Transforming the World Series (7) The biblical basis for social ethics

This is a repost from a series that I’ve kindly been asked to contribute over at Jesus Creed.

The next chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is by René Padilla, ‘The Biblical Basis for Social Ethics’

Padilla is Latin American and a senior figure within global evangelicalism. His passionate plea as a citizen of the Majority World is one to you and to me – Christians in the wealthy West. (I’m assuming here that those who have the time, education and technology to be reading and participating in Jesus Creed qualify!)

His plea is that such Christians listen to what God requires of them and he frames this in terms of Micah 6:8 – to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God.

Theology’s raison d’être is to discern the meaning of Micah’s ethical injunction; to live up to it in concrete situations, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of God.

The key question of social ethics today is how do Christians respond to the grossly unequal world in which they live?

– 1200 million people have no access to a public water supply

– 1000 million lack adequate housing

– 840 million are undernourished (200 million of them children)

– 880 million have no access to basic health care

– 35,000 children die of hunger every day

– Between 1990 and 2000, the investment of wealthy countries in development aid dropped by 50%

Padilla has strong words for Western theology (in which he was trained) saying it has been held captive to individualistic and privatized religion that ‘left aside the social dimensions of the gospel and, consequently emaciated Christian discipleship.’

This has meant that the church is too often oblivious to social ethics and is too easily co-opted to ideologies of the wider culture. Here’s a sentence to get you Americans going;

“given the detachment of faith from social ethics we should not be surprised by the way in which the large majority of Christians in the United States have been co-opted by the nationalist ideology of the Republican Party to support a war waged on the basis of lies – the war in Iraq.” (191)

A church without a robust theology of social ethics will:

–  Have little to say to the great problems that affect mankind

– Retreat into a private morality and remain ‘indifferent to the plight of the poor and the rape of God’s creation.’

– Fail to recognise its own captivity to ideology-culture of consumerism

– Be used by the powerful to provide religious legitimization of unjust political and socioeconomic systems.

When it comes to hermeneutics, Padilla proposes that while he affirms and appreciates the historical-grammatical approach to Scripture, it does not go far enough.

– It assumes we can separate ourselves from our culture and context to read the text objectively.

– It assumes our Western context is the norm, our interpretation being equally valid everywhere

– It fails to connect the biblical concern for the impact of the text in living a life worthy of the gospel

The whole thrust of the biblical narrative is to encourage and enable God’s people to live in light of the story in which they belong. What this means is going beyond a merely grammatical / historical hermeneutic, to ‘hear’ how the Bible confronted and subverted economic and political power structures of the ancient world in light of God’s purposes and how it continues to do so today.

Such a reading is faithful, says Padilla for it takes seriously the original meaning and context, but is also ‘relevant in that it addresses the questions arising from the contemporary socioeconomic and political context in light of the moral vision of Scripture.’

And then he spends some time supporting this by unpacking the personal and social dimensions of Jesus’ mission and the impossibility of reading a ‘depoliticized Jesus’ in light of his subversive announcement of the good news of the kingdom of God.

“It meant opting for the power of love instead of the love of power, opting for hunger and thirst for justice instead of love of money, opting for pleasing God instead of the approval of one’s neighbour.”

The cross does “not only point to the way in which ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8), but also represents the cost of faithfulness to God’s call to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly before God.” (199)

The church’s identity and mission as God’s people is to live for the cause of Jesus Christ, the Lord of all creation. And to live by and for this story will necessarily be deeply subversive – politically, socially, economically, spiritually.

And it’s no surprise here that at the end Padilla goes for Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Re:Mixed as an example of how to develop a biblical social ethic that challenges and subverts the lies and injustices of modern day empires.

And all this raises a question I’ve been mulling over for quite a while:

What then does it mean to be a radically subversive follower of Jesus within Western culture? What might this look like in practice?


4 thoughts on “Transforming the World Series (7) The biblical basis for social ethics

  1. No comments. Feck. If you come up with any answers to this question of your patrick i love to hear em.

  2. Lately actually ive been thinking about this question more pointedly and i am as you are still looking for answer. However i am not as depressed about my lack of an answer as i was as i have become aware that actually- its not just christians who are asking this. We say how can i live a radical life for Jesus in western culture others out there are asking how can we live correctly in the modern world? The last two years have seen me take a good look at justice issues, war, environment and politics all afresh.
    Simply put i believe that from the moment i wake up (or even by virtue of just being alive and living in ireland) i am standing on the backs of others i am wasteful and i am (by proxy) murderous. These facts are not just held by christians but by others too, those who are trying to figure out how to live life that is alternative to way we have been. Whilst i dont agree with the presuppositions about ultimate things that anti-capitalists and environmentalists have i can agree with them on one basic fact- something is wrong with modern life.

  3. Getting back on this rather late Richard.

    There can be a sort of Western guilt / self-hatred thing that the life made possible by capitalist success is inherently ‘evil’ or, at the very least, deeply unjust. Given the brokenness of the world, there will always be injustice and inequality .. But that is not to say we just accept it fatalisticaly…

    Michael Schulter of the Jubilee Foundation wrote a very good Cambridge Paper on that very question – worth reading here While acknowledging its successes, he lists five major failings of Corporate Capitalism. In light of what has happened in Ireland and elsewhere it is hard to argue with his criticisms.
    A future paper is supposed to propose a more ethical and just alternative – don’t think it is published yet. Would be quite an achievement to do so!

    Obviously there is no easy answer – but at a more personal level, we need to hear afresh Jesus’ radical warnings about money and wealth. To live in ways that go counter-culturally to the materialist consumer myths that drive much of our modern culture. To inform ourselves as much as possible about ethical choices in what we buy and to understand things that corporate capitalism want to keep hidden (we need organisations that will act as a conscience and watchdog I believe) And most personally of all, for the church to be a place where love is offered sacrifically across social, racial, economic and class boundaries …

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