Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Justice in the Old Testament (More from Wolterstorff)

Here are more quotes from Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Citing Oliver O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations (1996):

[The conception of justice in the Old Testament] is often obscured by the influence of a quite different conception of justice, classical and Aristotelian in inspiration, built on the twin notions of appropriateness and proportionate equality - justice as receiving ones own and being in social equilibrium. Mishpat is primarily a judicial performance. When "judgment" is present , it is not a state of affairs that obtains but an activity that is duly carried out... So, for example, when Amos calls for mishpat to "roll on like a river," he means precisely that the stream of juridical activity should not be allowed to dry up. (page 69 in Justice: Rights and Wrongs)

The following quotes are directly from Wolterstorff.

[J]ust as we use our word "justice" to speak of both primary and rectifying justice, so Israel used its word "mishpat" to speak of both. (p 75)

They were downtrodden as our older English translations nicely put it. The rich and the powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as "lifting them up." (p 76)

Rather often what the writers [of the Old Testament] have in view, when speaking of the plight of widows, orphans, aliens, and the impoverished, is the collapse or perversion of the judicial system. A place midway between Brueggemann's emphasis on primary justice in Israel and O'Donovan's on rectifying justice seems to me the right place to be. (p 78)

Injustice is not equally distributed. The low ones enjoy those goods to which they have a right - food, clothing, voice, security, whatever - far less than do the high and mighty ones. (p 79)

Israel's religion was a religion of salvation, not of contemplation - that is what accounts for the mantra of the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the poor. Not a religion of salvation from this earthly existence but a religion of salvation from injustice in this earthly existence. (p 79)

Yahweh's pursuit of justice and Yahweh's injunction to practice justice are grounded in Yahweh's love. (p 82)

Injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom. That is why God loves justice. God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God's human creatures; justice is indispensable to that. Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined. (p 82)

God holds human beings accountable for doing justice; and God is himself committed to justice, both in the sense that God does justice and in the sense that God works to bring it about that human beings treat each other justly. Underlying these two themes is God's love of justice. (p 89)

Israel's writers were implicitly working with the conception of justice as inherent rights rather than with that of justice as right order. (p 91)

The assumption of Israel's writers that God holds us accountable for doing justice has the consequence that when we fail to do justice, we wrong God. We not only fail in our obligations to God. We wrong God, deprive God of that to which God has a right. (p 91)

What Israel's writers presuppose, of course, is that God has the right to hold us accountable for doing justice. (p 93)

Surely, God does not have these rights on account of some norm that applies to him! They are not conferred upon God. They belong to God inherently; they come along with what god is and what God does. (p 94)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Were people in Paul's churches poor?

Last week I listened to a talk given by a respected scholar, who outlined some of the good work done by Dr E A Judge about the social setting of Paul's churches. He said a lot of good things, but I was a bit disappointed that he did not interact with other writers in the debate, especially the works written in the past 15 years or so. I think this is an important issue to discuss here.

Respected scholars like E A Judge, Wayne Meeks and Gerd Thiessen helpfully challenged the older notion that the earliest Christians were all destitute. They correctly suggested that some Christians in the earliest church were from a relatively more well-to-do economic background. But unfortunately today's church and even some scholars today have mistakenly taken the view that most of the Christians in the earliest church were "middle-class" (which, I believe, Judge, Meeks and Theissen did not say). In the following I want to clarify a few things.

(1) Tradespeople were hardly like today's middle-class professionals. It is true that people with a trade like carpenters, tent-makers and fishermen were relatively well-to-do, but it does not make them "middle-class". People like Peter, John and Paul might be literate. But it does not necessarily mean that they had a high social status. Indeed Peter and John had to "give up" a lot in order to follow Jesus, for they, being fishermen, would have had some material possessions. But we must remember that artisans (e.g. tent-makers and fishermen) did not belong to the upper classes. They were not destitute, but they were not wealthy either. They needed to work long hours, and often in tough conditions. They might be running a so-called "small business". But it's nothing like a small business in Australia. People like Peter, John, and indeed Jesus, were second-class citizens in the Roman Empire and had to pay taxes to the Romans. There was an underlying political, social and economic oppression that they had to live with everyday. A part-time tent-maker like Paul would hardly be able to survive financially. Although being a Roman citizen he did enjoy some privileges, it did not stop him from being jailed on various occasions. There were no laws or insurance to protect them from the risks of running a business. If there was a fire, it would be hard to recover the loss. If the main "bread-winner" (usually the father) was sick for a few weeks, the well-being of the whole family would be at risk. If there was a prolonged sickness or a bad injury in the family, their whole livelihood would be at risk. In fact, in many Roman cities, artisans (including doctors) were slaves. They were looked down upon because of their social status.

I myself grew up in an Asian city in the 1960's and 70's. It was quite a thriving city, with many migrants from the rural areas. It was similar to, for example, ancient Rome. My dad had a trade and was a small business owner. He had about three workers in his factory. But I can assure you that life was tough - very tough - for the family! We were a little bit better off than the workers in the factory. But we worked day and night, most days of the week, and we could only just make ends meet. My father is now retired, and his living standard is worse than most people in Melbourne today (although he's considered to be quite "successful" in life). Well-being should be measured in "real terms" - that is, the fact that Peter and John enjoyed a relatively stable lifestyle economically in their own social setting does not mean that their lives were easy or free from anxiety. And we must remember that they did give up their security to follow Jesus.

