Is the Bible a political playbook? Should religion be used to legitimate domination systems?
By Marcus Borg
Most of us don't think of the Bible as a political playbook. But running through the history of Israel, and then again through the story of Jesus and earliest Christianity, are two different political visions, both claiming divine authority.
Both stories, it turns out, have at their root a protest against unjust domination systems--and God's desire for justice for his people. This passion for justice is perhaps the single most important biblical theme. It is also the driving force for those who derive their political philosophy from the Bible.
The intertwining of religion and politics, after all, is not just about prayer in public schools, but about a larger relationship. Should religion be used to legitimate domination systems? Or does it leave domination systems uncriticized, by making religious life individual and private?
Or, maybe, God's passion for justice is the basis for standing against domination systems, and for the vision of the Kingdom of God.
This conflict goes back to Israel's origin. The story of the exodus from Egypt is her "primal" narrative in two senses of the word: her story of origins, and her most important story.
The Egypt of Moses' time was a classic example of a "domination system," the most common form of ancient society. In these societies, religion and politics were intertwined. They were oppressive, ruled by elites. Ordinary people had no voice. Economically, they were exploitative. The elites (1% to 2% of the population) managed to acquire half to two-thirds of their society's annual production of wealth, most of it produced by peasants. The consequences for peasant life were devastating.
Religion's role in the ancient domination system was legitimation. According to the theology of the elites, the king was God's representative on earth. He was often spoken of as "Son of God," "Lord," and even as divine. Thus, for royal theology, the social order reflected the will of God.
This is the world of Pharaoh and Egypt. The story of the exodus is the story of protest against and liberation from the domination system of Egypt. In the name of God, Moses confronted Pharaoh: "Let my people go." The exodus is an event of political, economic, and religious liberation. Its central affirmation: God is Lord, and Pharaoh is not. Religion, then, is the basis for criticizing domination systems.
Exodus is also the story of an alternative social vision grounded in God's compassion. For about two centuries after the exodus, Israel was, by ancient standards, a remarkably egalitarian society: universal land ownership, no monarchy, and no established ruling class. But soon we see the conflict between the lordship of Pharaoh and the lordship of God within Israel itself. Around the year 1000 B.C.E., a monarchy emerged in Israel. By the time of Solomon, Israel's third king, the domination system had been re-established.
The Israelite king was essentially a new Pharaoh presiding over a native domination system. Royal theology declared the king to be "God's son," whose throne God had established forever (see, for example, II Samuel 7:12-16). The great social prophets of ancient Israel--figures such as Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah--protested against this in the name of God's passion for justice. They were voices of religious and political protest.
The conflict surfaces again at the time of Jesus and early Christianity. Now the ancient domination system comes from Rome. Now it is Caesar whose power and control are legitimated by Roman theology. Caesar is Son of God, Lord, the Savior who has brought peace on earth.
Jesus proclaimed instead the Kingdom of God--what the world would be like if God were king, and the Herods and Caesars of this world were not. Early Christianity continued the proclamation by affirming "Jesus is Lord"--Caesar is not. Even the Christmas stories make this affirmation: Jesus is the Lord and Savior who brings peace on earth, not Caesar.
The root of this conflict between religion as legitimator of domination systems and religion as protest against domination systems is God's justice. Because the word justice has several meanings in American society, it is important to be precise. For some people, the word suggests the criminal justice system. The "Justice Department" is charged with law enforcement. But Moses, the prophets, and Jesus were not talking about criminal justice.
A second common meaning of justice is "procedural justice"--the concern that rules are fairly enforced and that they are the same for everybody. Procedural justice is important in the criminal justice system and in human rights--but it is still not the passion of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus.
Their passion--and God's passion--was for "systemic justice": a justice judged not primarily by fair procedures (though they are important), but by results.
Its opposite is systemic injustice. A results-oriented justice asks about the effects of a system. Does it produce an impoverished class? Whose interests does it serve? Are the structures of society funnels of affluence for the few, or channels of nourishment for the many?
You may ask: Why is the God of the Bible passionate about systemic justice? The answer is disarmingly simple. The God of the Bible cares about people--and the single greatest cause of human misery throughout history is systemic injustice.