Church and... Economics

Biblical Perspectives
on Empire

A View from Western Europe

by Ulrich Duchrow

Ulrich Duchrow, a German based Lutheran theologian, uses biblical models of reform to propose an end to the domination of the needs of capital over the needs of ordinary people.
It is evident that people within the evolving "Fortress Europe'' are not living in the same world as the majority of the people of the two-thirds world. Even people in a single country often no longer live in the same world.
Economically, the dividing line runs between those on the one hand who participate in the highly competitive world market or state economies, taken together as the formal economy, and those on the other hand who are exeluded and pushed into the so-called informal economies.

Within Western Europe the excluded are still given some social security by financial transfers to keep them silent. This prevents them from joining forces with the masses of the two-thirds world. By contrast, the excluded in most Southem countries barely live on survival economies and are kept out by law or by force when they want to migrate to the centres. Although official rhetoric in Western Europe—and in most churches—speaks of "development", suggesting that the excluded are or can become members of the one world, any serious person knows this is an illusion.
This is why the Brazilian bishops have called tlle global eeonomie system totalitarian while the Evangelical Church in Germany, for example,claims in its memorandum on the economy that the German model of a "social market economy'' could be globalized by way of dialogue with managers and politicians. There is a similar difference in perception between committed, formal non-governmental organizations and the associations of marginalized or excluded people in Europe. While the NGOs would not be as naive or cynical as some of the German church people. they would still concentrate on lobbying the existing institutions. Self-organizations of the grassroots, while not excluding lobbying, would not put their hope in this method, if they have any hope at all.

Is the contradiction between the different worlds, perceptions and strategies insurmountable or are alliances possible?

Three biblical models

In the biblical traditions, three different models stand out in which the people of God responded to their economic and political contexts: the prophetic model of revolution or reform; the "Torah Republic" as a niche of the empire: and apocalyptic resistance and alternatives in small groups. What can we learn from these models for social movements and the church in their different social forms today?

1. The prophetic model emerged when Israel adopted the economic and political structure of the system of monarchy developed by the ancient empires and urban cultures, which was characterized by class structures, including slavery, both internally and by conquering peoples and territories to extract tribute from them. There was strong opposition to this structure in Israel from the beginning (cf. Judg. 9 and I Sam.. 8). Israel retained the memory of being liberated by Yahweh from such a system in Egypt. The traditionally basic social class in Israel, the small farmers, continued to resist their own kings and elites who copied Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. The prophetic movements became the allies of the peasant movements, first in the northern kingdom against Ahab and Jezebel and Baal, the god of the masters and owners. The prophecy of Elijah and Elisha led to a revolution under Jehu, but this failed when he himself adopted the monarchical power system (2 Kings 9-10). Despite propheitc warnings and calls for repentance by Amos and Hosea, the northern kingdom was devastated in 722 B.C.

This experience led to two reforms in the southern kingdom of Judah—those of the kings Hezekiah and Josiah in the seventh century B.C. The latter began when Josiah was enthroned at the age of eight and the peasants and their allies in Jerusalem had a free hand in reforming the economic and political system against the former elites. 1. Parts of Deuteronomy and the books of Jeremiah attest to this approach, which sees the king as the one to dispense justice to the lowly and poor (Jer. 22:16 ). In this way the king system was tamed to serve the will of Yahweh (cf. Deut. 17). But the old order prevailed, and Judah too was destroyed, with its elites being deported to Babylon or fleeing to Egypt. This prophetic model seems to work only when economic and political macro-structures and ruling elites can be either influenced by reforms or overthrown by revolution.

2. A second model was developed during the time of exile (after 586 BC) and tried out later in the space offered by the Persian empire around the fifth century B.C.  In its most radical form this model was developed in the tradition of Deuteronomy by the poorest of the poor who were left back in defeated Judah. On the basis of autonomy and equality, they organized their life together without "state" or temple, using the surplus of their production for common feasts, for the poor and for the Levites, who did not own the means of production (Deut. 14-15). After the elites returned and equality was lost again, periodic attempts were made to balance out injustices like debt, unequal distribution of land and slavery. We see this in Nehemiah 5, in priestly scriptures like Leviticus 25 and in the tradition of the prophet Ezekiel. Veerkamp calls this model the Torah Republic. It can function only when the macro-structures of the empire leave a niche in which the people of God can make economics and politics conform to the just will of God, particularly by keeping the rate of tribute due the empire sufficiently low to leave enough to be distributed among the people.
3. Gradually towards the end of the Persian period and then fully with the beginning of the Hellenistic empires after 333 B.C., these conditions disappeared.The Persians had already introduced money to centralize the system of tribute for collecting the treasures and sulplus of the subjected peoples. The Hellenistic system reinforced this exploitation in two ways: the emperor auctioned off the right to collect taxes, leaving people in ruthless hands, and the money was put back into circulation, leading to an urban economic boom which pushed the peasants into misery and finally slavery.

