Class Warfare on Earth and in Heaven
by Walter Brueggemann on July 8, 2014
The phrase “class warfare” may be taken as a descriptive term to identify the power dynamics of politics and economics. “Class” refers most often to the gap between the “haves” who enjoy political leverage and economic advantage over the “have-nots” who are vulnerable and relatively powerless. “Warfare” refers to the inescapable tension been “haves” and “have-nots” that most often is covert but occasionally erupts as active hostility in the form of harsh rhetoric or political action. Thus the phrase calls attention to the undeniable realities of social relationships.
But the term is seldom used descriptively. More often it is employed polemically, most often on the lips of “haves.” It is then used with reference to any active resistance on the part of “have-nots” that calls attention to inequity. When used in this way, it intends to deny the tension or the gap of power and resources, wanting to suggest social solidarity between “haves” and “have-nots.” It is then used to cover over or deny tensions that are inherent in inequitable social relationships. Less often the term is used by “have-nots” to refer to the quiet but effective ways in which “haves” work to keep “have-nots” powerless and resourceless. All of these uses are, in one way or another, part of the tension and problematic of social differentiation on the ground that refuses the cover of noble or polite slogans to the contrary.
The phrase, in relation to the Bible, immediately draws the Bible into socio-political, economic reality, so that the Bible can no longer be read “innocently.” In order to read the Bible knowingly, it is crucial to understand, as best we can, the socio-economic dynamics that recur in the Bible.
In the Old Testament, that social reality with great consistency consists in a peasant economy of small farmers who lived a tenuous life who faced the concentration of aggressive economic leverage managed by the urban elites in the capitol cities of Samaria and Jerusalem. That latter group, presided over by the king, included military leaders, scribes who were the privileged intellectuals of the realm, and priests who presided over the liturgies that legitimated the entire system. Glimpses of this power arrangement are offered in the summaries of the “bureaucracies” of David (II Samuel 8:15-18) and Solomon (I Kings 4:1-6), the latter of which concludes with an officer concerned with “forced labor.” The report Solomon’s “cabinet” is followed in vv. 7-19 by a list of tax districts, suggesting that the regime was preoccupied with taxation of the peasant economy. The political dynamic consisted in extraction of wealth from the peasants by way of taxation in order to support the indulgent style of the urban elites. Thus in I Kings 12:1-19, the dispute is over taxation. The setup is ripe for tension and “warfare.”
In the New Testament the recurring reference to taxation suggests the same dynamic (Matthew 17:24; 22:17-19; Luke 2:1-5; Acts 5:37: Romans 13:6-7). In this case the taxes were in the service of Rome. But the power of the Roman Empire depended upon local authorities who were willing to collude, tax collectors as well as priests and scribes who belonged to the local population but who had signed on with the occupying forces. (Thus we may imagine in our own context that Hamad Karzai in Afghanistan is such a local leader who leads at the behest of the occupying empire). Because the “haves” among the urban elites are so powerful, the “have-not” peasants have various strategies of opposition and resistance to such exploitation. In the later Roman context as in the earlier Israelite context, the tension between “haves” and “have-nots” was pervasive and acute. In the Old Testament, moreover, the tension is sometimes presented as one between the Israelites and their Philistine or Canaanite overlords, but the dynamic is the same. Thus for example, in the old poem of Judges 5 where the victory of “the peasants in Israel” is said to be allied with, even synonymous with “the triumphs of the Lord.”
To the sound of musicians at the watering places,
there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord,
the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel (v. 11).
YHWH, the God of emancipation, is said to be their ally against the urban power structure that threatened its viability.
To some great extent the Old Testament appears to be the offer of faith on the lips of the “have-not” peasants who dare to articulate class tension in loud voice as though it is a tension that pertains is heaven as well as on earth. That is, this voice seeks to draw YHWH into the social crisis on the assumption that YHWH is not a neutral or even-handed reference point. That is, they recruit YHWH into the class warfare in which they see themselves as victims and not perpetrators of the war.
