Tag Archives: equality

The Bible’s Vision of Justice: Enough Food For Everybody

No, this is the fast I desire: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

We are at a major disadvantage when we read the Bible for a number of obvious reasons: time, culture, language, geography, etc. One specific and major but hard-to-see reason we often don’t “get” the Bible is that we (most of us in the western first world) have virtually unlimited access to food and goods, goods that have been processed and prepared by invisible industries and sold to us in small packages in convenient public transactions. We have bought into a system that promises the automatic meeting of our needs so we can concentrate on more important things. So it seems absurd for me to suggest that the Bible’s consistent central theme has to do with something as mundane as the distribution of food.

To us it sounds downright silly. In our world, it seems like there are far more critical things to worry about than where food comes from and where it goes. So few of us actually work to produce our own food, and we regard the hunger and need of others as an unfortunate glitch in an otherwise fair and benevolent system. And so we cannot fully appreciate the fact that JUSTICE in the world of the Bible (and in much of our contemporary world) is primarily and fundamentally about equitable access to food.

Don’t believe me? Consider this quick survey of the biblical library:

  • In the foundational story in Genesis, Adam and Eve are charged with caring for creation and holding “dominion” over it. From the beginning, food is the currency of justice. God expects the earth’s resources to be distributed fairly, even generously. In our relative affluence and comfort we have too easily read this as the origin story of our privilege, but the moral of the story is that food justice is the human’s first responsibility. (Gen 2)
  • In the story of Joseph, the innovation that saves Egypt, the Hebrews, and Joseph’s own life is an advancement in the storage and distribution of food. (Gen 41)
  • In the Exodus story, the miracle of manna is about the people having enough food for today, with no scarcity and no hoarding. Everyone gets what they need as a sign of God’s provision and justice among them. (Exo 16)
  • The Torah’s agricultural laws and the institutions of Sabbath and Jubilee are explicitly designed to foster and maintain food justice, to keep the powerful few from controlling the people’s resources, so everyone – even the poor and the alien – has what they need to live. (Exo 20, Lev 23, Lev 25)
  • When Israel’s prophets rail against the people for the sin of “forsaking God,” this sin is most often manifested as the failure to enact God’s distributive justice. Hospitality and food are the measurement of righteousness. (See especially Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah 55:1, Isaiah 58:6-7)
  • In the New Testament, Jesus resists a dare to turn stones into bread, denying his own privilege and choosing to trust God in solidarity with those in need. (Matt 4)
  • Jesus multiplies bread and fish for a crowd, blatantly enacting distributive justice. (Matt 14, John 6)
  • Jesus oversees a miraculous catch of fish, demonstrating God’s generosity with natural resources. (Luke 5, John 21)
  • Jesus teaches us to pray for our “daily bread,” a prayer for food justice today and forever. (Matt 6, Luke 11)
  • Jesus tells a parable about judgment and the rubric for justice is not something abstract like religious belief or allegiance, it is whether or not the hungry got fed. (Matt 25)
  • Jesus spends his last evening with his followers sharing a Passover meal, breaking bread and pouring wine. Jesus identifies his own body with the food humans share to stay alive. (Matt 26, Luke 22)
  • The risen Jesus shares food with his followers (Luke 24) and multiplies their food resources (John 21). 
  • Paul scolds Corinthian Christians for failing to understand the Eucharist’s inherent theme of food justice, as wealthy churchgoers turn the communal feast into a party and leave nothing for the working class latecomers. (1 Cor 11)
  • Revelation, one of the New Testament’s (many) visions of eschatological justice, envisions an earthly city that is a heavenly blessing to the rest of the world. Healing and life flow from it like leaves from the “tree of life.” At long last, the dream of global justice is realized. (Rev 21-22)

This is a very truncated and incomplete list. Every biblical story, every appeal to justice, every metaphor for God’s kingdom has something to do with agriculture and/or the distribution of resources. When food isn’t on our list of urgent daily concerns, we miss and forget how the Bible equates God’s will with food equity. In our prosperity and complacency, we have favored legal and punitive visions of justice over the Bible’s practical and agrarian ones. For the humans who wrote the Bible, God’s will and God’s justice are fundamentally concerned with egalitarian access to creation’s bounty, and God’s reputation hangs on the way humans live and eat and share.

