Monday, June 13, 2011

Poverty, Liberation, and Christian Scriptures: Part 1

June 25th marks yet another milestone in my faith journey: graduation from seminary and the earning of a Masters of Divinity.  However, I find it ironic, as someone who loves the theology of Karl Barth and his dialectic approach to church speak, that my degree suggests that I am a "master" of "God talk."  Nonetheless, I look forward to the next phase of ministry afforded through this achievement yet assured that I still am and always will be unfinished.

Here is Part 1 of an unrefined final paper: Poverty, Liberation, and the Christian Scriptures.

The Old Testament has often been relegated to a subservient status within the Christian Scriptures. While the Old Testament is valued and regarded as a corpus of inspired texts, many have assumed that what really matters is the New Testament. However, it must be emphasized that only when one is immersed within the writings of the Old Testament can a real and full appreciation begin to surface for what has occurred within the New Testament, especially in the climactic Christ event and the beginnings of the Church. In other words, it is the Old Testament that gives birth to the significance of the New Testament and the related theological, sociological, and ethical dimensions of the Christian faith. Therefore, it is a pivotal decision for the reader of Scripture to develop not only a familiarity with the major narratives and themes of the Old Testament, but also to engage the plethora of ethical issues that arise from the sacred texts and continue to bear relevance to the contemporary situations and missional vocations of God’s people. One of the more prominent concerns within the Christian Scriptures regards the plague of poverty and real manifestations of human oppression and marginalization.

In order to explore the depths of the Christian Scripture's illustration of the divine and human concern for poverty and, more intimately, the poor, it is first necessary to unveil poverty as problematic within the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. Old Testament.[1] In other words, it is not only the contemporary activist who interprets the condition of the world’s poor as paradoxical to the supposed character and activity of God, but also the Old Testament itself that exposes the conflicted nature between the divine and human experience. Job elicits one of the most raw and honest complaints towards the Creator that indicts the divine passivity:

Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days? The wicked remove landmarks; they seize flocks and pasture them. They drive away the donkey of the orphan; they take the widow's ox for a pledge. They thrust the needy off the road; the poor of the earth all hide themselves. Like wild asses in the desert they go out to their toil, scavenging in the wasteland food for their young… From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer (Job 24:1-5, 12).
Poverty was a grave injustice that wreaked havoc on the ancient world and was the heinous results of human oppression and autonomous activity. Poverty, as underscored by Job, was “a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God” (Gutierrez 165). It was a sub-human reality that distorted not only the imago Dei, but also the missio Dei. Yet God appears, in the eyes of contemporary and ancient observers alike, to be unconcerned, unaware, and unresponsive to the oppressive situations of the world’s poor. Job’s response is not an uncommon and undeserved voice within the Old Testament (cf. Ps. 13; Ps. 42:3, 10; Ps. 79). Nonetheless, despite the reality of poverty and the oppressive and evil systems that promoted it, God was and is not unconcerned and absent from unjust and negligent human behaviors.

The witness of the Old Testament underscores the character and nature of God as one who not only created humanity, but also continues to sustain God’s created people. God first demonstrated a divine generosity in the creation of a garden, the bringing forth of created beings, especially humanity, and the giving of fruitful trees of which humans were to “freely eat” (Gen. 2:16). The Psalter [2] also elevated the created order and activity within as evidence of the divine spirit of sustenance, “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it” (Ps. 65:9; cf. Ps. 104). However, the exodus and God’s deliverance of Israel from the oppressive Egyptian empire was the narrative to be remembered most (Ex. 13:3; Deut. 5:15; Deut. 24:18, 22). The same God who liberated the Hebrews from captivity and provided bread from heaven and water from a rock (Ex. 16-17), was the same God who would continue to provide for God’s people and especially serve as a refuge to the poor in the land (Is. 25:4). It was when God’s people abandoned this reality and claimed autonomy that trouble and judgment surfaced (Deut. 8:11-20). In essence, poverty was illustrated as offensive to the very nature and character of God who sought to give God’s people enough for each day (Ex. 16:4).

