Some national leaders attain provision or wealth through unjust means such as exploitation, force, corruption, theft and others. Brutal dictators and regimes take what they want, oppressing their own people through force and intimidation, living lives of luxury while their people struggle to survive. Burma, Zimbabwe, Libya…the list could go on.
Some multi-national corporations exploit cheap labour markets, impose unsafe working conditions on desperate workers, or devastate local ecosystems in order to reap outsized profits. Their gains occur at great cost to people and places unseen by home-country regulators and disconnected from the consumers who buy the products.
Some individuals and organizations defraud or deceive household investors into taking excessive risks, without any concern for the people they might be hurting in the process.
These are just a few of the ways wealth is obtained to the detriment of others. The cause of such injustices is so often greed—“an intense and selfish desire for wealth, power or food.” The Apostle Paul confronts this issue in the church at Ephesus when he writes to Timothy, arguing that
Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)
The consequences of such greed are often more than just damage to our own spiritual state and the deprivation of others economically. Greed can also produce degradation of the environment—resulting in significant damage to the earth, which ultimately affects the capacity of others to live well and reduces future productivity for everyone.
Sadly, in ancient Israel some people became rich through unjust means. In fact, much of the message of the Prophets targets economic injustice by those with wealth and power in Israel. Through spokespersons such as Amos, Micah and Jeremiah, God states that our worship is meaningless if we are accumulating wealth through the exploitation of others. If we say we love God, then this should be reflected in the way we treat others and conduct business.
Judgment comes on Israel, “because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6b). Such condemnation is an inevitable consequence of the nation of Israel’s failure to be faithful to its covenantal responsibilities. For God’s trademarks are his steadfast love, justice and righteousness. By implication, they are also core to what it means to be the covenant community. For ensuring that all members of society (and particularly the weak) have access to resources in order to live a life of dignity, is part of Israel’s covenantal responsibilities.
Sadly, the mechanisms under the Law that sought to build a fair, just and compassionate society had been flouted and ignored. Instead of modeling God’s shalom, Israel had become just like every other nation—a cesspit of oppression, abuse of power, and flagrant disregard for those caught on the economic scrapheap. The rich gained ownership of much of the land (in contravention of Leviticus 25:25-28), then leased it back to small farmers at interest (forbidden by Deuteronomy 23:19-20), which in turn led to default of loans. Meanwhile, they perverted the justice system by bribery. As a result, those dispossessed of capacity to earn a living had to sell themselves into slavery.
In response, the prophet Amos pleads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Micah asks: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). The way we earn, employ or manage others, conduct business, invest and spend our money can be just or unjust. And this cannot be separated from our worship of God. We cannot love God and exploit other people in pursuit of wealth.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary. 10th ed., revised (Oxford University Press, 2001).
From the text of a lecture given by Walter Bruggemann, “The Continuing Subversion of Alternative Possibility: From Sinai to Current Covenanting,” Laing Lectures, 2008, Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.
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