The Bible and Public Policy

I am frequently asked what Jesus has to do with public policy. It is a difficult question to answer, because Jesus didn’t live in a participatory democracy in which he could clearly let us know his stand on the political controversies of the day. He lived in an occupied land where ultimate political power rested with the Roman empire and the proximate political power was the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) that ruled over Israel. Since the Sanhedrin was a religious body, this meant that Jesus, like all Jews before him, lived in a theocracy.

Needless to say, it is a little difficult to figure out how to apply the actions of an oppressed powerless Jew living two thousand years ago in a conquered theocracy to today’s politics. But there are a few things we can do to bridge that gap.

First, we need to remember that politics is simply the way in which we choose to order our cities. In a democracy we tend to think of partisan politics, but the actual word comes from the Greek polis, which simply meant “the city-state.” Politics is how we organize as a community, whether it is a democracy, theocracy, autocracy, or kingdom–it is still a political order.

Second, we need to remember that Jesus’ life and death did not happen in isolation. We have the entire rest of the Bible to give context to Jesus’s life and ministry. And since this is a broad and important question, I’m going to start at the very beginning.

In the beginning, God created the world out of love and God saw that the world was good and the world was God’s (Gen 1:31). Then came the fall. Human beings gave into temptation to be God-like and were banished from paradise (Gen 3). This dual nature of human beings as being both good and made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) as well as fallen is a basis for the a theological anthropology that holds that each human being is at once both saint and sinner.

The stories of the patriarchs confirm both the saint and the sinner in humanity and end with the Hebrews being enslaved in Egypt as a result of Joseph’s use of the famine to put all of the land under the control of Pharaoh (Gen 48:20-27).

By bringing the Hebrew people out of Egypt, God is revealed as a God who liberates God’s people from oppression and leads them out of slavery into the promised land (Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 7:8 and others). Once there, God gives them laws to live by and we get our first glimpse of what a society ordered by God looks like. There is no king, because God is their king (1 Samuel 12:12). The laws cover religion, politics, and economics. The economic laws in particular reveal a remarkable egalitarianism:

  • During the harvest, anything that falls to the ground is to be left for the poor to come and gather (Deuteronomy 24:19-22).
  • Every seven years debts are to be forgiven  (Deuteronomy 15:1).
  • Slaves are to be freed every seven years (Exodus 21:2-4, Deuteronomy 15:12).
  • Every fifty years land is to be restored to its original owners (Leviticus 25: 8-28).
  • There is to be no oppression of strangers living among them (Exodus  22:21, Exodus 23:9).
  • Do not oppress the widow or the orphan (Exodus 22: 22-24).
  • The terms of lending are not to include interest payments or take as collateral the borrowers means of production and shelter (Exodus 22:25-27, Deuteronomy 24:6).

Eventually the people grow restless and desire a king. God tries to talk them out of it (1 Samuel 8:10-18, 1 Samuel 12:11-25, Deuteronomy 17:14-20) but relents and anoints Saul to be their king (1 Samuel 15:1) and then regrets appointing Saul a mere ten verses later (1 Samuel 15:10-11). Skipping over a wonderful succession narrative, we then wind up with King David and the united Kingdom of Israel. King David reigned about 1,000 years before Jesus’ birth and from a political and economic perspective it was clearly the golden age of Israel.

However, it all fell apart under King Solomon due to excessive taxation and the fact that the kingdom was only tentatively united to begin with. Israel split into a Northern Kingdom (Israel) and a Southern Kingdom (Judah). In 722 BCE the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and ceased to exist.

It is during the 8th Century BCE that the tradition of prophetic criticism of unjust government begins to emerge (Nathan had criticized King David for personal immorality regarding Bethsheba, but this is the beginning of a more general critique of justice).

