Freedom, Equality and Justice

The Exodus is a story of liberation and the subsequent, gradual, and sometimes painful formation of an alternative community built on trust in God, equality and economic justice. It became the foundational story that informed the social practice of the people of Israel throughout the following millennia even though they often fell miserably short of its values. (Not unlike our far-from-perfect American commitment to freedom, equality, and justice for all).

The Exodus story inspired the Hebrew prophets who chastised their people for failing to fully trust God and live as a liberated people. And it is the bedrock for what is best called the “politics of Jesus.” We cannot understand Jesus and his ministry without understanding this vision of freedom, equality, and economic justice as a people of God. Furthermore, without it we cannot grasp what will necessarily be involved as we seek to renew the church as followers of Jesus.

One way to get a better handle on this is to take a closer look and what we might call Jesus’ stump speech on the reign of God that he delivered at the synagogue in his home village of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). Jesus’ call for freedom and economic justice is taken directly from the prophet Isaiah and is rooted in the Law of Moses. Central to this agenda are: (1) God’s concern for the poor and dispossessed, (2) liberty for those caught in a web of oppression and debt slavery, and (3) far-reaching economic redistribution.

The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus proclaimed in his home synagogue was the sabbatical year of Jubilee that had been instituted by Moses. On every forty-ninth year all productive land was supposed to be returned to its original owners (Lev. 25:8-22). In essence, Jesus was announcing that the time to implement the sweeping social and economic leveling of the Jubilee year had arrived. This was good news for many struggling, disenfranchised people in Palestine but certainly not for those who had accumulated power and wealth under the oppressive Roman system. It helps explain both the support for Jesus among ordinary people and the opposition to him among the religious and political elites.

André Trocmé, the French biblical scholar, pastor, and peace activist, who spearheaded a nonviolent effort to rescue Jews from Nazi oppression during World War II, is largely recognized for retrieving the implications of Jubilee for understanding Jesus and his ministry. He writes:

“Moses had instituted a genuine social revolution aimed at preventing the accumulation of capital in the hands of the few. This was to recur every seven and every forty-nine years. I use the term ‘revolution’ intentionally because the social readjustments commanded by Moses were far more radical than the efforts of modern revolutionaries. Contemporary revolutions grow primarily out of economic disparities caused by technological developments. Jesus’ revolution, on the contrary, drew its strength from God’s liberating justice. By proclaiming the Jubilee, Jesus wanted to bring about a total social transformation, with an eye to the future, yet based on the vision of justice God had already set forth in the past” (Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution, 16).

In my next post I will explore the implications of Jubilee for followers of Jesus in our era of ever-widening global and domestic disparity between the rich and the poor.

Why Nations Fail

Our congregation’s book club, which meets monthly at the Fairfax Public Library, is reading and discussing the bestselling book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The authors argue that the primary difference explaining why some nations are prosperous and others are poor is determined by human political and economic institutions rather than other oft-cited factors such as geography, culture, disease, or an abundance of natural resources.

The basic premise is that inclusive political and economic institutions generate sustained growth and prosperity while extractive institutions controlled by small elites ultimately create poverty and political instability. To support their argument, the authors take us on a grand tour through history and look at nations as varied as ancient Mayan city-states, North and South Korea, the Congo, Mexico, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Sometimes small historical differences and critical junctures, like those that caused the end of the feudal system in Western Europe, have led to more inclusive institutions creating greater prosperity and human flourishing.

Our reading group found some merit in all this but agreed that the authors try to explain too much and take their argument a bridge too far. One example the authors use to support their thesis is the city of Nogales, cut in half by US/Mexican border. They claim that the relative prosperity of the half of Nogales in Arizona must be attributed to the inclusive political and economic institutions in the United States. In contrast, the endemic poverty of the half of Nogales in Mexico is attributed to the oligarchical political economy of Mexico. They completely ignore other factors such as the history of unequal US relationships with Mexico or the impact of the massive security wall that the US built on the national border separating the two halves of the city.

Why Nations Fail looks at power, prosperity, and poverty through the lens of the modern nation-state and its claimed monopoly on violence. Alternate forms of community are not considered and other cultural or religious non-state actors are hardly mentioned. Nothing is said about the impact of religious social reformers like Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, and Mohammed or the communities they formed in response to oppressive political and economic systems. Equally not considered are more recent social movements for greater freedom and equality led by people like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

We can begin to fill in the book’s stark omissions by considering Moses’ action of forming an alternative community among Hebrew slaves in response to the politics of oppression and exploitation in Egypt. Such exploitative political structures are what the authors of Why Nations Fail refer to as “extractive institutions.” Furthermore, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the religious impetus behind the formation of such an alternative community the “prophetic imagination” (The Prophetic Imagination, 11-27).

We all know the timeless story of the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt through the leadership of Moses. Brueggemann writes, “The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom” (17). Furthermore, it was the memory of the alternative vision and practice of the Mosaic community that inspired Jesus to proclaim and inaugurate the reign of God in his day. In my next post, I will explore some of the ramifications of Jesus’ proclamation of the reign or rule of God.