Politics is about how we as a society decide to order our common life. Not surprisingly, when we look at political situations in the Bible, the tension is mostly about matters of justice. In seminary we studied different types of justice:
- Distributive justice: How do all people get what they need and make use of the benefits of society? How can we ensure that people share the necessary burdens? Who will have certain opportunities, and who won’t, and why?
- Commutative justice: How do we exchange, interact, buy and sell, come to agreements? What is the right ordering for fair exchange?
- Retributive justice: How and why do we punish? What is fair in punishing those who violate the norms of society?
- Restorative justice: How can we restore violators to full participation in society?
The Torah was the Constitution of the Ancient Hebrews. It laid out the laws for society and the procedures for politics. But in the desert, before Moses even received the Law at Mt. Sinai, Moses’ father-in-law advised him to create a system of political leaders so that he wouldn’t wear himself out. Read Exodus 18:13-27. What kinds of justice are being assured here?
After conquering the Promised Land in a political conquest, the Hebrews set up a system of judges for themselves. This system didn’t work very well, as the entire Book of Judges demonstrates. Eventually the people clamored for a king. Read 1 Samuel 8:4-22. What kinds of justice are being requested here? How did this work for them? If you were to recast Samuel's speech to a present-day audience, what political phrases and concepts would you use?
During the glory days of the kingdom of Israel, David had an affair with Bathsheba, and the Prophet Nathan called him out on it. Prophets were a recognized profession in Israel and Judah; Nathan is one of the earliest. They could be seen as the “loyal opposition,” and the degree of acceptance of them depended on how willing were those in power to learn and grow. Read 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15. What kinds of justice are being assured here? Does David sound a bit like a modern politician? Who plays this role in our society today?
Prophets were those who saw what God would want for a situation and dared to say it. Prophets can only be identified in retrospect; those who seek the life of a prophet may be suspicious characters. Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah all have a moment in which they basically say,“I didn’t ask to be a prophet!” In other words, beware of those who sign up willingly for the job.
Perhaps the most traumatic political event in the Old Testament is the Babylonian Exile. The Assyrians took the northern kingdom of Israel first, but we don’t know what happened to the people after that. We have no record. The southern kingdom of Judah was taken 150 years later by Babylon. Much of the Old Testament chews on this traumatic event, which left the Jews asking, “If God is in charge, how could this happen?” Read Jeremiah 29:4-14. What kinds of justice are being assured here? Would you want to receive this advice if our own country were conquered by a foreign power? Is there hope in Jeremiah's words?
You’ll hear my take on Jesus as a political figure in my sermon this coming Sunday, so I'll leave that for now. But let's move beyond Jesus' earthly life. The earliest Christians needed to figure out how they would order their common life over against not only the Romans, but also the dominant forms of Judaism. Read Acts 2:42-47. What kinds of justice are being assured here? Why do you suppose the church didn’t stay this way?
During the early persecutions of Christians, apocalyptic literature gave hope to troubled believers. The Revelation to John has confounded Christians for most of the past 2000 years, largely because we have lacked the context to understand it fully. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we know what it means, or to think we can apply it directly to our own political situations today. Resist the urge to apply specific metaphors in Revelation to current or future times; that's not what it's for. Read Revelation 13:11-14:5. Did you grow up in a tradition that placed a lot of emphasis on this book? What kinds of justice are being assured here? What confuses you or frightens you? What do you find ugly or beautiful about this passage?
What about the 2000 years between then and now? How many situations can we name in which faith and politics have overlapped? To any of these situations, apply what you have learned about the Bible’s concerns for justice. What new insights can we gain from ...
- Christian pacifism, from the early church to the Anabaptists to conscientious objectors today?
- Augustine's Just War Theory?
- The witness of women throughout Christian history?
- The Reformation in Europe, with the church and state sometimes fighting and sometimes aiding and abetting each other in selfish ways?
- The French Wars of Religion?
- Thomas Jefferson's phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? Or American separation of church and state?
- The Enlightenment? The development of individualism?
- Missionary zeal and imperialism?
- The Civil Rights Movement?
- The Martyrs of Uganda under Idi Amin?
- Liberation theology in Central America in the 1970s and '80s?
- Bishop Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the 1990s?
- Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey today?