Wealth, power, and influence in the ancient Hebrew ideal

One of the themes widely recognized and strongly presented across the pages of the Old Testament is God’s anger at how the poor, widowed, and orphaned have been mis-treated, or not looked-after. Not only in the commands of the Mosaic Law Code (in terms of care for the above mentioned and foreigners living among the Israelite tribes; for example: Leviticus 19: 9-10, 13-15, 33-34 or Deuteronomy 15: 7-11), but also long rants in the books of the Prophets that Judah and Israel are under God’s judgment because they had failed to look out for the unempowered (for example: Isaiah 1: 16-17; 2: 14-15; Micah 2: 1-2, 8-9; Amos 5: 7, 11-12; Zechariah 7: 9-10; or Malachi 3: 5).

The flip side of this, but less often noted, are the descriptions of how a morally upright person uses their power, influence, and wealth. The book of Job contains some representative examples of this. I think, in our current cultural context, where the place of wealth and influence are subjects of heightened interest, these ancient words of Job could serve as loci of discussion and consideration.

‘For I assisted the poor in their need

And the orphans who required help.

I helped those without hope…

I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.

Everything I did was honest… I wore justice like a turban.

I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.

I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.

I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth.

They drank my words like a refreshing spring…. I comforted those who mourned.

Let God weigh me on the scales of justice, for He knows my integrity.

If I have been unfair to my male or female servants when they brought their complaints to me, how could I face God?

For He created both me and my servants. He created us both in the womb.

Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows?

No, from childhood I have cared for orphans like a father…

whenever I saw the homeless without clothes and the needy with nothing to wear,

did they not praise me for providing wool clothing to keep them warm?’ (Job 29, 31)

It seems to me that in today’s public conversation, power, wealth, or influence, in and of themselves, are often labeled as wrong or bad. But in the Hebrew Scriptures these things are not seen as bad or evil or unjust (neither is strength, nor ancient ideals of courage). Power, wealth, influence, strength, and courage, in the OT scriptures, are seen as good, effective, redemptive tools of fairness and justice that a godly person uses to increase the well-being of the common good, and especially of the weak, suffering, and unempowered. See too the picture of the empowered, well-to-do woman in Proverbs 31, and what she does with her wealth, strength, courage and influence. I have only brushed the surface of the images the Hebrews scriptures provide us on this subject, and I suspect that, in our current time and place in Western civilization, most of these images of personal and civic ideals are no longer commonly known. That leaves us with Hollywood personalities, professional athletes, and a handful of billionaires as societal role models regarding the use of wealth. Perhaps a rediscovery of some ancient biblical images could serve as fruitful templates in our conversation about society, stratification, influence, and lack.

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Can the Creator God really not stand to be around us?

I got a text the other day from a former apprentice asking about God needing to keep separate from sinful humanity. I won’t try to edit it, here’s the exchange:

Them: I’ve always believed that God needed to be separate from sin. We couldn’t enter His presence because our sin. If that is true, how is it that Jesus, fully God, could enter into this sinful world and hang out with blatant sinners? I get the Atonement. But I’m talking about the time before his death.

Me: Just like old times! In a nutshell, we probably mis-stated the way we said that stuff. The tabernacle/temple had lots of that imagery, but God is hanging out in the world and with humans all through the Old Testament. So He isn’t as sensitive or thin-skinned or hardnosed as some of our lingo has made Him sound. Think of how many times He hangs out visiting people in the Bible! Abram under the oaks of Mamre, fiery furnace with the bros, burning bush, Elijah straight to heaven etc etc. If He were as blindly furious as some theology makes Him sound none of us would stand a chance. He’s a lot kinder than we often act “He knows we are but dust.”

Me: “He knows our need, is no stranger to our weakness”. Don’t you love that?

Them: Indeed I do… So the need for separation in the OT is symbolic.

Me: Well that might take longer to unwind. Richard Rohr would say yes. Read Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?” Have you?

Them: Between the sober bar, the recovery house, and the church I am horrible at getting books in. Should I add it to the top?

Me: Get it on kindle. Read it next. U will thank me big time. Read it in little pieces at night. U will immediately draw from it.

