Trace’s View of Society (In Part): People are not individuals per se. People are members, albeit, individual members of communities. When we Christians forget we do not live for ourselves nor by ourselves then we can get into the place where we pit our well-being over-against the well-being of other members of the communities of which we are a part. And things start to break down.
Society is made of many parts and we are all members, more or less actively, of all those social parts, what the Christian philosophers of society of a previous generation called “societal spheres,” invisible realities like, family, marriage, friendship, government, school, business, church, art, media, etc. These are real “things” which God created for the sake of human welfare. Life is not possible without them and because they are often broken, life is sometimes barely tenable even within these God-given structures.
Without these parts of life hanging together in harmony, chaos ensues. Happiness is shattered and fear becomes the order of the day. For several millennia, as far back as we can investigate, human beings, whole societies, faced with chaos and fear, have traded their freedom for one form of servitude or another, have handed off their God-given right to decide how to live together to high kings, to despots, to emperors who have sucked them dry but allowed them to survive, barely.
Some Biblical Theology: Yet, when God rescued Israel, the ones he had promised to call his people, from just such bondage, it was not to put them under a new super-power who would oppress them again. God gave Israel back something they had always had as his creatures, something which has been the birthright of every being from gnats to sardines to swallows to herds of deer: the responsibility to decide on a course for the whole group together. In Israel this meant the people gained the responsibility before God for choosing their own leaders, leaders who would be accountable to them, leaders who, if necessary, could be recalled because leaders should never have nor pretend to exercise absolute power in any area of life, not in government, family, business or church, etc. God created Israel as a people who should decide together how things should go in accordance with the way of life outlined in Torah.
And although, late in the time of Samuel, God put up with a regressive return to the oppression of monarchy, to borrow a phrase from Jesus, “that was because of the hardness of your hearts… From the beginning, it was not so.” It was the intention of God that his people work together to develop a just, generous and fruitful life for everyone, an attractive life which would draw all the nations to inquire of Israel. A part of that development was government, government for the sake of distributive and juridical justice.
A Biblical View of Government: So government is not the problem. The way government is structured in our time may be a part of the problem but government itself is something which God created for the sake of justice and peace, just as God created rocks and cabbages and centipedes and friendship, marriage and business, etc. Government is a good thing, even when it goes wrong.
On Empire: What is a problem is empire and the yearning for empire. Empire is the powerful, grand but utterly corrupt mis-design of human order (cosmos) which turns free peoples into one sort of chattel or another. The biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann once observed, “Israel always lived in the shadow of an empire.” Yes. Israel always had to wrestle with whether they would go along to get along with empire or whether they would keep covenant with the living God. Make no mistake, to go along with empire is always evil. Under empire about 5% of the people make all the decisions and acquire all the wealth, about 15% of the populace serve the elite, but tremblingly and 80% of folk get on as best they can with next to nothing, as servants, wage slaves and as outright slaves of the empire. This was and is an evil social-economic arrangement. It is not what God wants for his people. To keep covenant with God is to resist empire and all its ways.
Empires did not cease to exist when Rome fell. When the institutional church itself became the empire in the late middle ages, it meant that a very few clerics: priests, bishops and one Papa (Pope) got to call all the shots they thought worth calling and everyone else did what they said or else.
And in recent centuries, when government has called all the shots, it has not made any difference whether it is an authoritarian, collectivist government (socialist) or an authoritarian, capitalist government (fascist), what you have is an ugly caricature of the way God means for people to live together in society. Regardless of the label or the arrangement, it is wrong when a few people tell everyone else what they can do and what they cannot do, or else.
Yet this is the world we know. It is the way the world has been, over and over throughout the ages. Once in a while for a brief period of time, in some part of the world for several of various reasons, a society has emerged with a large enough middle class to break away, at least partially, from this oppressive system and again gain for themselves that precious responsibility for the determination of the direction of their society. For example, it happened in Europe after the Black Death left a labor shortage and allowed the towns of Europe greater autonomy from the Lords who held their charters. It happened in the late colonial period in the American British colonies and it happened again in the middle decades of the 20th Century in both the U.S. and in Europe.
On Democracy and the Middle Class: An observation: without a sizable middle class, republican democracy does not flourish. The wealthy do not want democracy and the poor cannot afford the time it requires. Self-determination requires a hefty middle class with just enough leisure time to engage in the building and maintenance of effective government.
On When the Middle Class Acts Against Accumulation of Wealth: In our society, some time back, our middle class decided together that since capitalism, great money-making economic system that it is, always, when left to its own devises, results in that 5%, 15% and 80% oppressive formula, we would do just as God had done in Israel and put some collectivist trip-wires and feedback loops, some checks and balances into the system so that we could sustain our middle class and continue to have a democracy. One of those important balancing mechanisms which “we the people” put into place is taxation of those with excess wealth.
On Taxes and Oppression: Taxing the rich is not oppression. It is how our society has maintained some semblance of republican democracy and kept the rich from having everything decades ago. (Has anyone looked at the statistics on how much of U.S. assets were controlled by the top 1% and the top 5% twenty-five years ago? Have you seen what those numbers are today?) If the government does not begin pretty soon to again redistribute the wealth we will lose so much of our middle class as to cease to be capable of maintaining a democracy. In no way, however, is taxing the rich oppression in any biblical sense. A modern form of Jubilee, perhaps; of the second harvest law? Most certainly. (Jubilee law is Leviticus 25:8-55; Second Harvest is Leviticus 19:9-10.)
