistribution of wealth, and the pursuit of an egalitarian sort of society, which would supposedly lead to an utopian life for all participants. We have seen this sort of Socialism fail miserably over and over again, mostly due to the greedy nature of humanity and man’s inability to put others above himself; in this same context, we see the same greed and failure to treat others as one’s self leading to the current economic crisis we find ourselves in. This is what prompts me to consider the fact that neither system is what Jesus would have promoted as a viable economic system.
This does not go to say that Jesus came to bring about economic utopia; and that seems to be the primary problem with Jim Wallis’ premise. Wallis seems to falsely conclude that because there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible dealing with poverty and the poor, then the primary purpose of the Bible must be a permanent resolution and solution to poverty. Furthermore, Wallis takes his premise to the next step: namely that because the Bible speaks at length on poverty and the poor, we should be justified in taking away from the wealthy in order to fill the needs of the poor via a proxy entity called the government. Now, please do not misunderstand me, Wallis is not making those claims in these words; I am simply paraphrasing him in an effort to understand and analyze what he is proposing.
There is no question that all those priorities presented by Jim Wallis are critical to a healthy society, and he is justified in considering them important, but again, the mistake seems to be in mapping Biblical language to an already established social paradigm which Wallis considers acceptable. But what if “socialism” has little or nothing to do with directly feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and saving starving children from dying? What if the Biblical narrative is deeper and more nuanced than Wallis’ superficial reading; and this is being said without attempting to minimize the importance of those actions.
In Matthew 5, I believe Jesus uses the Sermon on the Mount to help his audience (and us of course) understand what social-ism should be all about. Interestingly, Jesus seems to be advocating what would have been considered at the time a fairly extreme level of social activism, which is strangely not the kind of activism promoted by either the right or the left today!? The very first statement coming out of his mouth is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” And to seemingly make things even more confusing, in another place he states “The Kingdom if not of this world,” which is in apparent contradiction with Wallis' premise which suggests that the Kingdom can somehow have a political connection with our political system. Jesus continues to present this new reality of the Kingdom using some interesting contrasting and fulfilling language: mourning – comforting, gentle – inheritance of the earth, hunger and thirst – satisfaction, merciful – receiving of mercy, etc. The message is clearly anticipatory in nature: “...your reward in heaven is great...in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.” (v. 12)
The message of Jesus in Matthew 5 is at its very core Jewish and covenantal in nature – he is addressing His people, His own social context, in the premise of and established Law, not a Law which would be abolished, but fulfilled (see Matthew 5). The rewards are just as well covenantal in nature; Jesus here is not offering a lesson in economics, in dealing with poverty, in ecology and social studies. He is expounding on legal understanding of Scripture in order to clarify what this “new covenant” which he was bringing about means, and in order to help his audience understand what the “new” is about, he is referencing the “old,” the Law which was about to be fulfilled; Law vs. Kingdom.
In a clear sense and in the context of Matthew 5, the Law meant poverty in spirit – the Kingdom is wealth beyond imagination; the Law meant spiritual darkness – the Kingdom is light; the Law meant fasting from God – the Kingdom means feasting in the spirit. This kind of imagery is being portrayed expectantly over and over again throughout the Old Testament and is being portrayed as having already arrived in the New Testament; without any equivocation, Jesus is proclaiming: the Kingdom of Heaven is here, it’s among you, it is inside you! There is a clear and primary spiritual aspect to what the Kingdom of Heaven is expected to be: a real and tangible relationship with our Creator thanks to Christ, which leads to a secondary physical aspect of the Kingdom, namely the manifestation of God’s presence and our relationship with Him into the world around us, into our relationships with our families, communities, friends, nation and enemies.
With this understanding, and in this context, it seems to be unreasonable for Christians today to read the Bible as an instructional book having a primary mandate on how to handle poverty on planet Earth; the message of the Bible is primarily a covenantal one, a narrative of God’s people being led out of slavery and out of spiritual poverty by Christ…out of the old, into the new. It is a picture of a “spiritual” reality; however this new reality, -- which we call the Kingdom of God, the Presence of God, or whatever else folks have called it – manifests into our physical environment, and it is still being worked out by Christians today. Many of us are still ironing out the implications of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God today. The Scripture leaves a great deal of it up to us. In the book of Revelation we are simply being told that as the Church, we are here “for the healing of the nations.” We are not being told what this means exactly; we are not being told if this healing is to take place using Democrats or Republicans, left or right politics, black or white, dollars or euros. In fact I believe that it is this traditional social dualism presented to us which does not allow us to move beyond the politics of what it means to be a healing force in the world, and be the true biblical social-ists which we should be.
It is this kind of heart-driven social activism that should flow out of our understanding of the Kingdom; I do not believe this social-ism has anything to do with redistributing wealth, with U.S. elections and with politics, and with much of what is being said by politicians today. I say this mostly because I believe that when we pass on our healing responsibilities to a government entity, it is clear that we are attempting to abandon our Kingdom-responsibilities and pass them on to another group of people. This creates a disconnect between the spiritual, heart-filled nature of the Kingdom of God and the physical realities and manifestations of this Kingdom.
With one week left to the 2008 elections, I wanted to take this time to write about some of the things I had on my mind; I hope it gives everyone encouragement and helps us all realize that we are ultimately partners with God in this New Creation, and should be actively involved in the growth and promotion of the Kingdom, a Kingdom which has very little to do with politicians, and a whole lot to do with being active for the King. That is the kind of socialist I want to be.