Amos and Hosea prophesy in the Northern Kingdom and Isaiah and Micah in the south. Isaiah 1:13-17 sums it up well, “…bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me….I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity…When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen; your hands are full of blood…cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

But Isaiah 1:13-17 is hardly alone. It is impossible to do justice to all the 8th century prophets had to say about justice, but here is a (by no means complete) collection of verses broken down by subject (1):

  • Concentrated wealth (Isaiah 5:7-8, Amos 6:4-8, Micah 6:10-16)
  • Oppression/Exploitation of the poor (Isaiah 3:13-15, Isaiah 32:1-8, Hosea 12:7-8, Amos 2:6-8, Amos 4:1, Amos 5:11-12, 15, Amos 8:4-6, Micah 2:1-9, Micah 3:1-8, Micah 7:3-4)
  • Peace (Isaiah 2:4, Hosea 10:13, Amos 3:10, Micah 4:3)
  • Liberation (Isaiah 14:3-5, Isaiah 31:8-9, Isaiah 35:5-7, Amos 9:7)
  • Justice (Isaiah 11:1-9, Isaiah 16: 3-5, Amos 5:23-24, Micah 6:8)

Around or slightly after the time at which this critical prophetic tradition was developing there was also a new line of theological thought that is given its fullest expression in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The wisdom sages realized that sometimes bad things happen to good people and started asking questions we still ask today. This realization that being either poor or wealthy is not a direct manifestation of God’s will put the plight of the poor in a new light.

In the 6th century BCE (600 years before Christ) the Southern Kingdom was defeated by Babylon and sent into exile. This lead to a new series of prophets that were concerned with the theological implications of their defeat and removal from their sacred land. (Jeremiah’s idea of God writing a covenant on the heart of each Israelite probably owes something to the exile from sacred land (Jeremiah 31:31-34)).  However, these prophets and those who oversaw the return from exile in the later half of the century were also concerned with just governance.

The most notable new development might be Jeremiah saying that to know the Lord is to do justice to the poor and needy (Jeremiah 22:16). Again, this is a rich period that deserves more attention than I can give it in this brief overview, but here are some notable verses again broken down by subject (2):

  • Oppression/Exploitation of the poor (Ezekiel 35:17-20, Isaiah 65:19-25)
  • Peace (Jeremiah 29:7)
  • Liberation (Isaiah 65:19-25, Isaiah 61:1-2, 8, Ezekiel 37:14, Isaiah 41:17)
  • Justice (Jeremiah 7:5-6, Jeremiah 22:13-16, Isaiah chapters 58 and 59)

After the Persians defeated the Babylonians the exile was ended, but Israel was now under Persian rule. When Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt after the Exile they followed not only the religious laws, but also the economic ones (Nehemiah 5). They failed to include the resident alien and forbid intermarriage, but were rebuked by the storytelling of books like Jonah and Ruth, stories that cast aliens as heroes and even as the ancestor of King David.

In the 4th Century BCE, Israel was conquered by the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great, but as the Macedonian Empire declined Israel managed to seize about a century of freedom (the revolt of Judas Maccabeus and the Hasmonean dynasty) before being conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BCE.

It is against all of this background that we can now begin to explore the political implications of Jesus’ ministry. The most common (though not the only) messianic notion of the time period was that the Messiah would be sent by God to restore the Davidic Kingdom, the golden age of Israel.

Jesus, however, was clearly a nonviolent messiah (Matthew 26:52, Matthew 5:38-42, Luke 9:54) who did not call forth God’s wrath on Rome in order to free Israel from oppression. Instead, Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is consistently engaged in debate with the Pharisees (religious leaders) of his day over questions of the law and the prophets and their meaning for the present day. To speak in broad terms, within these debates Jesus tended to argue that compassion is more important than ritual purity.

The summation of this thesis is found in Matthew 23:23 (cf. Luke 11:42) “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus sums up the law and prophets saying that they all hang on love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40, Luke 10:25-28).