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So, while I have no doubt the extreme ‘God-is-a-raging-fire better grab hold of Jesus’ approach has helped many people take their sin seriously (and they should), there are some pretty serious problems aligning the first line of my friend’s text to the Father Who is the Creator of All Things and notices when a sparrow falls to the earth. If my Fatherhood were modeled on God’s, and He could not bear to be in our presence due to sin (and comparing humanity’s moral failure to the God of the Universe was always a dumb trick theologically anyway – OFCOURSE a human couldn’t match God! stupid!,) I would be a pretty poor father to my kids when they screwed up. That kind of fathering has scarred and damaged many people. We do not need to protect God’s purity by saying He can’t stand to be near us since we aren’t perfect. And, explanations of the Atonement which make it sound like Jesus is our cloaking device diminish any meaningful love God has for us in a weird twist of injustice. Read N.T. Wright’s new book on the Atonement ‘The Day the Revolution Began’ (highlighted here: https://toddrisser.com/2017/06/12/a-fantastic-new-book/ ). Jesus’ incarnation indicates God can indeed stand to be around us, messed up though we be. God wants shalom for us, not just a transaction/punishment to even out the scales of justice.

Another great read: “What is The Bible?” by Rob Bell

With the longest-ever subtitle! “How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything,” Rob turns his considerable writing talents to recommending the Bible to the world to read. This is a fantastic and engaging intro to the Bible for people who have blown it off, and an invigorating wake-up to people who “know” the Bible but have thought they already have it mastered.

Bell does a lot in this book:

Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.

Takes on questions about the shocking violence.

Takes on questions about the Bible supporting un-enlightened views about humanity, and does a good job of demonstrating that human rights were advanced in radical egalitarian ways throughout the Bible.

Does a great job explaining that the story of the Bible moves on… that some things later in the story supercede and replace ideas earlier in the story.

Takes on the view that the Bible is boring and unrelated to our lives today, demonstrating handily that the themes of the Bible are exactly the issues we struggle with today!

In short, Rob addresses our modern world and says to them – come read the Bible! You’ll be surprised and glad you did – this is amazing! And, will change the way you think and feel about everything! In the process, Rob talks a lot about the God of the Bible and our ability to have a relationship with Him. And what He wants.

Don’t be put-off that the first chapter about Abraham is a teeny bit “racy,” it’s common editorial work to try to hook uninterested readers. The rest of the book proceeds at an un-controversial, yet fast-moving, humorous, engaging, utterly worthwhile read. Do it.

Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

A fantastic new book

In our time the doctrine of the atonement/ Jesus crucified has come under attention once again. The way it is usually explained within Western Christianity, it sounds like the all too familiar abusive father who takes his rage out on someone innocent, in this case his own child, and then dresses it up by wrapping his ugly behavior up with the word love. The idea that the Creator God Himself has to kill someone in order to forgive people has understandably caused people to wonder what kind of God we are talking about.

Into the midst of this, world-renowned theologian N.T. Wright has written an absolutely incredible book. He has clearly familiarized himself with both popular and academic treatments of the atonement written recently, and pastorally identified the very real problems our current understanding of the crucifixion brings to people. This is understandable, he says, and it’s fine, because the ways that the crucifixion is understood in Western Christianity have de-railed from the actual story and meanings in the Bible. In fact, he demonstrates, the way in which the prevailing theologies of Western Christianity are explaining the atonement end up de-biblicizing it, de-Judaizing it, and paganizing it.

If we start reading the Bible at the beginning, we find the problem is not that God made the world as a testing ground to see if people would go to heaven or hell, and then makes a way for the first rather than the second. No, that is not the story we find when we read the Bible’s story. And when we make that the story, we start mis-understanding the cross in all sorts of ways that fall far short of what the followers of Jesus meant when they said that he died “for our sins” and “in accordance with the Bible.”the day the rev began pic

Wright’s book is called “The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” It is a life-changing, worldview-changing book; one of the best things Wright has written in a while, and that’s saying something. Run, don’t walk, get a copy, and read it.