Ho boy, has Josh lost it? Is he just a crazy liberal trying to tell us the Bible is really all about privilege and socialism? Not exactly. What I’m trying to do is invite all of us to a more fundamentally pure and authentic “square one” for reading the Bible, because I do believe that our wealth and insulation have blinded us to its real context and message. We gloss over agricultural language as if these were merely metaphors for loftier spiritual concerns, and we miss the gravity and urgency of hunger and want that is still a present reality for many of our neighbors at home and around the world. We agonize over doctrine, belief, and authority, arguing about God’s will in the abstract as our brothers and sisters starve to death. The bottom line is that same system which promises us plenty keeps others hungry. This is the single greatest injustice of our world, and every one of us could do something about it today. 


Jesus and “Family Values”

American Jesus is all about marriage and family values. For generations Christian leaders have linked the mission and legacy of Jesus with the health and centrality of the married couple and the nuclear family. If you grew up in an American church, especially in a conservative or fundamentalist tradition, you most likely learned a lot about “biblical” dating, marriage, sex, manhood, womanhood, parenting, etc. The impression is that Christian faith, while rooted in the person and way of Jesus, is most chiefly concerned with and most legitimately expressed in the life and home of a family. In this version of the religion, single adults are often viewed as deficient or suspicious, and cultural changes related to sex and marriage are viewed as threats against “traditional” marriage and values, dangers to the integrity of the gospel, and affronts to God.

There are, however, two realities which complicate these abiding assumptions. First, there is the fact that when the Bible does speak of marriage and family, it does so with a set of ancient cultural presuppositions which often do not match our own. Levirate marriage, polygamy, and primogeniture (favoring the firstborn) are commonplace in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, and largely unknown in the modern first world. This does not necessarily preclude those texts from being read and interpreted fruitfully, but it does mean that they cannot and should not be read as instruction manuals for our own family lives. At the very least it ought to keep us mindful of the inevitable fact of cultural and societal change across the generations and the globe.

More pertinent to this discussion, however, is the complicated and even dismissive attitude of Jesus toward family and marriage according to the gospel accounts. In fact, an honest assessment of what Jesus apparently believed and taught about “family values” can be downright unsettling. The subject doesn’t come up as often as you’d expect, but when it does the words of Jesus are almost always shocking. Consider:

  • A curious episode in Mark 3 where Jesus’ own family, including his mother, accuse him of being “out of his mind” and try to drag him back home. Jesus ignores them and asks his followers, “Who is my mother?” He answers that “anybody who does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (The later gospels revise or omit this bit, and scholars of all stripes have wrestled with Mark’s depiction of Mary in this scene. Remember that Mark does not provide a birth narrative for Jesus!)
  • In Matthew 8 a new follower asks for Jesus’ permission to “first go and bury my father.” Jesus commands him, “Follow me! Let the dead bury their own dead.” Disciples of Jesus are expected to abandon their families and responsibilities.
  • Later in Matthew 10 Jesus describes how his gospel announcement will result in fathers betraying children, and children rebelling against their parents. He famously adds that he “didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword! I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother.” And further, “If you love your father or mother more than me, you don’t deserve me.” This is rhetoric, to be sure, and it actually affirms the importance of familial bonds by challenging them. But challenge them it does.
  • Jesus’ argument with Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19 is typically used by today’s Christians to demonstrate Jesus’ affirmation of “traditional marriage” (especially verses 4-6). In the context of the passage, Jesus’ point is that divorce should be seen as a concession for cases of adultery rather than a loophole for men who tire of their wives. But it is Jesus’ private conversation with his followers after the argument that is seldom discussed. Disappointed in his teaching about divorce, the disciples ask “given this, wouldn’t it be better for a man not to marry?” Jesus apparently agrees, and his cryptic response in verses 11-12 seems to indicate that marriage itself is a concession and a compromise of the kingdom ideal of celibacy.
  • Along similar lines, Jesus engages with another Jewish sect in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 on the topic of resurrection. The Sadducees were the conservative elites of Jerusalem, who rejected the relatively new notion that God’s people would be resurrected at the coming of the kingdom. They mock Jesus regarding the logistics of marriage among the resurrected population of New Jerusalem. If, they ask, a woman marries several brothers after each one dies, to whom is she married after the resurrection? Jesus responds with the bombshell that there will be no marrying in this kingdom, and that current marriages will apparently be dissolved. This detail is not featured in many sermons about heaven.