God was gold and gold was god, as we see in chapter 3 of Daniel, the first book of an apocalyptic character. It is the response of the faithful of Yahweh after the Hellenictic emperor Antiochus IV raided the temple in Jerusalem, put a statue of Zeus in it and prohibited worship of Yahweh. Like all resistance coalitions, the apocalyptic groups were not homogeneous. First. they all gathered behind the guerrilla fighters of the Maccabees against the totalitarian Hellenistic system. But when they had won the battle, they became Hellenistic kings themselves. even occupying the office of the high priest. One group opted out and went into the desert, forming communities later known as the Essenes. The Pharisees tried to live differently while staying in the political game. Other minorities simply waited for the intervention of God through a Messiah.

Common to the apocalyptic model is a clear confessiom even at the cost of martyrdom, against the idolatry of absolute economic and political power. Daniel 3 portrays Shadrach, Meschah, and Abednego as the only ones who reject in Yahweh's name to worship of the gold statue as the incarnation of the Hellenistic system. Daniel 2 and 7 show the bases of the faith and hope that enable them to face martyrdom: the power of the empires symbolized by wild beasts and monsters is limited by God: the most brutal has feet of clay and will be felled like Goliath with a stone. Hope can already see behind these terrible monsters the coming of God's kingdom with a human face.

Jesus of Nazareth comes out of this tradition, but qualifies it with important new features of how to link living alternatives in a situation of resistance against a totalitarian system. God's kingdom starts already, here and now, in concrete acts of liberation and healing among the poor and oppressed, inspiring them with the messianic spirit and even reaching some of the rich.  Jesus turns out to be the Messiah not as miracle worker but as the one who shares the messianic charisma among people.

These little messianic groups live out the signs of the kingdom of God. They are the seed of the church of the risen Christ, empowered by the Spirit of Pentecost, continuing to work like leaven in the Roman empire, establishing signs of God's justice and love among subjected people and peoples.
So the apocalyptic model is the answer in a totalitarian system, combining resistance and alternatives in small cells like leaven to penetrate first Israel as the witnessing people of God and then the whole oikoumene.

Civil society and the role of the churches

If it is true that the people of God respond to concrete political and economic contexts in different ways, it is necessary to be very specific in making analyses and drawing strategies for today from these biblical traditions.

If a prevalent theme in the Bible is how a small people deals critically with imperial power structures, it is easy to understand why people in the two-thirds world today have direct access to the biblical texts, while theologies and churches in Europe have a difficult time understanding the Bible. Since the middle ages, mainstream theologies and churches in Europe have tried to build on the few texts legitimating monarchical structures or on priestly and wisdom traditions that accommodate themselves to the power structures of this world or spiritualize the biblical message. The South African Kairos document called this "state theology" or"church theology''.
But which of the biblical models applies to the world of today seen from the perspective of the poor and oppressed'? My thesis is that elements of all three are not only applicable but necessary. The problem of the institutional churches in Europe is that they ignore one and therefore miss the salt of the other two, thus also missing out on becoming partners in alliances of hope within the oikoumene and global civil society.

Let me try to unfold this argument and to look for ways to change this situation .

There is one significant difference between the present world economic system, correctly described by the Brazilian bishops as totalitarian, and the ancient empires of biblical times. Then political power was the source of economic wealth. Large territories were needed in order to extract the riches from the people. In the contemporary capitalist system, the transnational world market and its economic forces have taken absolute power using different political means towards this end. Presently the political structure of capital accumulation and power is the transformed Bretton Woods system (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the Group of Seven industrialized nations), bolstered by an imperialist security system of low- and mid-intensity warfare.

It is understandable that apocalyptic thinking plays a key role in liberation theology of the two-thirds world, where the majority of the people experience the lethal consequences and the absolute arrogance of this totalitarian system. Pablo Richard calls apocalyptic the "hope of the poor".

The basis of apocalyptic literature is the confrontation between the people of God and the empire. It is not so much a political and military confrontation as a cultural, ethical, spiritual and theological confrontation. The murdering and idolatrous empire confronts the people of God, who are building God's kingdom here on earth... Christians today are also faced with the empire and its culture of consumption, which is characterized by individualism and a spirituality and ethics of death and lies, a spirituality of fetishism and idolatry. In the face of the empire the base communities take on themselves the project of the kingdom of God.