Poverty and other forms of exploitation not only offended the character of God, but also elicited the divine concern [3] and compassion towards God’s people. In other words, God was not understood as an abstract being void of an emotional attachment to the human condition. Instead, God empathized with and acted on behalf of God’s people, especially in the midst of injustice and oppression. Abraham J. Heschel wrote, “Man [and woman] is not only an image of God; he [and she] is a perpetual concern of God” (292). The God illustrated in the Old Testament heard the cries of the people and always provided a way out (Ex. 3:7-12; Deut. 24:15; Ps. 12:5-6; Ps. 40:1; cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). Moreover, the divine pathos was to be remembered and celebrated by God’s people and proclaimed to each generation in expectation that God would continue to act on their behalf and provide for God’s people, even in the midst of the most oppressive and impoverished conditions (Ps. 78; Ps. 136).

Furthermore, the divine pathos unveils the reality that God, although faithful to the whole of humanity, has a particular concern for the poor and oppressed. Again, Heschel provides beneficial insight, “God’s special concern is not for the mighty and the successful, but for the lowly and the downtrodden, for the stranger and the poor, for the widow and the orphan” (213). The reality that God delivered the Hebrew slaves [4] from the hands of the empire and established laws and commands to ensure that it would “go well” with the liberated en route to a new land (Deut. 5:16, 33; Deut. 6:3, 18) exposed God’s preferential option (Gutierrez xxvi). The God of creation “raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Sa. 2:8) as an on-going reminder that “the needy shall not always be forgotten nor the hope of the poor perish forever” (Ps. 9:18). The ancient world, as with the contemporary, was saturated in oppressive systems and destructive empires of injustice; yet, the good news was that God opted to side with the poor and marginalized (Job 34:26-28; Is. 61:1-11; cf. James 1:9-11; 5:1-6). This was the hope of Israel and the declaration of God’s liberated people as they anticipated the day when God would once again put the world to rights.

In the Old Testament, the divine pathos and Israel’s vocation directly correlated with one another. [5] God was not believed to be a distant deity disengaged from human experience, activity, and struggle. Rather, Israel was understood as the gathered and scattered community of God’s witnesses in the world and the incarnation of the missio Dei (Is. 43:10; 44:8). This was especially evident within the writings of the Hebrew prophets:

But the prophets face a God of compassion, a God of concern and involvement, and it is in such concern that the divine and the human meet. Pathos is the focal point for eternity and history, the epitome of all relationships between God and man (Heschel 296).
As God was concerned with the conditions and plights of humanity, so God’s people were called to be concerned. The prophet Isaiah envisioned Israel’s vocation, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). The same was echoed in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Israel was to remember their previous identity as an enslaved and impoverished people, delivered by the liberating power of God, and served as vicariates of the Creator as they looked after the poor and marginalized in the land (Deut. 10:12-22). In essence, Israel was not only to embody a life and vocation of concern, but also a heart and ethos of empathy for the oppressed.

However, the Old Testament underscores the vocation of Israel as not only a means to empathize with the poor and oppressed, but also as God’s commissioning of Israel to alleviate and prevent systemic poverty. Gutierrez wrote:

“But it is not simply a matter of denouncing poverty. The Bible speaks of positive and concrete measures to prevent poverty from becoming established among the People of God” (167).
These measures can be observed as the laws and commands within the prescribed Torah obedience. Israel was to live into a social and economic reality where they gave liberally to the poor, whom were always to be provided for and included as valid members within their community (Deut. 15:11). In essence, there was to be “no one in need” within the walls of Israel because God would provide abundantly even as Israel distributed generously (Deut. 15:4). Furthermore, Israel was commanded to sanction portions of their harvests and fields for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22) and to leave the remains of the harvest to be gathered by the alien, the orphan, and the widow (Deut. 24:19-22). Even the calendar was recognized as a measure to prevent on-going systemic poverty. Every seventh year debts were to be canceled and the harvest to be left for the poor and marginalized (Ex. 23:11; Deut 15:1); every third year the communal tithe was to be set apart for those in need (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12). However, it was the intended practice of the Jubilee year that was to ensure that poverty was not transferred from generation to generation. Every fifty years land was to be returned to the original owners in conjunction with that year’s Day of Atonement and the celebration of not only spiritual, but also economic redemption (Lev. 25). Ultimately, as long as Israel was faithful to and practiced Torah obedience it would go well with God’s people and they would “lack nothing” (Prov. 28:27; cf. Is. 58:6-9).