On Oppression in the Bible: The Bible does use the word oppression. There are four or five Hebrew words which are used in different contexts. Several of them are associated with what happens when a rich person lends money to someone in need. To be a society where some people control others because of their disparity in income; that is oppressive. Israel is warned not to be a people where the rich can purchase the poor for the price of a good pair of sandals. That is an oppressive and evil situation. When the disparity between rich and poor gets to that level then the Lord God begins talking about removing his people from the land of promise because they have ceased to do justice, love mercy or serve as any kind of example of anything good to the other nations. When the super-wealthy 1% control over 50% of all the society’s assets and the top 5% control over 80% of the assets, that is the time when God asks the prophet, ‘why did I bother to remove the Amorites to make room for Israel? Israel is doing exactly what the Amorites did before them!’ (You will find this conversation in the book of Amos.)
On Socialism: Dick H. is quite correct; Scot and I do not use the term in the same way. However, I have never heard any social theorist who confused Nazism with socialism. The use of the word “socialist” in the term “National Socialist” was a clever marketing ploy because socialism was very popular at the time in Germany but no one has ever confused the fascism of the Nazis for socialism. In fact, neither of Scot’s dictionary definitions of socialism fits the National Socialists (Nazis) in any way. Look up the name I. W. Farben to get a peek into the history of the wealthy industrialists of Nazi Germany. They were not socialists.
And as to those definitions which Scot quotes; the first seems closer to what I always understood to be the definition of communism:
“A system of society or group living in which there is no private property.”
The second definition is more accurate:
“A system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”
That pretty well describes state socialism; in my opinion, a failed system in all but very small settings as I have posted in the past. I am amazed that Scot continues to insist that I personally endorse this failed system. I could not have been clearer: I do not. However, there is a world of difference between state socialism and a nation which uses various collectivist tools to ensure that everyone in society is able to come along together.
On Socialist Police Forces: Scot wants to say that when a city or state collects taxes to pay the police that is not socialist. Of course it is. When the state pays people (police officers) from collected taxes that is a collectivist or socialist or public mechanism, by definition. When doctors are employees of the state that is socialist medicine; when the police or the courts are paid on a fee basis, that is a capitalist mechanism, something our society decided against together many, many decades ago because it usually proves to be unworkable and unjust. (Read stories from the International Justice Mission to find out how well it works when such basic services are delivered in a fee-based system.) Some services must be free from the profit-motive if justice is to be served.
On Old Covenant Justice As New Covenant Intolerance: Scot wants to know if I think the state should enforce laws against non-Christian religions. Scot knows better than that. He knows the difference between the newer covenant which we have in King Jesus and the older covenant which was based on Torah-law and a national/ethnic identity. Scot wants me to use Scripture to explain “why the SIG blog endorses government force for part of the OT laws and not others.” I apologize to Scot that I failed so badly to teach the difference between the newer covenant and the older one. Or did he miss those discussions?
It Is Not Our Law but It Is Our Torah: I do not endorse any use or enforcement of any OT law by anyone for any such thing. It is my burden to bring to the fore the principles behind Torah, principles which point to the way creation is and which tell volumes about the character, the heart, the priorities of the living God. Torah is the first and primary revelation of the character of both God and creation. In the older covenant God showed Israel what justice/righteousness looked like for that moment in time. Among those things which always comprise justice/righteousness by whatever means, is a social-economic system which is fruitful without being unbalanced economically. Disparity between the rich and the poor is not something which the Lord God will abide for very long in any society, certainly not in ours where we have claimed for so long to be Christian.
On Saying It All Again: What I have pointed out patiently and repeatedly in these posts is a slice of the history of the United States, one of its better slices, in which the people of the U.S. for the sake of their common welfare, turned away very early from systems which imposed direct fees and costs in matters where life, liberty or essential private property were concerned. We have public libraries – taxes pay for the books, the building and the salaries of the librarians – and not just book stores; we have public courts, fire departments, police departments, schools, water treatment facilities and systems, building inspection, etc. These are all matters which could be private or could even be organized by guilds or associations – and they are sometimes. We as a society decided to use socialist, i.e., collectivist, i.e., public methods of delivering these services because we had seen what happens when the profit motive, so appropriate in other settings, gets in the way of the just/fair/right delivery of these basic services.
On Medicine, Not Fear: And now, at last, we are getting close as a nation to realizing what many other nations (ironically, nations from which most of our ancestors fled, to the land of opportunity!) realized long ago: access to affordable medical care is like access to the courts and the services of the police and fire departments: it is a necessary thing in the development of a just and fair society.
Access to affordable medical care is not the top of a slippery slide into jack-boot state socialism. It is not even related. To suggest it is is to so misunderstand the history and development of things that it is hard to grasp, to even understand the worldview behind such an assertion.
Or else it is fear-mongering by people who know better. It is to spread fear where there is nothing to fear, lest people see the true source of modern oppression: an overwhelming corporatocracy, a vast non-conspiracy of unquestioning devotion to profit, of competition toward the amassing of wealth on the part of a very small number of wildly powerful and super-wealthy individuals who have come to believe that only profit matters. Their profit. Theirs! Theirs!
On Trace’s View of Society, Revisited: Individuals. People who do not realize they are members of communities of several kinds and that the bridge which falls into the river (because they have elected legislators who have cut taxes, over and over) may be the bridge over which they are driving at that very moment or their daughter, their sister or their husband. Communities…
I heard recently about a German industrialist who was interviewed on Fox TV about life in “socialist” Germany. The man admitted he paid 50% of his income in taxes. The Fox interviewer, close to apoplectic, asked him, “Doesn’t it bother you that so much of your money is taken away from you in taxes!?”
The enlightened CEO responded, “No, not at all, because I do not want to be a rich man in a poor country.”
Thom Hartmann frequently asks the question “Is this a ‘we’ society or a ‘me’ society? Lord, give us some enlightened industrialists in this country! Let this nation become a place which practices justice in all its dealings, for your name’s sake!