It is also understandable that most mainstream churches in Westem Europe, together with the majority of the people, are not ready to follow this analysis of the present global imperial system nor the apocalyptic call for resistance, hope and alternative praxis. This is because, contextually speaking, Western Europe — like Egypt, Assyria. Babylon, Macedonia and Rome in biblical times - belongs to the central structure of the empire. The main rationale for the single European market is to strengthen this position alongside the USA and Japan in the triad of centres.
The illusion of belonging to an economic and political system which can be influenced by responsible action and which consequently is not totalitarian is created by what is called democracy. People in Europe do not realize that those who control capital and the world market are not democratically elected at all but installed by those who own capital. Nor do they realize that the politicians whom they elect into nationaI governments act as dictators on the international level, insofar as they are responsible in and for the plutocratic institutions, of the IMF, the World Bank, GATT, and the G7. These bodies have received no democratic legitimation from the majority of the world's population.

So the first thing of which grassroots organizations and coalitions must convince the people and churches in Europe is the need to delegitimize absolute power by clearly rejecting the present global economic system with its political institutions and its lethal and idolatrous culture. This of course does not mean just denouncing it but also transforming their own structures and praxis concerning investment of capital, salary scales, life-style and the like.
This is not an impossible thing to ask. The Aramaic chapters of Daniel (2-12) were written by people in what was then the centre to show solidarity with and encourage those struggling on the periphery of Judah. Early Christians in Rome were ready to face martyrdom by rejecting the absolute claim of loyalty to the emperor.
In the struggle for justice in a totalitarian situation, there is no stronger weapon than rejecting the absolute claim of the power-holder— in this case the capitalist market system, which says there is no alternative to it. Only a clear No can be the basis of hope in a time of general assimilation. For to pronounce such a No is in effect to pronounce the Yes of faith, which insists that "God's kingdom with a human face is stronger than this system of seemingly absolute power". If our hopes are placed only in our actions and coalitions, we will never touch the deep despair and resignation of people. Only by trusting in God's justice can our pragmatic steps and our alliances be grounded in hope. Only this absolute hope is strong enough to face the powers that claim to be absolute.

At this point some will object that we can no longer talk to representatives of the system if we totally reject it. This is a problem, but not an insoluble one. More and more people, also in Europe, have a vague feeling that something is basically wrong. Marginalization and degradation have reached one-third of the Western European population. This is precisely the point at which the various forms and levels of civil society become crucial. The contradiction between the rejection of the global system and radical alternatives in small groups on the one hand, and prophetic intervention on the institutional level on the other, can be overcome and even become dialectically fruitful if we start from marginalized people and their self-organizations.

Small and large scale

What does this mean concretely? Let me offer two examples:
1. At the community level, we have started in Mannheim an " impoverishment - enrichment project". The district church appointed a community worker to help congregations to discover the marginalized in their own neighbourhoods and to join their efforts to understand the mechanisms and fight the root causes of unjust impoverishment and enrichment. After two years of very slow progress, there seems to be a breakthrough. In the face of the erosion of social rights in Germany, participants in the project convinced the local church to take the initiative of forming a citywide coalition with the self-organizations of the unemployed and refugees, aid agencies and trade unions to develop a community poverty conference. Action days are being organized against the abolition of social rights in Germany. Eventually, the plan is to form a permanent poverty conference to help people to act together for justice at community level. Kairos Europa hopes to develop similar initiatives in other cities.

It is at the community level that the growing problems of marginalization and the budget cuts are being felt. Affected people at this level and those working in solidarity with them in church organizations, trade unions and municipal social services departments have no problem in making these linkages, saying a clear No to the structures of the macro-system, organizing concretely on the political level or trying out such micro-level alternatives as alternative credit systems.

2. DISK, an organization related to urban industrial mission in the Netherlands,  has developed a programme—"Adopt a Politician"—which brings the
"poor side of the Netherlands'' together with their community's elected parliamentarians to influence political decisions at the national level. Neighbourhood committees and civic organizations all over the country invite legislators to stay in close personal contact with them. The council of churches fully supports this campaign, which is attracting more and more public support as well. Dutch Christians are much more open to and experienced in combining clear critical stands with a politics of lobbying and working out alternatives than are German churches. Yet it is quite obvious that in both cases we are talking about minorities.

