JOURNAL 9/28/11 -- Is "Class Warfare" a Biblical Concept?
PRECIS: first, “class warfare” was a biblical concept thousands of years before it became a term in political discourse; second, therefore, those who are flinging the term around as a form of attack today are on shaky ground.
“When the ungodly behave
arrogantly, the poor are set;
let them be caught in the
counsels they ponder. … They
lie in ambush with the wealthy;
they kill the innocent in hidden
places; their eyes look intently
at the poor; they lie in ambush
in a hiding place like a lion in
his den; they lie in wait to seize
the poor, to seize the poor to drag
them away. They will humble the
poor in their snare; but they will
bend down and fall when they rule
over the poor. For they said in their
heart, ‘God forgets; God has turned
God’s face so as never to see it’.”
[Psalm 9:23, 29-32 LXX,
Orthodox Study Bible]
Psalm 9 – which I am using as the text above primarily because it “just happens” a part of my biblical meditation this week -- has verses within it which, in my opinion, represent the plurality of the biblical texts and tradition on “class warfare.”
It’s a “plurality” because there exist considerably more than just one “theology” in the Bible, each represented by their own group of texts. But, in my considered opinion, this “theology” is represented by the largest single group of text, even if that those texts don’t make up quite half of all texts. That’s what a “plurality” is. (Although in my reading of the Bible over the years, and done without counting verses in this matter, my sense is that this group of texts, and therefore this theology, makes up far more than half.)
“Theology,” by the way, simply means “words about God.” Our human “theologies” are those words we use about God, and about ourselves in relationship with God, based on our encounters with God. In the Christian tradition, the “Word about God” is Jesus Himself; all other words are human words about the Word.
On to the words of Psalm 9 …
Psalms 9 and 10, in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament” to Christians), originally was one psalm. There are many reasons for saying that; but, for purposes of this particular blog post, it takes us too far afield to go into those reasons. But unless you’re using a version of the Hebrew Bible known as the “Septuagint” (“sep-TOO-a-gent”) – see next paragraphs – you will see the original Psalm 9 as two consecutive Psalms, 9 and then 10.
The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible. Originally, it was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. When someone quotes from the Septuagint – as I did above – it is noted by adding the letters “LXX” at the end of the reference, as I did above. LXX is “70” in Roman numerals, and refers to the legend that the Septuagint was the work of 72 scholars working for 72 days (later, the legendary number somehow dropped to 70, or LXX).
What’s important about that is, the Septuagint was the most commontranslation of the Hebrew Bible throughout much if not most of Palestine, and all the Mediterranean world, at the time of Jesus. It is the translation used by Paul and almost every other New Testament writer, including the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
So that version of Psalm 9 –quoted above in English – is what just about any New Testament person would have known just from hearing it read. If they knew how to read – which most people in first century Palestine did not – they would almost certainly have read from the LXX too.)
(Jesus Himself, while growing up, probably heard – and ultimately memorized – an Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible known as a “Targum.” But that, too, is a long story that would take us outside the focus of this blog post.)
In these verses, the “ungodly” – often translated as “wicked” – are those who beat up on the poor.
And they are in cahoots with – they “lie in ambush with” – the “wealthy,” thepower élite of ancient Hebrew society. And their target is “the innocent,” “the poor.”
That is biblical “class warfare.”
It does not mean that all the wealthy are bullies who oppress the poor.
And it certainly does not mean all the poor are innocent.
But it does mean just what 1 Timothy 6:10 tells us: "The love of money is the root of all evil." Greed for money -- greed of any kind, for anything -- is worship of an idol (Ephesians 5:5). The former thief is enjoined to work with his/her hands, "... that s/he may have something to give to the one who has need" (Ephesians 4:28) ... and there is no evidence the former thief wasn't a rich person who stole. The Bible is full of examples of the rich whodid steal, Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1ff) being an important example, and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible using as all of their examples of societal wrongs the examples of rich and powerful who stole land, money, and even rights.
The poor likewise are sinners, and are equally able to rob, plunder, destroy. But they lack the capacity to do so on the scale of the rich and powerful. Therefore they are guilty, but not nearly as responsible.
In any event, and on any read, you just have to come to terms with this fact in this, the “plurality” theology of the Hebrew Bible: those who beat up on the poor are the “wealthy,” and the “arrogant” and “wicked” who lie in ambush with the wealthy.
And you have to come to terms with a fact of Hebrew poetry (all the Psalms, along with bunches and bunches and bunches of other Bible texts, are poetry): it “rhymes” by repeating ideas, not necessarily sounds … a “rhyming” known as “parallelism.” In these verses, wicked and arrogant and wealthy are in parallel; they “rhyme”; they mean essentially the same thing.
And furthermore, in these verses innocent and poor “rhyme.” They mean the same thing.
That too is biblical “class warfare” – the wealthy do violence to the poor, and in so doing identify themselves as the “arrogant” and “wicked,” and at the same time the poor in these circumstancesbecome the “innocent.”