Kingdom Values Are For Humans, Not Just Families

The takeaway is not that Jesus hated families or disapproved of the institution of marriage. However, given what we read in the gospels, it is virtually impossible to argue that family and marriage were the foundation or even tenets of the movement which Jesus started. Quite the contrary, since at every turn Jesus challenged the common obligations of family and matrimony as distractions from the real mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. To be sure, Jesus preached fidelity and compassion in all human relationships, but he did not prescribe a particular lifestyle or family configuration (though he was apparently keen on celibacy).

In conclusion, I want to say two things: 1) Despite the radical apocalyptic origins of the religion, marriage and family came to be inextricably woven into the fabric of Christianity. This is a strange tension, and it’s something we could actually stand to wrestle with a bit more than we typically have. But I do not think we ought to feel conflicted or guilty about loving and cherishing our families, whatever they look like, as good gifts from God. This seems self-evident. 2) At the same time, Christianity has a built-in defense against those who would beat the drum of “family values” and “traditional marriage” as if these were the things most precious to Jesus, most essential to his message, and most likely to anger God if we get them wrong. The sorts, names, shapes, and sizes of families and communities change with the centuries. Fidelity, selfless love, and empathy are always the same, and these are the heart of the gospel.


Your Feelings and Experiences Matter, Young Christian

I recently witnessed a Twitter argument about sexism and inequality in the church, and saw a proud Calvinist fellow inform a young woman that she needed to “repent” of the “sin” of “putting personal experiences above scripture,” because she believed strongly that women shouldn’t be denied opportunities for service and leadership in the church. He was rude and condescending, yet I know many Christians who would agree with his sentiment (if not his attitude). The idea is this: all of our big questions about religion and life have already been addressed and answered to complete satisfaction by the Bible, which has been correctly translated, interpreted, and distilled, leaving us with pure and all-sufficient truth. God has already spoken, and there’s nothing you can feel or experience or discover that will trump what has already been revealed. This principle, an offshoot of the inerrancy doctrine, takes the form of cautionary admonition drilled into the heads and hearts of young people. Your feelings, instincts, and experiences will deceive you and lead you astray, so you should actively suppress them and look instead to established dogma. The result is often frustration and emotional distress. Why do I feel something so strongly, or why did I have such a powerful experience, if it conflicts with what I’ve already been taught is the truth?

To be fair, some Christian traditions have given credence to the role of experience in the formation and life of the church. There is, for example, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” which sees the Christian faith as founded on four elements: scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. But systems like this and other similar ones always privilege scripture over any other factor; the Bible may trump and mitigate our experiences, but never the other way around. These traditions rarely acknowledge the diversity of voices in scripture, and so their engagement with the Bible is not conversant. It is a one way street. Thus the role of personal experience is severely limited and the same cognitive dissonance I described above sets in.

Today, the biggest application of this principle is in questions of tolerance and inclusion. Young Christians see certain social barriers breaking down, and certain groups of people who were once marginalized becoming increasingly affirmed and accepted. This makes sense to them and seems like a positive development, until their religious elders remind them of their church’s longstanding (usually scripture-based) objections. This mindset is pervasive today in conservative Christian circles, especially in social and popular media, and like so many religious responses it is designed to keep young members “safe” and on the orthodox path. As a result, a generation of young Christians associate their faith with an overly cautious, closed-hearted, exclusivist posture.

