The foundation of social justice
Last week the newspaper printed a guest column by a gentleman from Rockport who said “America is broken” because it no longer a Christian nation. I am not sure it ever was a Christian nation in the first place, and the writer’s proposal that certain remarks by Columbus should be taken as evidence of his Christian intentions just does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. And yet the idea that we should look to our foundations is always worth a few minutes of anyone’s time.
There are principles in the Bible — Hebrew and Christian — that illuminate our lack of inclination to be a Biblical nation. To cite only one example, there are laws set out in such obscure places as Leviticus and Deuteronomy that set a high and permanent standard for the public good, perhaps higher in principle than we ourselves adhere to in practice. In there among all the rules about burning people for this reason and for that, we can still glean out absolute gems of civilized practice that ought to make our faces burn with shame when we ever pretend we are, or have ever been, a Christian nation.
I am thinking of the laws against farmers harvesting all of their crops, laws that set aside the edge of every field as an area not to be mowed by the farmer, laws that forbid a farmer from going back to collect the sheaf of wheat he forgot to bring in on the last wagon, laws that forbid the owner of a vineyard to remove all the grapes from his vines or to collect the grapes that fall to the ground during the harvest, even laws that forbid the farmer to muzzle the ox as it treads its weary way around the threshing floor. All this uncollected produce is set aside in ancient Hebrew law as the property of the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner who is staying in the country. It is an acknowledgement in principle of the absolute necessity before God to make provision to be made for all people, not just the wealthy. It is an acknowledgement of the legitimate rights even of foreigners, and of course of the widows and orphans.
What would it mean to contemporary political debate in our dear country if this sort of applied principle were law here? In a agricultural country long ago and far away these laws about not scraping the fields bare were, in effect, laws guaranteeing minimum wages at an adequate level. They were laws demanding the well-faring of all. These laws also refused to discriminate between the native and the foreigner. (Hard to imagine how Israel got so far off the rails from its own historical position in this case, isn’t it? Well let’s not be too hard upon Israel, as people in glass houses shouldn’t even think of picking up stones.)
Furthermore, what about the implication of the reverse side of these harvest laws? By declaring the edges of fields and the gleanings of fields and vineyards as the rightful property of the poor, the law also forbade the pursuit of maximum return on investment because of the terrible consequences it would have on the general population. Those who call for a return to Biblical law should that one on for size.
These ancient laws speak very sharply to our modern situation. Too sharply, I suspect. The right to a decent minimum wage, the duty to the welfare of all classes, the principle of caring for immigrants and migrants alike, and the warning against an economic system that views maximization of profit to be the ultimate good. All these things were interdependent principles, constituting a law that supported each part of itself, and which commended itself to the people as the actual will of God. It was the foundation of social justice.
It is true that one has to pick very carefully among these ancient texts, written to conform to an idea of God as perceived in the Near East of Antiquity and Late Antiquity. You can find some disturbing stuff when you take it at face value. The more literal you are in reading many of these texts, the more careful you have to be in any attempt to apply them, or else you will end up stoning and burning all sorts of our fellow citizens quite unnecessarily. I am not even sure my dear friend Frightful O’Meara would survive unburned, as I am certain he has worn clothes made of more than one kind of fabric, a terrible thing which the Old Testament strictly forbids. Instead, if people were to put more sincere effort into trying to work out what even the more obscure texts might mean in our current context, rather than simply trying to translate them word for word without heed to the passage of three thousand years of social and spiritual evolution, we would find that many more of the odd texts might support the kind of decency we apparently so desire in our own world. Obviously, in my opinion the law of harvest shines through as brilliant rays of light still emanating from a culture that wrestled with its conscience so long ago over the eternal situation of the poor. There are many examples like that we could pick up if we ever wanted to be Biblical or Christian. But don’t hold your breath.
We were never a Christian nation, so we cannot return to a position we never held. Pride in one’s heritage often turns out to be an embarrassment most well deserved. The self-described saints who emigrated here after thoroughly annoying just about everyone else in England ended up setting fire to poor old women in Massachusetts, because their grasp of the Bible was as ghastly as anything we hear of today from the priggish Falwellian section of America. England was well rid of them. Jefferson was so much not a Christian or Biblical man that he cut up his Bible and tossed out anything that suggested Jesus was anything other that a jolly nice chap. There never was a Christian nation anywhere, no more than the ancient Hebrew people ever actually lived consistently in harmony with the laws their priestly writers held in such esteem. It is the idea, the possibility of what could be, that is the attraction. I would not be much interested in America going back to being anything it has been, but I am very much interested in what it might become.
David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.