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It has often been the case in society's conflicts that one's position was supported with verses from the Bible which were taken out of context. Owing to the work of liberation theology and socio-historical interpretation of the Bible it is now beyond dispute that biblical texts all stand in a certain social, economic, political and ideological context and must be understood as such.
If one were to read the biblical traditions of the centuries from circa 1250 bce to 120 ce, one would recognise a clear thread. The people of Israel, and later the communities of the Jewish Messiah Jesus, felt liberated by God and called to live and advocate an alternative among the nations. The context is that of the nations of the ancient Near East and the Hellenistic Roman Empire. The Bible describes those societies of city kingdoms and large empires as being societies that, economically owned slaves, politically were keen on conquest and forced other nations to pay them tribute, and culturally were societies in which violence was commonplace.
In contrast, the biblical message is that of a God who listens to the cries of the oppressed slaves, sees their misery and liberates them from the oppression of the Egyptians (Exodus 3ff). The freed slaves become settlers in a mutually supportive village society in the mountains of Palestine. They understand their mission as being "to work the land and take care of it" (Genesis 2,15).
When families who had grown rich introduced a monarchy, in spite of the resistance of the small farmers (see Judges 9 and I Samuel 8), the basic alternative philosophy wins the upper hand again through the prophets, who criticised those in power (see in particular 1 Kings 21 ff on Elijah and the books of the prophets Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah). Their great themes are justice and peace (shalom), in the relationships between people, nations, and also between humans and other creatures (see Hosea 2, 20-24), as an expression of the relationship of the people with the God of justice, of peace and of love for all creatures (see Psalms 8 and 104).
Following the fall of the kingdoms (722 bce in the North/586 bce in Judah) there were great new efforts to give laws to Israel which were able to restore justice (e.g. the annual day of Reconciliation, the Sabbath year of rest for the land, the Jubilee year with the freeing of the slaves, the cancellation of debts and the equal re-distribution of the means of production, (see Leviticus 16 and 25)).
When finally the Hellenistic empires and the Roman empire turned totalitarian (see Daniel 2, 3, 7), the Israelites resisted, hoping for a new society with a human face (the kingdom of God). They said "No" to absolute power and wealth (Daniel 3). They looked for small-scale alternatives such as the communities of the Essenes in the desert near the Dead Sea or like Jesus in the midst of society among the poor. These small cells of disciples were to be the seed of later messianic communities, which spread across the whole Roman Empire and then further afield (see Mark 10, 42-45). For Jesus they were meant to be real signs of the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul saw this as the beginning of a new humanity (Romans 5) in the midst of a world system characterised by injustice and non-belief (Romans 1, 18). The whole creation together with the children of God hopes for liberation, because we experience the labour pains of the new creation in the midst of the present violence, (see Romans 8, 18-25). The basic constitution of this society of contrasts created by God, who through his love is creating justice and solidarity, is summed up by Paul in his letter to the Galatians (3,28) "There are no more Jews and Greeks, slaves and free men, neither man nor woman, because you are all one in Jesus the Messiah".
This political and economic unfolding of love in the conflicts of the Israeli people, both internally and with other nations, is anchored in the experience of God. This goes beyond the socio-economic and political dimensions and includes every aspect of human life; that of individuals, the nuclear and extended farnily, the neighbourhood, the region, the nation, the world, indeed, the entire universe. On the other hand, each society is shaped by the "God", i.e. the spirit and philosophy that ultimately underpins the structures and the work of its institutions.
2. Justifications of injustice, lack of peace and the destruction of the environment by state and capitalist theologies
The South African Kairos document pointed to the fact that, within the churches the critical prophetic thrust of the Bible is not the only one that is accepted and publicly advocated. There are groups, and entire churches, which actively support unjust political and economic systems, or which choose not to see the injustice in such systems, and are thus indirectly supporting them (see 3. below). The support of the Apartheid system by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa was an example of such active justification, as was the support given to the Nazi regime by the "Deutsche Christen", a particular branch of the Protestant church in Germany, and other national socialist minded people. Examples from eastern Europe are provided by those church leaders who befriended dictators. They blessed the rockets of the Warsaw Pact, and condemned conscientious objectors. Now they give their blessing to NATO. This is termed 'the work of peace' by official theology.