There is perhaps a modicum of good sense in the impulse to keep personal instinct and experience in check. Life is chaos when everyone makes moral judgments in the self-interested isolation of their own mind and heart. Traditions and rules give communities their shape and access to the wisdom and experience of past generations. But there’s the rub. How did that old generation get so wise? Through experience! Is the current generation, indebted as it may be to the past, to be denied its own formative experience? Are we so sure that the interpretations and methods of the past are beyond critique? Are we so certain that the values we are defending are timeless truths and not merely the preferences and biases of our forerunners? Every generation deserves the opportunity to ask these questions afresh for themselves.

When someone points to a bit of scripture and says, “remember what the Bible says!” as an argument for suppressing our instincts against bigotry or exclusion, we must remember: the text in question has both an apparent surface meaning and a broader canonical context, and the person appealing to the text has their own personal context and agenda. The chance of all of these factors aligning perfectly is slim. There is always room for dialogue and debate, and no one can tell you definitively that your feelings are invalid. Exclusion feels wrong because it is wrong, and morality without compassion feels dangerous because it is.

For Christians, this should be even clearer. Jesus himself taught a method for testing religious claims and interpretations. It’s not whether or not they come from the Bible or whether everyone else around us already subscribes to them, but whether or not they produce good fruit (Matthew 7:15-20; Luke 6:43-45). Do we fully grasp what he’s saying? Jesus invites us to rely on our experiences and instincts to determine whether or not something is good and right. Jesus asks us to trust in him, not blindly or according to dogma, but with moral sensitivity and according to our instincts. If something is good and true and beneficial, it will withstand scrutiny. If something is toxic or divisive or harmful, our hearts will tell us so.

So how do we keep from developing bad instincts or being deceived by our experiences? By being honest with ourselves and others, by seeking dialogue and community with others, through fresh interactions with the old traditions, and by making room for feelings and experiences that don’t necessarily reinforce or validate our own (a.k.a. empathy). For Christians in particular, it means keeping an eye on Jesus and trusting him that we can find a way together. You’ll know when it’s right, because you’ll feel it for yourself. 


Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

This post is adapted from a sermon I gave at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church in Pearl River, NY on Sunday July 20, 2014. It’s part of a series on the Ten Commandments or the “Ten Words” (as they’re actually referred to in the text), a conscious attempt to rediscover them as words of life and freedom rather than statutes or requirements.

I’m just going to say it: Sabbath is weird for Christians. I mean, everybody likes a day off, but Sabbath raises all kinds of questions. Are Christians required to observe a Sabbath? How precisely should we do it? Does it matter which day it is? What constitutes “rest”? What constitutes “work”? How do I know when I’ve Sabbathed enough? And while we’re at it, does God actually get tuckered out and need a break? Is that a thing? And how does “take a nap” make it into the Top Ten commandments right along with “don’t murder” and “honor your father and mother”?

Thinking about Sabbath makes me tired.

Why is Sabbath so tricky for us? I think the problem is, as with so much biblical material, that we’re so far away from the mind and heart of the world that produced these ancient texts and we’re just filling in the blanks with our assumptions. We inherited this thing called “Sabbath,” but we don’t really know how it works. It’s a fun day off, but it’s also a commandment. Relaxation and ritual are two flavors that taste weird together, so we’ve embraced the one and ignored the other. We’re left with a “holy day” that means almost nothing to us. And we never talk about it.

Jesus To The Rescue!

In First Century Judaea, according to the gospel authors, they had quite a different problem. Everyone talked about Sabbath. A lot. There was no shortage of opinions as to the meaning and mandate of Sabbath. By Jesus’ day, endless rules and clarifications and customs and traditions had been piled on top of the original Sabbath commandment, and debate raged concerning every possible detail and loophole. For his part as a teacher himself, Jesus’ contribution was not to layer on more opinions and restrictions and customs, but in fact to defy and reject them. Jesus didn’t reject Sabbath as an idea or institution, but he quite cavalierly stepped on the toes of the self-appointed watchdogs of proper Sabbathkeeping. He broke the many rules of Sabbath, and did so frequently and publicly.

When confronted with his transgression, Jesus gave his famous reply, “Sabbath was made for people, not people for Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Sabbath, says Jesus, is supposed to be a gift and blessing for humans, not a master to rule over them. Jesus gives us permission to go back to the drawing board and rediscover Sabbath as a “word of life” rather than a religious prison.

Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

So we have some homework to do. Here’s the original Sabbath “word” from Exodus Chapter 20:

8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it special.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.
11 For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and made it special.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

I believe that, taken in proper context, this ancient “commandment” constitutes an invitation to us (after Israel) to become synchronized with God’s own time, a divine sort of rhythm, in which we discover a treasure trove of good gifts. I want to highlight three of them: IDENTITY, JUSTICE, and EQUALITY. Not words we typically associate with Sabbath, but hear me out:

1. The Gift of IDENTITY

Exodus is a story of salvation and identity. God plucks his people Israel out of the cauldron of oppression and slavery, and then restores her dignity by giving her a name and a new identity. We like the first part of the story, the rescue, because it’s easy to follow and makes a great movie. But then we get into all of those laws and feasts and commandments, and we lose the plot. Boring! Except, that’s the real heart of the whole story. That’s the life-giving stuff that turns wandering ex-slaves into a people and a nation. To the Israelites, Torah is not a prison of religious obligation, it’s the boundary that reveals the shape of a new kind of life.

And Sabbath is a primary feature and expression of that new life. The six-day work cycle and Sabbath observance are a way of integrating the Hebrews’ unique understanding of creation into their daily existence, and a way of setting them apart from their neighbors (and their oppressors – ancient Egypt observed an uninterrupted ten-day work cycle). Sabbath is a tangible, livable marker of their new identity as the people of the Creator, a countercultural statement of who they are.

2. The Gift of JUSTICE

This is an aspect of Sabbath that has rarely been explored by Christians, but one that is both transformative and crucial. In the creation poem, the song of Genesis 1, God pauses (“rests”) when the work of creation is complete, and sees that the work is “good.” Sabbath, then, is an occasion to look at our work and world and determine whether or not what we see is good. If it’s not good, it would stand to reason that it should be made good. Sabbath provides this opportunity on a regular basis, and without it we might forget to stop and self-assess.

This principle is greatly amplified in another Torah institution called Jubilee (see Leviticus 25). Jubilee is a sort of Sabbath year, a “rest” year after years of business as usual. It’s not a whole year of sleep (though that would be amazing), but a year when wrong things are to be set right: debts forgiven, slaves set free, and property restored. Human schemes are interrupted, and society re-synchronizes itself with God’s time, and justice is accomplished.

Biblical historians doubt whether a true Jubilee was ever actually observed in ancient Israel, but the concept is incendiary and it illuminates Sabbath in a profound way. If Jubilee is the opportunity for justice at the national or societal level, then Sabbath provides the same opportunity in the neighborhood, the household, the relationship. It represents the hope that our plans and schemes might be interrupted, and things put right.

3. The Gift of EQUALITY

For the third gift we turn our attention to the list of those affected by the Sabbath ordinance:

10 …You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the alien who is within your settlements.

This is one of those bits which locate the Ten Commandments firmly in their historical setting. Not only does it describe the lifestyle of nomads who are becoming settled farmers, it reflects something of their (rather regressive) notions of social hierarchy. (Slavery is assumed, and note how livestock ranks higher than foreigners!). Once we get over the culture shock, however, we notice the extraordinary defining feature of this list: its egalitarian nature.

This gift of Sabbath, this gift of God’s own IDENTITY and God’s own JUSTICE, is not only for male heads of households. It’s not only for members of households. It’s not even only for those who call themselves the “people of God.” It’s not even only for humans! The gift of Sabbath is for absolutely everyone. The safety and opportunity of God’s own day of rest and restoration is not the exclusive property of any special group.


So Sabbath need not be a ritual or a burden. In fact it really is a gift, the gift of God’s own rhythm, a divine sense of time, a rest that is meant to bring freedom and justice and equality to every single corner of creation. Oh, and one more thing: Just as the “days” of creation are symbolic of the order and goodness of God’s work and need not be understood as literal 24-hour periods of time, so it is with Sabbath. Sabbath isn’t a magic day, it’s a state of mind. It’s a moment of self-awareness, of repentance, of empathy. It’s an invitation to live in harmony with the good creation of the good God.