Saturday, August 28, 2010

Social Justice and Modern (Biblical) Obligations

From the very beginning of the Jewish state in Canaan, there was a fundamental (divine) directive to share. The land was divided up among the tribes, and the tribes were to support and sustain their own (but that’s not all). Recognizing that some would become wealthy, and would hoard, and that some would become poor, simply through ill fortune, or being born to poor, unfortunate parents, God’s directive was that the land be taken back and redistributed equitably every 50 years. Every seven years, all debts were to be canceled, forgiven, forgotten.

Now, it’s questionable (say the scholars) as to whether that was ever actually done. But you know what, that’s moot. These folks want to argue that they shouldn’t have to care for the sick, the ill, the unfortunate, the homeless—that it should be voluntary, that the state should not be in the business of doing that with money taken from them in taxes. It ought to be... well, optional. Pure charity.


Let’s just note in passing that for all their talk, that voluntary care of the poor isn’t happening—and hasn’t, not in this country, nor any other, to a level that begins to be sufficient. So the idea that it’ll get taken care of by good Christians out of charity is poppycock. Not that there aren’t all kinds of charitable works—Christian, Jewish, Muslim and otherwise. There are. But not enough. Not nearly enough. Not even close.

So, back to that argument from Biblical grounds.

Just WHO was responsible in ancient Israel (and Judah) for such care?

Well, the original Israelite community was tribal; the tribes were responsible. But those chieftaincies didn’t last very long. Various pressures from inside and outside resulted in the creation of the Israelite kingdom. So the king took on the responsibilities of the relatively anarchic tribal confederation. The Hebrew scriptures are pretty clear; just check almost any of the prophets—raging criticism of the wealthy (that would be the rich…) and the powerful (nobility, priests…) and particularly the kings. Railing against those storing up abundance and living in plush accommodations with gold and ivory and pleasant oils, luxuries… while the poor starved, while widows and orphans were dispossessed and abused.

Check any of the prophets. Shall I wait while you check? I recommend Isaiah (an especial fave of most Christians). I recommend Isa 1:14-17.Or heck, there’s 5:1-23 (there’s more, too). Gee, my translation even subheads Isaiah 5:8-23 “Social Injustice Denounced”—what do you mean that social justice doesn’t appear in the Bible?

Most of the justification for the destruction of Israel and Judah, and the Babylonian exile, is that the rulers and the powerful were corrupt, greedy, selfish and unjust. They didn’t share with the rest of the people, they let the poor starve and they stole their land. Which was God's anyway, according to the Bible, and people only got to use it—and only until it was redistributed again.

Short form: having more than enough when there are people homeless and hungry is viewed by God as the worst of sins—just like theft, just like murder. In fact, it is essentially apostasy; the willful violation of God’s commandments. Sin.

So, back to the question of responsibility. Who’s responsible? Well, the king. And so you find the prophets just ripping into the kings for their malfeasance, warning everyone that God is going to devastate the kingdom, that they will be laid low, slain, dragged off into slavery... and that it's God's will if this crap continues.

But heck, what’s that got to do with today and all those folks who don’t want to share with the poor? They’re not king (for which we can all be grateful…).

No, they’re part of The People. Here in the USA, that means that they are, by definition, collectively the sovereigns—just like being king. Which means we’re ALL responsible. It’s not just a question of whatever charity we feel like giving. We bear the responsibility. We The People—the government.We stand in the same relationship to the missing king as the king did to the defunct tribal confederation. All those responsibilities, from defense to justice to... caring for the poor... those are ours.

So when they whine that it’s unfair to tax them to give alms to the poor, to care for the sick, to house the homeless, to feed the hungry… they’re wrong. All those conservative Christians have a responsibility to meet—as sovereign—to see that the wealth of the nation is shared equitably with all, before excess is used for comfort and luxury. Taxation is how We The People take our money from our pockets to do our collective business.

It’s a Biblical, social justice obligation for good Christians and Jews.

For the rest of us, there are other good arguments. But that's for another post, some other day.