(2) Paul's request for a collection from the Corinthians does not mean that they had plenty of money. I have heard on several occasions that the fact that Paul asked the Corinthian Christians for a collection in 2 Cor 8-9 means that they were not poor. To me, this sounds like someone speaking out of a lack of experience in poverty. When I was a pastor I struggled financially. I found that those who had little money were often very generous. In fact, Paul just said in 2 Cor 8:2 that the Macedonians had given in the midst of their extreme poverty. It seems to me that Paul was expecting the Corinthians to be generous despite their poverty. It doesn't mean that the entire Corinthian community was destitute. In fact, if they were all destitute I am not sure whether Paul would say that they should give their very last penny to others. My point is that it is likely that many of the Corinthians were relatively poor (and some of them might be destitute) and belonged to the lower classes - just like many people in the urban cities in the pre-industrialised world. And Paul was saying that those who had some money and could do better than surviving should try to help another church that was poorer.

(3) Think about this statement: "The earliest church was run by people of high social standing, and they needed people like that to lead because otherwise nobody would listen to them." This is a statement made by some people (but not necessarily by the scholars mentioned above, as far as I know). But is this statement true? Yes and no. The first-century society in the Roman Empire was highly hierarchical. No doubt high social standing would be helpful. But it doesn't make it necessary for the church to grow through the help of people of high social standing. It is true that the literacy rate was low and hence by necessity it needed literate people like Paul to write the New Testament. But it doesn't mean that they deliberately adopted a "strategy" of using people of high standing to lead the church, even though that was probably what happened in practice. The church in China, for example, grew without many educated people during the 1970's and 80's. They needed no "people of high standing" to have people listen to them (in order to grow the church). The leaders had some education, for sure. But they did not have a high social status. They were poor and without any Western influence. But the church thrived nonetheless.

I am not suggesting that we don't need teachers in the church. I myself think that academic training in Biblical Studies - when done properly - is very important. But my concern is that we think that people with little or no education cannot contribute to the theology and ministry of the church. In aid and development it is well-known that the poor often knows what is good development. The West does not have all the answers. The rich and the poor are equal partners in poverty alleviation and in tackling the causes of injustice.

My concern is that the concern of Paul, I think. We see this in 2 Corinthians, for example. Power is a dangerous thing. Knowledge puffs up. We should let God's power work through our weakness. My humble personal opinion is that when we fail to focus on this (ie. God's power working in our weakness), we fail to understand the true meaning of the cross.

(4) Ancient non-biblical documents were often biased because they were written by people from higher classes. Their view of the poor was biased, for often they did not have a first-hand understanding of what it meant to be poor. My concern is that scholars can have an over-reliance on documents that had a biased view of the poor. My concern is also that if today's scholars do their theology from a safe and comfortable office or library without any first-hand knowledge of poverty and injustice, then they need to be aware that their research can be somewhat biased too. Paul, on the other hand, learned to live in want. As a former Pharisee and learned person, he would have been a respected member among his people. But he chose to to live differently. If we think that the earliest church was led by people of higher social standing such as people like Paul, we need to remember that the apostle himself had chosen to give up that social standing - see 2 Corinthians.

(5) We need to stop thinking that Paul's churches are like ours in the West today. Nor was his world like ours. In our Western society (e.g. Australia), we have the Bill Gates of the world (the very rich), the homeless people and the very poor, and those in the middle (me, my friends and colleagues). Those in the middle are doing not to badly, often with some kind of social welfare system as a backup, as well as emergency public health care. But in the ancient Roman cities it wasn't like this. The elite groups consisted about 1-3% of the population. About 20%-35% of the population of Rome, for example, were slaves or their descendants. These slaves might have food on the table, but their lives were not their own. Often they were used for sexual pleasures (applicable to women and young boys). At least some residents in Rome were destitute. There were several slums in Rome. The elite groups not only had a lot of wealth, they had political and social power as well. Those in the middle had no social welfare if some mishap happened to them. Many in the middle were not Roman citizens and by default had a lower social status (or "rank", some want to make that distinction). Basically if you do not belong to the elite or the upper-middle social groups, you are subject to injustice in a world where the rich and power well and truly called the shots. It is in this context that Paul's churches lived and in which Paul talked about financial giving and God's justice for the world.

(6) Finally, I want to say that the above doesn't tell us whether Christians are supposed to be poor or not. I think there is no simple answer to this question. A simple "yes" or "no" answer will not be satisfactory. I believe that we are all supposed to follow Christ's way of life, and Paul seems to endeavour to do that himself.

Coming back to the scholar I heard last week, I think he was right in many ways. My concern is more about how the audience would have understood him, and I hope the above can clarify a few things.

For those who are interested in the more recent scholarly debate, here is a list of interesting reading. I think few would disagree with what I said above.

J. J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998).
Dale Martin, "Review Essay: Justin J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival," JSNT 84 (2001).
Gerd Theissen, "The Social Structure of Pauline Communities: Some Critical Remarks on J. J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival," JSNT 84 (2001).
Gerd Theissen, "Social Conflicts in the Corinthian Community: Further Remarks on J. J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival," JSNT 25.3 (2003).
J. J. Meggitt, "Responses to Martin and Theissen," JSNT 84 (2001).
Steven Friesen, "Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-Called New Consensus," JSNT 26, no. 3 (2004).
John Barclay, "Poverty in Pauline Studies: A Response to Steven Friesen," JSNT 26, no. 3 (2004).
Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1987).
Peter Oakes, "Constructing Poverty Scales for Graeco-Roman Society: A Response to Steven Friesen's 'Poverty in Pauline Studies'," JSNT 26, no. 3 (2004).

Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul's Letter at Ground Level (London: SPCK, 2009).

(JSNT stands for Journal for the Study of the New Testament)