Jesus’s social teachings and America’s founding ideals had common threads, particularly rejection of tyrannical rulers and promotion of the general welfare. But the Israelite society of Jesus’s day, like America today, had lost connection to its ethical roots, writes Rev. Howard Bess.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
In many respects the society of Jesus’s day was not unlike modern America. Everyday life in Palestine in the First Century C.E. was dominated by the rich and the powerful who gained the cooperation of masses of common people by persuading them that their best interests lay in cooperating with those who seemed to control everything.
The result was that the poor became poorer and more numerous, while the rich grew richer. There is nothing particularly surprising about that. History is filled with the phenomenon of poor people accepting the oppression of the rich and powerful as a way to survive.
Is there any doubt about who controls America in 2013? The rich and the powerful. Indeed, in America the two are nearly synonymous. Billionaires dominate elections and the typical member of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives is a millionaire. There also is no shortage of people who find cooperation with the rich in their own best interests, even as the gap between the rich and the poor grows, the middle class shrinks, and more Americans slide into poverty.
In First Century Galilee in Northern Palestine, Jesus lived among people who were incredibly poor. Jesus identified with them and led them in protests against their oppressors. Jesus also drew from a faith arising from Israelite roots that disdained the rich. According to those Israelite traditions, wealth was to be shared. The tithe was tied to the well-being of widows and orphans; slaves were to be set free; land was to be periodically redistributed among the Israelites; from time to time debts were to be canceled; charging interest on a loan was forbidden.
Israelite laws for living had a predisposition toward the common good. Love of neighbor was a law that had deep roots in Israelite culture. The Israelite tradition was a tradition of high ideals. But in Jesus’s day, the children of Israel had forgotten their ideals and traded them for selfishness or survival.
America also has roots in high ideals. The Declaration of Independence stated some basic truths as “self-evident,” including that all men are created equal with a fundamental right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These “self-evident” truths became the basis for declaring American independence from an oppressive King of England.
The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution cited “We the People” as the ultimate source of the government’s authority and called on the American Republic to establish justice and to work for the general welfare. Yet, America now is dominated by a new crop of greedy people who have forgotten the high ideals of our founding documents. Rich corporations and their billionaire leaders are blind to the ideals that America’s founders recognized as self-evident. The rich have turned their back on the belief in human equality. Greed has overwhelmed the general welfare and the common good.
Jesus was out of step with the power structures of his own day. His teachings were often filled with love, compassion and kindness as he encouraged his followers. However, at other times he was confrontational and demanded change. He did not confine himself to synagogue meetings to voice his convictions. He was very public and attracted big crowds. He confronted both the religious establishment and the political power brokers. With compassion he cared for the poor and the needy. He lived out the role of the witness.
As I was growing up in my Baptist tradition, I was encouraged to be a witness, too, but with a very narrow focus. My witness was to be about the death of Jesus for the sins of the world and the necessity of receiving Jesus as personal savior because that insured entry into heaven. I was taught to carry my witness by quoting a lot of carefully selected Bible verses with the goal of influencing people to receive Jesus.
In retrospect, my Baptist Church was long on Jesus as savior and almost silent about Jesus as a teaching rabbi. Jesus spent a lot of his time talking about how people, communities and nations should live. However, in my experience, my church ignored the teacher side of Jesus. I was warned against the “social gospel” that “liberals” advocated. My witness was not to be geared to changing this world, but rather preparing people for an eternal heaven with Jesus.
I have done a lot of mind-changing over the past 60 years, but I have NOT changed my commitment to witnessing. In fact, I love the idea of a witnessing church. But there is nothing about witnessing that says “you must think the way I think.” Witnessing is an exercise in truth-speaking without insisting that my witness is the whole truth. Thoughtful responses are always welcome and actually refine the quality of my witness.
I continue to feel free to share my personal faith in God through Jesus, my Christ. However, taking a cue from the teachings of Jesus, I feel compelled to speak about the practice of the teachings of Jesus in this world.
I regret that many of our American churches are still singing the one-note song about personal salvation. In addition many of our pastors, churches and denominations remain silent in situations in which the teachings of Jesus demand our witness. The world needs the witness of Christians about the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus.
The summary of Jesus’s social teaching is love of neighbor, which cannot be strictly equated with the common good and the general welfare, but the relationship between the ideals of American democracy and Christian faith seems self-evident. Christians need to resurrect our witnessing skills and start talking about the ideals that drove Jesus in his public ministry.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected].