Tyson asked me to comment on a post on his blog wayfaring stranger (but not lost) entitled The Basis for Social Justice in the Bible. The following is based on my comments there. It also provides some background material for my criticism of the Westminster 2010 Declaration.
It seems to me that Tyson made an indisputable case that God’s people in the Old Testament were expected to practise social justice and care for the poor, and that that was enforced by the Law of Moses. There are clear provisions in that Law requiring all Israelites to make adequate provisions for the poor, for widows and orphans, and for destitute foreigners. And there are clear if sometimes implicit sanctions against those who do not do this.
Tyson also argues from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The position is perhaps even more clear in Amos and Micah, especially Amos 2:6-7, 5:11-12,24, 8:4-6 and Micah 6:8-16.
But there is a weakness in Tyson’s argument which is clear in his last sentence:
Christians today do not live in a theocracy like the Israelites did when given the law of Moses, but we can apply biblical principles to government in regard to social justice the same way we advocate on behalf of the unborn and to protect families.
Ancient Israel was a theocracy in which divine commands were enforced by the government. But we live, for the most part, in secular states. And it may well be wrong for Christians to expect secular states to enforce on the general population rules intended for the people of God – on social justice issues just as much as on moral ones. If it is not wrong, a careful theological case needs to be made for this – and Tyson omitted this step.
So perhaps the Old Testament is not the place to look for the principles we should apply. At least we should be looking to the books of Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and parts of Genesis and Exodus, where Israelite believers lived under pagan governments. Or we should be looking at the New Testament where the same applies. In Matthew 23:23 for example we find a clear endorsement of the principle of social justice – but at an individual and community level, not a governmental one.
There is of course a democratic argument that if the majority of the people, or their representatives, are in favour of (for example) social justice, an elected government has the right to impose this. However, we also accept that the government does not have the right to go against certain fundamental human rights even of a minority, and that might include the right to enjoy one’s property without excessive taxation etc. But that is not really a biblical way of arguing.
Joseph, Daniel and Nehemiah are perhaps the only biblical believers to hold high government office outside the theocratic state of Israel. So it is valid for us, living outside a theocracy, to look to them as examples on these issues.
Consider for example how Joseph dealt with the famine in Egypt, in Genesis 42 and 47. For seven years he taxed those who had an abundance by taking a share of their grain. And then when the famine came he sold this grain back to the people in exchange for their money, their livestock and their land – thus in effect nationalising these. He then (47:26) imposed a lasting 20% tax on agricultural produce. This sounds remarkably like state imposed socialism to me. And, although this is implicit, it seems to have had God’s blessing.
Now I’m not suggesting that anyone uses this as a biblical argument for something like communism. But it does show how state intervention to provide for the poor is highly biblical, even outside a theocratic state. Therefore it gives a justification and an encouragement for believers like us, Christians with significant influence in democratic societies, to seek to persuade secular states to impose on their countries, and on the world, social justice according to the biblical principles laid out in the Old and New Testaments. So let’s go ahead and do that.