These examples show that on a small scale different elements of the complex economic, social and political system can be seen together. Different actors in civil society — organizations of marginalized people, traditional social movements like trade unions, professional NGOs, alternative research groups, churches—can work together; and a multiple strategy of rejecting the global capitalist system, working out micro-level alternatives and lobbying political institutions is possible. Problems arise in trying to project these responses to the national, continental or global level:

• On the larger scale people and organizations tend to prefer a single - issue approach. On single issues (for example, helping refugees) it is possible to mobilize people and raise funds.

• The actors split in various ways. Self-organizations of marginalized and excluded people often need all their energy just to survive at the local level, so they seldom reach out to the national, European or global levels at all. Furthermore, in the neo-liberal system of the capitalist economy, the labour of most people is no longer necessary, which deprives them of the leverage classical workers movements had in the threat of withdrawing from the production process by strikes. What Marx called the Lumpenprolitariat constitutes the majority of the world's population today. In Europe they are also calmed down by small financial transfers, so that they do not organize on a large scale and can be played off against each other.

But the traditional actors of civil society are also more likely to work for themselves than to form complex coalitions at larger levels. Even the trade unions are not effectively organized at the European or global level, nor are workers in any transnational corporation. Here, too, they split among themselves according to interest, so that they can also be played off against each other. Meanwhile, NGOs tend to specialize in order to do effective professional lobby work and seldom work together with grassroots organizations.

• Multiple strategies are much more difficult on larger scales. Grassroots organizations will combine rejection of the global system with working for small-scale alternatives. But they have little faith in lobbying within the system, because their experience of the arrogance of power shows that the existing economic and political institutions are virtually immovable. NGOs, on the other hand, tend to Iimit themselves to small moves within the system, fearing a loss of credibility if they raise basic structural questions.

What is needed is a better pattern of cooperation between the self-organizations of victims within and outside Europe and NGOs specialized in lobbying. The one cannot do without the other. Affected people and their self-organizations need the support of professionalized or semi-professionalized NGOs in order to strengthen their hand at the institutional level. Without the grassroots organizations, the advocacy groups lack a base and are constantly tempted to lose the salt of basic critique while having to work within the institutional system in order to move something there.

Public communication is another crucial issue. What is happening today is the manipulation of the media by economic and political forces who set and amplify the agenda of the public debate. For example, the recent expressions of hatred against foreigners in Germany were triggered by the Christian Democratic Union for political reasons and amplified by the media. How can we put crucial justice issues on the public agenda just as Greenpeace has succeeded in doing in the area of ecology?

'I'he church in its various social forms, particularly the ecumenical movement, could play a unique and effective role by mediating the elements of strategy on the various levels and between the various actors and by using its communicative powers.

•Instead of confining itself within the spectrum of existing political discourse, the church could stand clearly with the struggling victims of the system and create space for new political options by uncompromising denunciation of the present global system. Refusing to bow down to the idolatrous power of the market and empire would break the taboo and create hope among the people that they themselves are not helpless, that God's justice creates power. The church does not need to be accepted as a dialogue partner by the powerful if the latter will not talk in terms of truth. By declining to be accepted into dialogue on the wrong terms, the church will create a climate in which the victims themselves must be heard.
• Organized in groups and networks at the local, national, European and global level, formally and informally, the church offers a unique space for communication between the various levels and between the various actors. In a word, it is uniquely equipped for creating, in the spirit of the kingdom, alliances of hope.


1. On the social - historical analysis of the history of Israel during the monarchy, see T. Veerkamp, Die Vernichtung des Baal: Auslegung der Koenigsbuecher, Stuttgart, 1983: R.Albertz, Religionsgesichte Israels in AT Zeit, Goettingen, 1992: F. Crueseman, Die Tora: Theologie und Sozialgeschichte des AT Gesetz, Munich, 1992
2. A fascinating exegesis of this model is that of Verkamp, Autonomie und Egalitaet: Oekonomie, Politik, Ideologie in der Schrift, Berlin, 1993.
3. Cf. G.Theissen, -Gruppenmessianismus-, in Jahrbuch fuer biblische Theologie, vol. VII, NeukirchenVluyn, 1992
4. P. Pichard, -Spiegelungen: Apokalyptik, Hoffnung der Armen- , in Texte und Kontexte, no 51, October 1991, my translation.
5. See C. Modehn, -Politiker muss man adoptieren,- in Publik Forum, no 11, 4 June 1993

Author: Ulrich Duchrow is based in Heidelberg, Germany. He is the founder of Kairos Europa and the author of many books (see Book Shelf).

Source: Kairos Europa e.V. Hegenichstr. 22.D-69124 Heidelberg/Germany. /
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