Gospel and Social Responsibility Series (2)

This post is also part of a series at Jesus Creed.

The first three chapters of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility, edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant unpack the Old Testament’s teaching on care for the weak, poor and vulnerable.

We have room only to look at one and it is M. Daniel Carroll, ‘Failing the Vulnerable: the prophets and social care’.

The OT prophets have long been recognised as a source for social justice. Carroll delves into this topic in three steps which I’ll summarise and make some comments & questions as we go. Here’s one to get us going:

If there is one thing the prophets tell us, it is not blindly to support current socio-economic systems and political policies – they may well be deeply unjust. What issues of injustice do you think that wealthy Western Christians may be blind to and why?

1. The Hebrew prophets articulated a uniquely comprehensive vision for social, economic and political justice.

Yahweh’s consistent and passionate concern is that his people – especially the leadership – will care for the needy and not exploit their vulnerability for personal gain. To disobey God in this is to face divine judgement. Examples abound: Amos 5:24; Isaiah 1:16-17; Jeremiah 22:15-16; Hosea 6:6 and Micah 6:8. This is no ‘secondary concern’ – it is intrinsic to the call of being God’s people.

Over time, and especially with the establishment of the monarchy and the development of Israel as an ANE nation-state, this call for justice got more complex. Taxes, armies, national building projects, international trade, foreign policy decisions (like going to war), crop specialisation and the rise of a wealthy merchant class all meant that economic and political realities profoundly shaped the social realities of Israel.

In Amos, you glimpse the problems associated with such ‘progress’. People are being sold into debt slavery; justice is for sale; tax collectors are profiteering; the rich live comfortably at the expense of the poor; those in power exercise it for selfish gain; corruption is endemic. The result is that the vulnerable are being oppressed, trampled, and crushed.

As with all the prophets, there is no separation of spiritual, physical and the political in Amos’ response to injustice. His words of judgement flow from Israel’s failure to remember her identity and calling to be a just people.

This is what Carroll calls ‘virtue ethics’. God’s people are to ‘pursue the good’, to ‘seek it’ and ‘love it’ (5:14-15). Goodness flows from God who is good (5:1-17) and as they do so ‘justice will flow down like water, righteousness like a never-ending stream’.

Carroll does not put it this way, but God’s justice is deeply relational. People are valued as people made in the image of God. Someone’s ‘value’ is not connected to or dependent on their wealth or success. Indeed, their wealth and success may be the fruit of greed and exploitation of others.

A student of mine has just finished (a very good) dissertation on the prosperity gospel. Sometimes I wonder, while most evangelicals avoid the vulgar crassness of Osteen & co, there is still deeply embedded within evangelical subculture a ‘soft prosperity gospel’ that uncritically welcomes health and wealth as a sure sign of God’s blessing.  What do you think?

2.       Social ethics and Worship

The prophets are insistent that the worship of God has no value whatsoever if it is not accompanied by justice – by lives that demonstrate concern and care for the needy. God ‘hated’ and ‘despised’ any religious activity divorced from justice (Amos 5:21).

God’s judgements on Israel are always moral. The fall of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians and later of Jerusalem to the Babylonians are graphic illustrations of God’s decision to call ‘time’ on Israel’s failure to live up to her calling.

What implications does this OT focus on essential call to care for the needy have for Christian worship today? 

3.       The Hope for a Better World

Third, the prophets speak of a future alternative reality, where all will be made right. A world where there is no more oppression, injustice, disease, hunger, or war (Isa 2:4 and multiple texts in Isaiah, Jeremiah and elsewhere).

This, says Carroll, is ‘a comprehensive ethical hope: familial, social, economic and political … and it is a certainty because the plan of Yahweh – the only true God- has already been set in motion and cannot be thwarted.’  In other words, the eschatological ‘good news’ of the OT prophets is also holistic.

And I’m no economist – it would be good to hear from Christians on the inside of the system here – but as I read this chapter I wondered at how the Credit Crunch exposed some of the systemic injustices within modern globalised capitalism.

What, for example, should the church be saying and doing about a system built on vast, unsustainable and un-payable debt? Am I right to say USA’s national debt is $14 trillion? In Ireland, where I live, huge private losses due to reckless gambling within the Irish (who borrowed) and European (who loaned) banking systems have been crystallised into Irish public debt owed by the taxpayer who cannot possibly shoulder the burden.     

What would Amos make of it all?

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