It started with a God who is known as the one who “hears the cries of the poor” (Exodus 3:14 et al) … a God who hears and then acts.
And lest we think that’s only for the ancient Hebrews in what later became the nation of Israel, we have the prophets to remind us otherwise. Amos (chapter 1) is pretty blunt in detailing how YHWH’s bias for the poor weighs on, and if necessary against, any nation. All nations. That’s just the way this YHWH is.
And if that doesn’t convince, we have this same Amos bracketing, book-ending, as it were, his own writings with the affirmation than YHWH is in charge of an Exodus wherever needed, not just in ancient Israel oppressed by ancient Egypt (Amos 9:7).
That is biblical “class warfare.”
Now, where it differs from modern notions of “class warfare” is in this: YHWH is Himself the warrior. The oldest written passage of the Hebrew Bible is thought to be Exodus 15:21, the “Song of Miriam,” where Miriam (the sister of Moses) sings that it was YHWH who slammed Pharaoh’s army into the sea.
From that ancient moment onwards, consistently enough to claim at least aplurality of biblical texts on the topic, Hebrew Bible and New Testament alike (and I have no trouble claiming most of texts), YHWH God is clearly revealed as the One who hears the cries of the poor – those beaten up by the rich and powerful, those without any “social safety net” and without any protector or advocate – and becomes their Protector, their Advocate.
That is biblical “class warfare,” and it is the God of the Bible who is the warrior.
And that is solid biblical theology, too.
For any political party or “movement” to cry “Class warfare!” as a protestagainst any and all efforts to rein in the power of the wealthy and powerful – and to shore up the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable among us – is at bestto go strolling out on ice fragile enough to crack under a serious question mark.
“Class warfare” originated, not with Marxists, not with socialists, not with any of their economic or political progenitors. It originated with the God of the Bible.
(I first wrote that it “originated in the West” with the God of the Bible … but in fact, this isn’t a Western notion at all. It’s at least Middle Eastern, Ancient Near Eastern specifically. And it’s not at all impossible it came there, several thousands of years ago, from even further away from the “Western world.”)
And it is God who works against these inequities … or, more honesty against this political and economic pornography.
Here’s why I say that:
The essence of pornography is to see and react to only the surface features of a body, based entirely on one’s lust for personal gratification (which isn’t necessarily “just sexual” either.) It is, accordingly, to refuse to acknowledge theperson beneath those surface features. And so pornographic acts are those which relate to the largely impersonal surfaces entirely for one’s personal, private satisfactions.
The refusal to take human beings, with their needs and sufferings, into account – into the bottom-line accounting rules of either government or, more commonly throughout the world today, corporate “free market” capitalism – is corporate pornography.
But the main point of Psalm 9 – and of this at least plurality of biblical texts and the theology that grows naturally out of them – is that God works in opposition to that suffering and wrong. God is anti-governmental and –corporatepornography when governments and economic powers begin to ignore – to not see – the face of the poor.
In fact, if God took human nature into the Godhead – which Orthodox teachings about the Incarnation as well as Ascension insist is precisely what happened in Jesus of Nazareth – then God entered our human dimensionality through a Poor Man.
What I call “the demographics of the Incarnation” show without doubt, that God elected to show God’s own nature most fully by becoming an itinerant poor Man, without even a place to lay His head, in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, among the outcasts of the political Empire (Rome) as well as the Religious empire (the élite of 1st Century Palestinian Judaism).
That – among the poor and hungry, the overlooked and despised – is whereGod’s nature was, and is, revealed … where God was, and is, located (Matthew 25:31-46).
God’s “class warfare” does not take the form of violence, stories in the Hebrew Bible notwithstanding. The fall of the wealthy and powerful – as Psalm 9 (LXX) makes clear – is into the traps they themselves have set. God subtly withdraws uncreated energies from this person, that group, those circumstances … all at the prompting of our own human activity, individual and corporate … and relocates them in other people, groups, circumstances … all likewise at the prompting of our own human activity, individual and corporate.
It is what I call “Christic karma.” We set in motion the ripples that, in time, solidify into habit … and our hearts, like Pharaoh’s, become (self-)hardened … and ultimately we end up trapped in the circumstances of our own making. We choke off saving grace by our own poor choices, compounded in their effect by further poor choices until we have created a provincial hell (as opposed to the ultimate hell) on earth. And our freedom of choice and maneuver, long ago self-strangulated, is gone … and the trap we set has us, whether now or at some indiscernible time in the future.
God’s “class warfare” is to let us go with the momentum of rich and powerful against poor and helpless, until we fall.
Or as Psalm 9:31 (LXX) puts it:
“… [the wicked, the wealthy]
will bend down and fall when
they rule over the poor.”
Better – infinitely, eternally better – to see Christ Himself in and among the poor and hungry (Matthew 25:31ff), and choose instead to join the Father in loving and the Son. There, where He said we'll find Him.
Class love, or else class warfare.
And then the fall, and great will be the fall of it.
The choice is ours. The outcome ultimately is God’s.