For Example (Wendell Berry on our economy’s effect in human communities)

Last time I remarked that Wendell Berry’s agrarian philosophy is congruent with the Trump administration’s re-focus of economy here in America. For example –

“…The attitudes of the industrial economy…” writes Wendell Berry, “have taken their toll…. the news from everywhere in rural America… bankruptcy, foreclosure, depression, suicide, the departure of the young, the loneliness of the old, soil loss, soil degradation, chemical pollution, the loss of genetic and specific diversity, the extinction or threatened extinction of species, the depletion of aquifers, stream degradation, the loss of wilderness, strip mining, clear-cutting, population loss, the loss of supporting economies, the death of towns. Rural American communities, economies, and ways of life that in 1945 were thriving and, though imperfect, full of promise for an authentic human settlement of our land are now as effectively destroyed as the Jewish communities of Poland….

The news of rural decline and devastation has been accompanied, to be sure, by a chorus of professional, institutional, and governmental optimists, who continue to insist that all is well, that we are making things worse only as a way of making things better, that farmers who failed are merely ‘inefficient producers’ for whose failure the country is better off, that money and technology will fill the gaps, that government will fill the gaps, that science will soon free us from our regrettable dependence on the soil.  ….We have heard that the rural economy can be repaired by moving the urban economy out into the country and by replacing rural work with work in factories and offices. And all the while the real conditions of the rural land and rural people have been getting worse.

Port Royal, Kentucky… (was once) held together by a complex local economy…. sixteen businesses and professional enterprises… all serving the town and the surrounding farms. …Now, counting the post office, the town has five enterprises, one of which does not serve the local economy. There is now no market for farm produce in the town or within forty miles. We no longer have a garage or repair shop of any kind.  We have had no doctor for forty years and no school for thirty.

What does the death of a community, a local community, cost its members? And what does it cost the country? So far as I know, we have no economists interested in such matters. ….as the urban-industrial economy more and more usurps the local economy…. my part of rural America is, in short, a colony…. in the power of an absentee economy, once national and now increasingly international, that is without limit in its greed and without mercy in its exploitation of land and people.” (‘Conservation and Local Economy’ (1992) in The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.)

Donald Trump, Wendel Berry, and International Development theory all in agreement

One of the ironies of the present moment (and there are many) is that while the media pundits declare that President Trump’s ‘isolationism’ (in prioritizing the American economy and withdrawing from international trading not to America’s advantage), is economic suicide, bad global citizenship, and regressive… he actually advocates what both current international development theory recommends to developing nations, and what agrarian philosopher/farmer/poet/economic thinker Wendell Berry advocates for rural American towns.

International development theory currently contends, due to decades of observation, that the promise of benefits from hooking up to the global economy are not panning out for developing nations. Relatively few people are benefiting, and most of them are banks and corporations in the developed world. Instead, development theorists contend, developing nations should look inward, develop a diversified economy that meets the needs of their own populations. In other words, don’t base your economy on Americans buying bananas or T-shirts (while you have to import everything else) – the price of bananas in the U.S. may drop five cents per pound and wipe out your economy, or Vietnam may start making T-shirts cheaper than you, equally wiping out all the eggs you placed in one basket. Make things in your own country that people in your own country need, thus creating jobs and economic linkages both vertically and horizontally along the economic spectrum. This has been a radical re-think in the development industry, a painful moment of repentance. What Trump is advocating for the U.S. is exactly what development theorists advise developing nations to do. Don’t expect many people in our megalopolis or Ivy League schools to admit this though.

Wendell Berry, as well, advocates the same thing for small rural American towns. Throughout his writings he bemoans the loss of local economies and economic linkages to transnational, absentee corporations who rape local economies in all the ways we learned during the era of colonialism against the indigenous peoples of the world. Berry points out that small towns used to be loci of production, horizontal linkages (blacksmiths, tack shops farmers needed, etc) and now there are neither jobs nor those horizontal-linkage businesses. These absentee corporations care neither for the people nor the place where their goods are made or bought, and local conditions testify to the fact – including the contrast to what these places used to be like. The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry is rife with this thought. Though the Trump administration’s policies on international trade are demonized as throw-back, ignorant hyper-nationalism, he is actually doing what both the international development industry is telling developing economies to do, as well as being congruent with the avant garde thought of our most famous agrarian philosopher alive.