How are these aberrations of so-called state theology possible, given the clear threads of the Bible? Firstly, by taking Bible passages out of their context. For example, taken out of context the parable of the talents (Matthew 25, 14ff.) is seen as an encouragement to charge the highest possible rates of interest ó contrary to the prohibitions against taking interest throughout the Bible. Secondly, there are some texts going back to the time of the Kingdom of Israel which legitimise the rule of society by an all-powerful king (at the time of Saul, David and Solomon, around 1000 bce). Even though these kingdoms were viewed very critically by the prophets, and after the downfall of the northern and southern kingdoms by almost all social groups in Israel and Judah, not to mention Jesus himself (cf Mark 10, 42-45), state theologies legitimise power per se on the basis of these texts. The same is true for the passage in Romans which is generally taken out of context (Romans 13, 1-7 obedience to state authorities).
In Europe today there are hardly any churches which openly and actively favour the total domination by the capitalist market and the neoliberal ideological and political support it enjoys. There is, however, a phenomenon in Europe with which we have become familiar, but which must be questioned urgently: namely, that political parties call themselves "Christian". In their current form they came into being after the Second World War inspired by the social teaching of the Catholic Church. For Protestant Christians it ought to have been problematic from the beginning that the name of Christ was linked to groups which hold political power, in the same way that Luther rejected for biblical reasons this approach which had been practised by the medieval state church. Quite apart from this fundamental difficulty, there is a real practical problem to be faced at present.
Take Germany as an example. In this country the so-called "Christian" Democratic Union (CDU) / "Christian" Social Union (CSU) coalition governed jointly with the Free Democrats (FDP). The latter has developed into a radical market oriented party for those on higher incomes and has been the spearhead of neoliberalism in Germany. The majority within the CDU/CSU has fully aligned itself with neoliberal policy and is implementing it unswervingly, jointly with the FDP, in the name of 'Christian' politics. (There are minorities, however, particularly in the worker-orientated committees concerned with social issues). This is pure state and capitalist theology. It represents the "false church" (a concept of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who applied it to those parts of the German churches that actively supported the Nazi regime and persecuted, amongst others, the true, confessing church).
While the German churches of today reject in their joint statement a "pure market economy", they name the horse, but not the rider. They are silent on the fact that precisely such a policy, under the label of 'Christian', is being implemented in Germany by the Christian Democratic Party. The apparent reason for this silence would seem to be to avoid conflicts with political and economic powers. Not all countries in Europe have parties that are explicitly 'Christian' in name, but nonetheless, the question as to whether the Christian churches support neoliberalism is still relevant.
3. Superficial reconciliation in church theology.
The South African Kairos document identifies the most common weakness of what many churches offer: cheap reconciliation without truth or justice. From a supposed position of neutrality the churches attempt to issue balanced statements, in order not to fall out with any side. Or they remain silent if there appears to be the risk of potential conflict with those in power. Solidarity with the victims is in words only, with no active involvement.
The central point is as follows. The main churches have incorporated into their statements the particular emphasis of liberation theologies, that faith in God as presented in the Bible includes a "priority option for the poor". However the church does not recognise that this official theological position demands a clear "No" to neoliberal structures and policies that favour the rich. So the church does not in effect reject the capitalist world market system, out of which arise so many injustices that the church does criticise. (In the joint statement of the German churches, the concept capitalist is carefully avoided). And even if, in rejecting a "pure market economy", the churches had intended to condemn this world capitalist system, they are still not naming the parties and governments which fly the flag of neoliberal policies. Certainly, most of the established political parties have adjusted to the structures of the world market. Nevertheless the driving forces can be named and those in opposition can be called to be effective in that role.
To give another example, the churches say "Yes" to sustainable farm based agriculture, but do not say "No" to agribusiness. Without the "No" being clearly defined, resistance cannot grow, the structural change will continue and the "Yes" remains ineffective.
4. The fundamental decision today of prophetic theology; Life for all instead of money for few.
The current economy, with its supporting structures and values, is serving one abstract aim: the short-term increase of monetary wealth. The opposing aim of prophetic theology and social movements is the concrete goal of a life of dignity for all people living today and for future generations and a good environment. The first step is to show solidarity with and treat with dignity all life that is endangered. Workers fighting for meaningful and secure jobs, unemployed people, homeless people, disabled people, single mothers and young people without a future must not be seen as objects of charity, but as people whose own initiatives deserve the support of all parts of the churches. As these initiatives develop, alliances have to broaden, because ever more groups in society are coming under threat.
The voices of nature and those of future generations are particularly easy to push aside. They are not, or not yet, able to organise themselves. Their voices are being reinforced particularly by women who suffer disadvantage or violence. Everywhere in the world women are developing new visions of life and of living together. They are not looking for competition but cooperation; not for their own career but for community; not for profit but for relationships; not for successful conquests but for healing. Through their actions they prove as lies the myth spread by economic interest groups that to provide for social needs and to have ecological aims are not compatible. Such new visions are helping to overcome the spirit of complacency, to mobilise resistance against all that diminish a full life and to develop new ways of living that are cooperative and ecologically sound.