1. The laments, complaints, and protests of the Psalter are most commonly voices from below that seek to summon YHWH into the social struggle. They attempt to recruit YHWH, on the assumption that YHWH is indeed inclined to be in solidarity with such need. The “poor” find themselves at a disadvantage and without resources, and so they appeal as “clients” of YHWH who, if mobilized, will off-set the advantage of the “haves.” In Psalm 10, a not uncharacteristic prayer “from below,” the attitude, practice, and policy of the “haves” are described for God. This is, of course, a quite partisan and polemical characterization, as the powerful appear to the powerless. They are “the wicked” (vv. 2-3), who are greedy (v. 23), proud (v. 4), “prosperous at all times” (v. 5), and “filled with deceit” (v. 7). On the one hand they are arrogant in their autonomy and do not think they are accountable to God:
The wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
All their thoughts are, “There is no God.”…
The think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
Throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”…
They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,
He has hidden his face, he will never see it” (vv. 4, 6, 11).
The poor imagine what the “haves” think and have on their hearts. On the other hand, not surprisingly, those who scoff at God “persecute the poor” (v. 2), “sit in ambush in the villages” where the peasants live” (v 8), and “seize the poor” (v. 9). They do so by arrangements concerning mortgages, loans, and taxes. The two points of mocking God and persecuting the poor go together, because “without God everything is possible.” Thus the poetry describes the class war being waged against the vulnerable by those “above.”
After that polemical description, the voice of the poor turns to petition and imperative, seeking God’s identification with them against the “haves” (v. 12). The “wicked” think they have impunity (v. 13). But the poor know better: “You do see!” (v. 14). Consequently the poor ask God to move violently against the exploitative “haves”:
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
Seek out their wickedness until you find none (v. 15).
The prayer ends in confidence that God will act for the most vulnerable:
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
You will strengthen their heart,
You will incline your ear
To do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from the earth may strike no more (vv. 17-18).
There is no way to read such a poem except in the midst of “class warfare.” It is for good reason that the church of the “haves” (our church) has silenced such biblical texts, for the poor offer an exposé of the way in which power works and the way in which God is known to be a counter power for those without power.
2. For the most part the prophets of the ninth-seventh centuries are also voices from below that address the exploitative “haves.” Only here, unlike the Psalter, the texts claim not only to be the voice of the poor, but the voice of God who is in solidarity with the vulnerable who are unjustly treated. The “Thus saith the Lord” formula imagines God to be a player in the class conflict.
In the narratives of Elijah and Elisha, there is more action than talk. In I Kings 21, Elisha responds to the royal confiscation of Naboth’s land by threatening a violent end to the dynasty (I Kings 21:20-24). Elijah, a voice of YHWH, intervenes on the side of the vulnerable peasant farmer to castigate the usurpatious greed of the urban privileged. In doing so, he makes clear that social reality is not simply a contest between the vulnerable “have-nots “ and the regent “haves,” because YHWH is a third party who will not accept such an arrangement of arrogance. In II Kings 4:1-7, Elisha intervenes on behalf of a resourceless widow. By his intervention he overrides the mortgage system of the economic establishment and rescues the woman from the avarice of the city
In the more familiar cadences of Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, the poets know that God will respond to the unregulated avarice of the urban elites. Thus Amos can describe the self-indulgent extravagance of those “at ease in Zion” (6:1 4-6). Isaiah can warn about the exploitative economy that seizes the farms of vulnerable peasants in order to amass great estates 5:8-12). He imagines an agribusiness that so exploits the land that it will not produce. Micah is alert to greedy land practices (Micah 2:1-2). He addresses the urban elites who expect that they can outdistance YHWH in their greed (Micah 3:9). Jeremiah can identify the greedy leaders who have been shameless in their avarice, who recite reassuring mantras of well-being that in fact deny and contradict their devious social reality (Jeremiah 6:13-
The prophetic rhetoric is relentless. It insists that YHWH is an upholder of and advocate for justice for the vulnerable. For that reason, no amount of wisdom, wealth, or power can cancel out the neighborly realities of justice and righteousness (Jeremiah 9:23-24). As a third party YHWH, as voiced by the prophets, weighs in decisively on the social map of power. That decisive “weighing in” by prophetic rhetoric alters both the arrogance of the “haves” and the despair of the “have-nots.”
