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With Liberty and Justice For All: Why the Bible Promotes Equality

Faith may have invoked divine justice but experience repeatedly contradicted it. From where, then, did that expectation of a world ruled by a fair and equitable distribution of its resources come?
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The biblical tradition insists that God is a God of "justice and righteousness," that is, of distributive justice and restorative righteousness. Think, for example, of this divine claim:
"I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:24). Furthermore, rulers are expected to participate in that same divine character. "Thus says then Lord: act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place" (Jeremiah 22:3). The most serious and far-reaching misunderstanding of that biblical tradition is to interpret divine justice as retributive rather than distributive, as if it meant a proper punishment for some rather than a fair share for all.

So here is the question. How did that ancient tradition ever arrive at such an absolutely counter-intuitive understanding of God? That biblical vision came from a small people regularly oppressed by great empires -- Egyptians or Mesopotamians, and Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans. Faith may have invoked divine justice but experience repeatedly contradicted it. From where, then, did that expectation of a world ruled by a fair and equitable distribution of its resources come?

That biblical vision of a world-for-all did not come from our modern ideas of democratic power or our contemporary claims about human or civil rights. It did not come from liberalism, socialism, or communism. In recognizing its challenge we are not retrojecting any of that modernity back onto antiquity. A world-for-all came, if one needs an -ism, from Godism. That means, of course, that the biblical tradition does not proclaim "social justice" but "divine justice" -- which is something like social justice on steroids. But, still, the question presses. How did they decide that Godism involved distributive justice and restorative righteousness in a world that -- then and now -- experientially denies that proposition?

The biblical tradition got that vision of God from the most obvious source imaginable, from growing up in a decent home and a well-run household. Most children either experienced that normalcy positively or recognized its absence negatively. The Bible simply took that expectation of a decent household and applied it to God as the Householder of the World-House. Given their world's patriarchal prejudices they spoke of God "as Father" but God "as Householder" is what that title meant.

Think, for a moment, about the first-century world of Jesus and especially of that prayer which begins with, "Our Father in Heaven." There is an especially striking irony when God-as-Householder is called God-as-Father by Jesus. Demographers of the Roman world agree that, owing to the late marriage-age of males, one third of young people would have been fatherless by the age of fifteen -- across all strata of society. Women married around 12 or 13, men married around twice that age, general life expectancy was under 30 years, so that a father as actual householder must have been mostly theory rather than practice and nostalgia rather than reality. In other words, in a first-century household across the Roman world, hear "father," think "mother," but understand "householder." And, as on earth, so also in heaven.

If, in that first-century world, you entered a small family farm and its courtyard house, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well administered, the livestock well provisioned, the family members well-fed, well-clothed, well-sheltered?? Does a sick child get special care? Does a pregnant mother get special concern? Does everyone get a fair share? Does everyone get enough? You would judge the householder not by the criterion of egalitarianism but of enoughism. That is how -- then as now -- you would assess the householder of any home. Is there a fair distribution of goods and resources, of duties and obligations?

But what if some of the children were starving and others were over-fed? What if some received food while others did not? What would you think of that householder -- then or now? That is the mega-model or mega-metaphor underneath the biblical tradition's understanding of its God. That is why the biblical God can demand of the powers-that-be, the rulers of this world, that they,

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. (Psalm 82:3)

You can see from those parallel verses that "justice" is "the right" of the dispossessed. Distributive justice is not gift, charity, or handout in a world that belongs to us but the simple right of all in a world that belongs to God.

From that same Psalm 82 comes this most searing claim in the entire biblical tradition. It is a warning we should write on our hearts and on our consciences, on our domestic programs and on our foreign policies. "All the foundations of the earth are shaken," says 82:5, by injustice in distribution of the world's resources. A distribution that denies to some a fair share of the world shakes the very foundations of the earth. "Lord," said Shakespeare's Puck, "what fools these mortals be."