In Europe too there is an increasing number of movements that embrace such visions: ecological movements, social movements and movements of international solidarity. Within the churches there are groups and networks within the conciliar process of justice, peace and integrity of creation that seek to fulfil rediscovered biblical imperatives to implement such visions. As a result they frequently come into conflict with ruling structures of power and wealth.
In South Africa, Korea and Latin America it has been shown that the churches may be persecuted together with the people who suffer injustice. But at the same time they were supported by the persecuted people. New life developed within these churches because they protected and helped those in danger. In Europe the churches would probably lose certain privileges which they have enjoyed since they became so closely associated with the state, with empires and later with capitalism. But for the people who suffer, they would once again be a sign of hope.
The failure of the churches to deal with social issues in the 19th century has long been lamented. Since then, they have been abandoned by large sections of the working class. That was the era of 'Manchester capitalism' and of classic liberalism, which ended in the Great Depression of 1929 and two world wars. Now, in a period of neoliberalism, the churches face the question as to whether they want to repeat that mistake. Once again there is the chance to take a clear stance and to support the hope of struggling people.
This request is often met with the argument that the unity of the church would be at stake. After all, it is argued, there are growing evangelical and charismatic groups which are mostly interested in the salvation of the individual. It is maintained that these groups would split away if the churches were to take a clear stance on these political and economic conflicts of interest.
The churches should point out to these groups that a one-sided focus on the individual and his/her soul is not rooted in the Bible but rather reflects powerfully the anthropological dualism between soul and body of the modern age and the individualism of the free market. On the other hand, the evangelical and charismatic movements are engaging in a genuine search for spirituality and community, within a materialist society. The debate about these questions should be conducted with grassroots people where they live. It is there that it will become clear as to what helps them and how looking to the Bible can liberate and heal all aspects of life. In Latin America there are, for example, many pentecostal groups co-operating with base Christian communities which are inspired by liberation theology, to achieve real improvements in people's lives. Jesus, in his time, struggled against the Romans and conformist Jews for justice and peace. At the same time he healed people and established groups committed to mutual support and service.
The vision described here is a challenge also to the prophetic church itself, the form of the institution and its institutional relationships. For example, the church could withdraw money from high street banks and invest in alternative banks. It could set an example with regard to the just distribution of work and income. It could use its land for good social and ecological purposes. In short, it could "set a good example to the different groups in society" (Martin Luther). Even if powerful people reject these good examples, or even persecute the church, this suffering would be an identification with the common experience of people in poverty, in the manner of Jesus.
The purpose of these important processes of self-clarification and re-orientation within the Christian churches, communities and movements is not to lead them to be preoccupied with themselves. This introversion is precisely the main current mistake of large parts of European Christianity. We are not only calling on the churches, in accordance with their biblical principles, to take the side of the struggling victims of economic, political, military and cultural injustice and themselves to set a good example. We are also calling on them, in a Europe of many cultures and faiths, to strengthen the dialogue with all faith communities, trade unions and social movements. The co-existence on an equal basis of people from different nations, cultures and religions is an essential part of the Christian message. This is the outward expression of the community of believers in the biblical God who loves his creation.
Paul saw peaceful co-existence, based on the equality of Jews and Greeks in the Christian communities, as their most important witness to the Roman Empire. The latter only knew the ruling class of Romans together with their allies and subjugated peoples. The peace achieved by the use of force by the Romans was confronted with peace based on equal citizenship. This is the message also of the letter to the Ephesians. Conflict only exists with those groups that abuse religion for purposes of oppression, of gaining power or for economic interests. The dialogue, therefore, has clear criteria. It is not naive. If it is conducted according to the biblical measures of liberation and solidarity, it is a vital sign of hope for all peoples inside and outside 'Fortress Europe', which has inherited the walls which protected the Roman Empire against the outside world.
This is Part 2 of the document. The full text can be obtained at http://www.kairoseuropa.org or from Kairos UK, c/o Grassroots, 90 Dunstable Rd, Luton LU1 2SE, UK. Tel. +44-1582 416946; Fax 1582 732032; e-mail: grassrootsLuton@Compuserve.com
We call on the churches in Europe to declare that to call neoliberal policies "Christian" is to dishonour the name of Christ, and deeply damages the credibility of the churches and the Christian message of "good news for the poor" (Luke 4, 18) among the peoples of Europe.
At this point we call on the churches to take a clear stance, to identify the structures and mechanisms which destroy life and to support those forces which promote justice.
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