A final element of the Old Testament witness against poverty and towards liberation concerns both God’s sure judgment and eschatological hope. Once again, the prophets prove beneficial in the assessment of the Old Testament’s concern for systemic poverty. Isaiah warned of the judgment that was to come upon those who “make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (10:1-2). Jeremiah confronted the “wild vine” (2:21) that became Israel and Judah for their greedy pursuit of “unjust gain” which had become a centerpiece within their naïve national optimism (8:4-13). In other words, God’s people became an abomination (Jer. 8:12) in their fundamental distortion and betrayal of their missional and covenantal vocation (Jer. 11:1) towards economic justice (Brueggemann A Commentary on Jeremiah: 88).

However, Amos was even more explicit in the confrontation of systemic poverty that permeated the covenantal nations. In particular, Amos’ final oracle was reserved for the indictment of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2:6-8). Unlike the first six oracles which referred to one nation’s activity against another, Israel’s violations were self-inflicted. Wolff categorizes the accusations against Israel as the sale into debt-slavery of the innocent and the needy, the oppression of the poor, the abuse of maidens, [6] and the exploitation of debtors (165-168). Despite God’s constant work of liberation and exodus on behalf of his people, they had forsaken their mission, abandoned their identity, and betrayed the covenant. Israel had become like the surrounding nations, only worse. Their actions were against their own people. The people who had been liberated from oppression had become the ultimate demonstration of injustice. Therefore, God pronounced judgment and lead them to the same fate as surrounding nations, i.e. devastation and exile (Amos 3:11).

Nonetheless, the day was promised when God would put the whole world back to rights, restore justice, rebuild temples, resurrect vineyards, and redeem the fortunes of God’s people, especially the poor (Amos 9:13-15; cf. Ps. 9). The Creator promised to establish a new and everlasting covenant, whereby God would restore the fortunes of the people and, through God’s anointed, deliver good news about all forms of deliverance, redemption, and jubilee (Is. 61; Jer. 32:36-44). God was on the brink of making all things new and about to plant a fresh and harmonious vineyard of abundance and peace (Is. 65:17-25), where the poor could eat and be satisfied (Ps. 22:26), the meek would find their joy and praise in the Lord (Is. 29:19), and all those in need would have more than enough (Is. 55:1-5). This was the eschatological hope of God’s people and that which would come to fruition in the already-and-not-yet jubilee proclaimed, announced, and incarnated by Jesus the Messiah (Luke 4:16-21).

[1] There are many levels of poverty addressed within the Bible.  Liberation and Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, writes of the dialectic between three meanings of the term poverty: real poverty as an evil- that is something that God does not want; spiritual poverty, in the sense of a readiness to do Gods will; and solidarity with the poor, along with protest against the conditions under which they suffer (A Theology of Liberation xxv).  This paper will concentrate on real poverty and some allusions to the biblical mandate for solidarity. 
[2] Brueggemann provides a beautiful summary of creation-oriented psalms, The whole world is daily dependent on Gods sustenance, Gods face, Gods presence, Gods breath.  The world is impressive and to be celebrated.  But it has no independent existence.  It is genuinely creation, i.e., always referred to the Creator (The Message of the Psalms 32).
[3] Abraham J. Heschel refers to this as the divine pathos, “Pathos means: God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil. He is always partial to justice” (The Prophets 298).
[4] Brueggemann writes of the derivation of the Hebrew name, “The term hapiru in various forms and with various linguistic cognates appears in the Ancient Near East in the second millennium to refer to stateless people who live at the edges of society, threaten society, and are in turn threatened by it. It is widely thought that the biblical term Hebrew is linked to the term; if so, then the early references to what became Israel are linked to a border social movement of marginal, precarious peoples” (The Prophetic Imagination 134).
[5] Heschel writes, “From the beginnings of Israelite religion the belief that God had chosen this particular people to carry out His mission has been both a cornerstone of Hebrew faith and a refuge in moments of distress” (The Prophets 39).
[6] “In other words the elder, already married, father has intruded upon his son’s love affair, and by so doing has turned a young woman into an object for the gratification of forbidden lusts. Thus the clan ethos which Amos affirms guards not only the marital relationship and the legal rights of slaves, but also the very personhood of a young woman, as well as her potential marriageability” (see Joel and Amos  by Wolff 167). All of the offenses here mentioned surely had economic repercussions against those violated.