“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4: 18 from Isaiah)
Justice for the poor – making sure everyone gets a chance to enjoy the fruits of life is one of the core policies of the Old Testament. I use the word policies advisedly because it often reads like a political manifesto. And these sentiments are carried on into the New. The Bible abounds with it.
From the prophet Amos (as a representative of all the prophets) addressing the rich women of his time thus “Here this you cows of Bashan, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy........behold the days are coming when you will be dragged away on fish hooks” (Amos 4:1)
Luke has already put these words into the mouth of Mary “He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.” Jesus tells us it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
“Let Justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Says Amos. Justice is far more important in religion, according to all the prophets, than all the worship put together which is revealed as being false worship because if it is indifferent to injustice.
The letter of James – Jesus’ brother – is vitriolic in his condemnation of partiality and says
“But you have dishonoured the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they that drag you into court?” (James 2:6)
As I’ve said many times before – the Judeao-Christian tradition is intensely political. It was politics that got Jesus executed when he challenged the religious and political status quo.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said. “Those who say that religion and politics don’t mix must be reading a different Bible to me”
When Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favour” he is most likely referring to the Biblical notion of Jubilee where every fifty years, no matter what has happened during the last fifty years all land and property is given back to the original owner and debts are cancelled. It is a notion of society hitting the re-set button – and was designed to stop inequality becoming cast in stone. This is why the Christian pressure group that campaigned to have third world debt cancelled called themselves “Jubilee 2000” if you didn’t already know.
So a big part of the “good news” is obviously social justice. It is how we perceive each other. It provides the base on which Victorian philanthropy was based. Paternalistic certainly but their motivation was making life better for their fellow man – taking from their excess and spreading it around.
In our dog eat dog, increasingly loveless world great acts of charity still happen, and charitable giving has probably never been higher, but in our national and international world order, inequality is increasing at an alarming and I would say unsustainable rate. Inequality has become entrenched.
In Britain the latest data tell us that social mobility has stalled. Basically. If you are born poor the increasing likelihood is that you will always be poor. The richest 1% of the country have massively increaded their share of the national wealth in the last thirty years. Only 7% of the population go to private schools yet 24% of vice-chancellors, 32% of MPs, 51% of top Medics, 54% of FTSE-100 chief execs, 54% of top journalists, 70% of High Court judges …went to private school.
If we are to take Jesus seriously, and take the witness of the Bible as a whole seriously these are questions of great importance for Christians.
The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many runs contrary to the whole history of Jewish and Christian world views.
We coo at Jesus being born in a stable – but miss the hard political point being made there. We have sentimentalised Christianity so much that most people see it as children’s entertainment to get them through the Christmas period rather than the hard political statement it was.
The message is sentimental and infantile. A religion divorced from life and the way society runs itself isn’t worth very much.
I may have theological differences with our new Archbishop of Canterbury on many different points but one thing he does bring forcefully to the table is an uncompromising attitude towards the city and the mindset of the people who inhabit it.
By introducing the idea that what we do with money has a moral component he is confronting head on some fundamental notions that underpin capitalism, that profit is the only thing that matters. At for that I thank him. Perhaps that is exactly what we need at this time, when socially and economically we are entering dire straits.
Britain, apparently according to the news, for the first time in its history is entering a triple dip recession. Mobility is squeezed, so hope ebbs away. Fragmentation of society is increasing, our national debt is getting larger and we are now on the cusp of having our credit rating down graded.
What we as a nation do with our money – where we prioritise it, who holds it, how it is distributed, what life chances does it afford and for whom – the few or the many are intense political questions.
But they were also intense religious questions. You cannot divorce the two. I would never dream of telling anyone how to vote. I have voted for many different parties over the years, and I must say have been routinely disillusioned by all of them. It is not even a simplistic left/right question either.
But what I do strongly suggest is that a Christian could and should be a political animal and our politics as far as we can ascertain from the entire tradition should be governed by fairness, compassion for the poor, equality, and controversially perhaps (though it is all there in the Bible for all to see)re-distribution of wealth for a more equitable society.
It is far from obvious which parties achieve those aims by which policies but we must be at least looking and thinking about the social consequences of our choices. Jesus never had the chance to vote because he was born in a dictatorship but, if had been allowed to vote, from all the evidence we have, social justice would have been his guiding light.