3. Given the cries of the poor and the oracles of the prophets, the Exodus narrative functions as the great paradigm for social power in the presence of YHWH. That narrative features Pharaoh as the king-pin of all “haves” who is oppressive and abusive in his insatiable need for accumulation. It also features the “cries” of the peasant-slaves who are completely without social leverage. In their cry, they do not address anyone; they just cry out in their bodily wretchedness (Exodus 2:23). But the narrative also features and introduces YHWH as a real character in the plot of history. YHWH is drawn to the cry of the slaves and eventually authorizes and accomplishes the negation of the abusive “haves,” thereby creating an alternative future for the “have-nots.” The Exodus narrative became a styled paradigmatic narrative that can and has been reperformed in many different circumstances. It a script for contemporary enactment of social power. Thus Michael Walzer can say of the Exodus narrative:
First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
Second, that there is better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
And third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching. (Exodus and Revolution 149)
It is this relentless reiteration of the narrative that exhibits YHWH, in the liturgical imagination of Israel, as agent in “class warfare” for the sake of emancipatory justice.
Of course all of these texts — laments, oracles, and narrative — reflect the urgent social agenda of the “have-nots.” They are acts of imagination that express hopes and possibilities for the earth. What is daring about biblical faith is that such acts of imagination about earthly possibilities are “kicked upstairs” to become a theological datum. Not only do these lowly peasants hope. YHWH, so these texts declare, hopes and acts with them in solidarity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ancient poem of Psalm 82. The Psalm imagines a great judicial confrontation in heaven where the many gods are in dispute. The meeting of “the divine council” is presided over by “God,” probably the God of Israel who is the creator; the question before the court is the true nature of “godness.” The opening speech of the presiding judge makes an accusation against the gods who have not practiced justice, and gives an important mandate for justice for which the gods are responsible:
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
Maintain the right of the lowly and destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
Deliver them from the hand of the wicked (vv. 3-4).
The verdict is given that dismisses the failed gods (v. 5). They are sentenced to death because they have failed in their vocation as gods (vv. 6-7). This is an astonishing verdict that insists that emancipatory justice is the measure of
On the basis of this imagined heavenly court drama, the human spectators address the court in verse 8 and bid the true God, the one who cares about justice, to act. That act of imagination is characteristic in Israel. And of course the witnesses to Jesus assert that he, in the same trajectory, was at work in solidarity with the “have-nots” for the sake of their well-being (see Luke 7:22). In this reading, Jesus is present in the class war, a reality anticipated in the song of Mary (Luke 1:52-53). In the short run, Jesus lost the war and was executed by the “haves” with their imperial authority. In the long run, of course, we confess that he prevailed over the lethal “haves” for the sake of the Bethlehem shepherds and their many needy village neighbors.
This way of reading the text is faithful to my assigned topic. It represents a major trajectory of biblical faith. To be sure, there are many texts in the Bible that do not work in this way, and some that deeply resist this mapping of social reality and divine character around the theme of class warfare. Thus the wisdom tradition of the Book of Proverbs (and the witness of Job’s friends) are much to the contrary. These texts likely reflect the settled confidence of the “haves” for whom “wisdom” consists in the maintenance of social stability. Already in a very old law, moreover, Israel is warned against “being partial to the poor in a lawsuit” (Exodus 23:3).
One can identify a number of texts that witness against “partiality,” suggesting an even-handedness that disregards social inequities (Luke 20:21; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Galatians 2:6; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:2). Such an assertion would override and silence any of the agitation of class warfare and make a claim that all stand equally before the reality of God. But of course such texts need to be considered in their particularity without using them as a generic dismissal of the facts on the ground that are always germane to every theological
It is clear that the Bible is an arena of contestation between interpretations that in every case reflect social location, social circumstance, and social interest. For the most part, the church of the “haves” has not wanted to notice this contestation about the character of God and the way God is engaged in class
There is now a well-developed interpretive trajectory concerning God’s “preferential option for the poor.” That phrasing insists that God is not neutral or even-handed. Rather God has plunged into the middle of social disputes as an advocate. There can hardly be any doubt that the church must reconsider its social location, its social circumstance, its social interest, and its vocation. The astonishing inequity between “haves” and “have-nots” among us is an acute theological datum. There is a reason that the poor people “heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). Others not so much!