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) shows that loving one’s neighbor is even more important than preserving one’s ritual purity (the priest and the levite passed by in part because contact with a dead body would make them unclean). Some of Jesus’ other relevant teachings include (3):

  • Telling a young man that to be perfect he must sell all he has, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus (Matthew 19:21, Mark 20-22, Luke 18:18-25).
  • Love your enemies (Matthew 5:38-48, Luke 6:27-36).
  • Forgive debts (Matthew 6:12, 18:21-35, Luke 16:1-13).
  • Bear good fruit (Matthew 3:8-10, 7:16-20, 12:33-35,  21:43, Luke 6:43-45).
  • Blessed are the poor, hungry, mourning, meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted (Matthew 5:1-12, Luke 6:21-26).
  • Treat others as you would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12).
  • Care for sinners and spend time among them (Matthew 9:10-13, Luke 7:40-50, 19:5-10).
  • The signs of God’s kingdom are that the lame walk, the hungry are fed, and the blind see (Matthew 11:4-6, Luke 4:18-19,  7:22-23).
  • The Sabbath is made for human beings; compassion and human need are more important (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-5, Luke 13:12-15, 14:3-6).
  • It is what comes out of your mouth, not what goes in, that matters (Matthew 15:16-20, Mark 7:14-23).
  • Supporting your elderly parents monetarily is more important than temple offerings (Matthew 15:3-9, Mark 7:6-12).
  • Forbidding divorce in a culture where divorce left women economically desolate (Matthew 5:31, Matthew 19:9, Luke 16:18).
  • Tax collectors and prostitutes are more righteous than religious leaders (Matthew 21:31).
  • I came as a servant, not a master (Mark 10:45).
  • The powerful are brought down and the hungry are fed (Luke 1:52-53).
  • Share your coats and food with those who have none (Luke 3:11).
  • Abundant possessions will not help you (Luke 12:13-21).
  • “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” (Luke 14:33).
  • Zacchaeus is praised for giving half of his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8-9).
  • Condemning the scribes because “they devour widows’ houses,” (Luke 20:47).

Jesus’ life also witnessed to compassion with numerous healings and several instances of feeding the multitudes. It is the driving out of the money changers from the temple that leads to Jesus’ arrest (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:17-18, Luke 19:45-48). Jesus has now threatened the monetary base of the religious and political authority and is handed over to the Romans to be put to death as a political prisoner.

The theology of Christ’s death is a source of dispute (which I weigh in on here) but all theories I am aware of stress that it is an act of compassion and a means of reconciling God’s people back to God (Colossians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 5:17-19).

Finally, we must consider the practices of the early Christian community as we attempt to form a coherent vision of the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus. The early followers of Christ experienced Pentecost and then lived together holding all of their possessions in common, selling whatever they had and distributing the proceeds to anyone who had need (Acts 2:43-47). None of them had any private property (Acts 4:32) and when Ananias tries to join but holds back property from the group he falls down and dies (Acts 5:1-6).

These early followers of Christ were not yet known as Christians, but were called “followers of the way” (Acts 9:2). Though in later years much of the emphasis of Christians would shift from following Jesus’ teachings by living in a certain way to a system more focused on beliefs about Jesus, in the early years Jesus’ followers sought to live in a certain way, the way that Jesus taught.

It is in exploring the way of life that Jesus taught that we finally find what that way of life has to do with our current public policy. The Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus is one that is:

  1. already present (Luke 7:22).
  2. collaborative (Luke 17:20-21).
  3. nonviolent (Matthew 26:52).

The Kingdom of God is already present inasmuch as individuals are willing to collaborate with it, to enter into it and to live it out. It is also nonviolent; it does not overthrow power with violence but instead seeks to subvert that power (Matthew 5:38-41). The way of Jesus is to enter into this Kingdom that is typified by the teachings of Jesus, and the prophets, and the law.

A kingdom is, of course, a form of political order. The Kingdom of God is one in which God is king, and clearly God is a very different kind of king than King David or any of the other kings of earth with whom we are familiar. Based on the overview given above there are a few characteristics that stand out to me:

  • An overwhelming concern with and compassion for the poor and vulnerable.
  • A rejection of physical wealth and power as status symbols or a way to be secure.
  • A desire for proper relationships with God and among human beings.
  • Peace that comes through justice, not violence.

The Kingdom of God is collaborative, which means that we can’t do it without God. But it also means that God is waiting for us to accept and enter into the Kingdom of God by living it out in our churches and communities. No political order should ever be identified with the Kingdom, because all human beings are both saints and sinners.

However, all political orders should be judged against the Kingdom as a standard, an “impossible but relevant ideal” for which Christians are called to strive. This, then, is what Jesus has to do with public policy. Jesus invites us to enter the Kingdom, and by striving towards the Kingdom we are irrevocably committed to striving towards an impossible ideal in our community life and our social and political order.

(1) In reading the prophets it is important to know that “the gate” was the cite of legal proceedings. When the prophets call for justice in the gate or condemn injustice at the gate they are taking about the judicial system. Also, there is naturally quite a bit of overlap among the categories.

(2) The book of Isaiah is generally accepted by scholars as the work of three different prophets within the school of thought of Isaiah, the 8th century prophet. The other two are unnamed and prophesied during the exile and immediately after the exile (early and late 6th century BCE).

(3) I have included teachings about Jesus that were said by Mary and John the Baptist

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5 thoughts on “The Bible and Public Policy

  1. Public policy in the Bible does revolve around the kingdom of Israel. And the law God gave Israel proved impossible to keep. When Jesus appears, his public policy was twofold: confront Jewish authorities (mainly the scribes and Pharisees who ruled over the synagogues in cities in Galilee), who taught and enforced the law of Moses, their “constitution,” full of civil laws as well as “religious” laws; and announce a new authority (himself), as the king of a new kingdom, with new laws that will be followed by faithful disciples through the power of Jesus’ Spirit.
    As you say, Jesus’ teaching did reinforce the parts of the law of Moses about justice, showing mercy on the poor. And as Acts shows, the risen king did give his disciples the Spirit, and they did follow Jesus’ new laws of love and compassion to the destitute (especially to the widows that joined their “kingdom”). Acts also shows them continuing Jesus’ confrontation with Jewish authorities, and also being persecuted for that.
    So rather than trying to reform Israel (an impossible ideal), Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom (from the very beginning of his ministry), and patiently taught his disciples the differences between his kingdom and the kingdoms of earth, including the kingdom of Israel. As his international kingdom of disciples, we can also publicly challenge the power, greed, and violence of our kingdoms of earth (and face their reactions); and we can teach and practice the servanthood, generosity, and gentleness of the kingdom of (and from) heaven. Perhaps even some churches might look more like Jesus’ kingdom than like the synagogues of Israel; but even many (most?) churches will be impossible to reform, just like Israel or its synagogues.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. While we clearly have large areas of agreement we seem to disagree about the nature of the Kingdom Jesus revealed. I don’t think it was a new Kingdom, if by ‘new’ you mean unrelated to the Kingdom God has been revealing to human beings from the beginning. Jesus and his disciples were all observant Jews who worshiped in the synagogue. They were reformers, but Jesus did not attempt to start a new religion, and most of what he argued was not outside the realm of what was being debated among the Pharisees of the day. It is important to realize that Jesus was taking a position within an ongoing Jewish debate over the nature of God and holiness. It is not Jesus v. the Jews, It is Jesus and those who agreed that mercy and justice are more important than ritual purity v. those who disagreed.

      I also agree that the law is impossible to keep and that neither Israel nor any other nation can be perfected. However, I don’t think that Jesus did not try to reform Israel, and I think that the law is an impossible but still relevant ideal (drawing mainly from Reinhold Niebuhr). In Matthew, when Jesus comes out of Egypt and delivers the new law from a mountaintop he is clearly engaging in covenant renewal (echoing Moses and Nehemiah/Ezra). The call to repent that goes out in all four Gospels is, by the very nature of repentance, an attempt to reform. Because the law is impossible to attain God’s people will always need to repent and reform, even though it is impossible to be fully reformed. The principles laid out throughout the Bible give us some good guidance on what those reforms might look like as we attempt to live out the Kingdom in our individual and communal lives.

  2. Thanks for your reflections here. Have you read Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations? You might find some of his connections between Israel and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God interesting for this discussion.

    1. Adam,

      I have not read The Desire of Nations. After reading a few reviews though I’ve added it to my reading list and look forward to getting a chance to read it. Thanks for the recommendation!


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