In what way is an issue such as governance connected to theology? How does morality connect with governance? Last week I shared with you the first of five Lenten Talks from the Pacific Conference of Churches , in association with the Fiji Council of Churches. Last night the second Lenten Talk was given at Dudley Memorial Church in Suva, focusing on formation in governance.
Recapping last week - it is important to remember that in the Bible, the moral formation of Israel is rooted in three key issues and insights: their painful wrestling with the problem of the stranger; the insight resulting from their painful Exodus experience - they are not to do to others what had been done to them; and the insight that their understanding and exercise of stewardship has to be totally different from the way it was understood and exercised within empire (Egypt).
Prior to the Exodus event, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed and, hence in Genesis 22:16-18 we find the first covenant made with an individual, a family who would later became a people and a nation. Although ideas of citizenship and equality were not as yet conceived, these were envisaged in the above passage. Eight centuries later, these ideas and more, were conceived through the Mosaic covenant. The context was the exile and slavery in Egypt, events that God foretold in His words to Abraham in Genesis 15:12-14.
The politics of ancient Israel began with an event that is inconceivable to the human mind: God enters into human history to liberate a group of slaves .It reached a climax in chapter 19 of the Book of Exodus with an event unique in religious history in which God revealed Himself to an entire people at Mount Sinai, and entered into a covenant with them. The Sinai covenant belongs to the political as much as to religious history (we tend to think of revelatory moments belong to something narrowly defined as “religion”). In Exodus 19:3-8, prior to God declaring the Ten Commandments, Israel and God enter into a covenant. What is happening in this encounter? Covenants are not new; it is common in the near East between neighbouring powers. The Bible narrative, however, took over and gave it an entirely new theological dimension. A covenant is being made which turned the Israelites from a people linked by history and biological descent into a body polity under God’s rule. In other words, Israel became a formally constituted political nation.
Three things are revolutionary in this encounter. First, one of the partners in the covenant is God himself. The idea that God might bind himself to a formal agreement with a group of human beings was unprecedented. This was the theological precursor of constitutional monarchy. Second, the other partner was not – as in all other ancient covenants – a leader or king, but the entire people, each one of whom, by given the right of assent or refusal, is granted the dignity of citizenship. Third, God, by inviting the people to signal their willingness to enter the covenant before communicating its terms, is in effect making it conditional on their agreement. In other words, it holds out three key governance principles:
• The participation of all
• The consent of the people
To put these in another way: “There is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed” (in the words of the US declaration of Independence). From its inception, Biblical morality was a living protest against hierarchical societies that give some, but not all, dignity, power and freedom. Instead it insisted that if any individual is sacred, then every individual is, because each of us is made in the image of God (Sacks, 2000). The covenant code or the Law (Torah) is fundamentally an expression of God’s demand for justice and the compassion as a central quality of God (Albert Nolan 1986). It is about how human life is meant to be constructed and lived. It includes all aspects of life as it was then understood and experienced by Israel. Jesus later proclaimed in Matthew 5:17-19 that he came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it. The essential two points about the “Law” are that: First, it is be a direct counter to how life was governed in Egypt. Second, it is to look after those who are being put in the wrong and who cannot do anything about being wronged. In other words: the Law, which is the guidance for Israel’s life, is based on the idea of anti-empire and on the protection of the weak and the powerless. Exodus 22:21-27 clearly highlights this. The point is that their way of governance must be the total opposite from the way they were governed in Egypt – oppression, injustice, poverty, etc.
From a Christian perspective, never before, and rarely since, has the dignity of the human person in the presence of God been so singularly elevated and rarely ever since until Jesus Christ. This was a historically unprecedented attempt to envisage and create a society as a covenant of equal citizens freely bound to one another and to God. About 700 years before Plato (The Republic) and the Greek Academy thought about democracy as we know it now, the Biblical narrative had envisaged such a system of governance. Ideas of equality, citizenship and free society emerged as key foundations in the construction of a nation.The “Law” or the Torah is essentially about the whole of life and its purpose is centrally about the protection of the weak and the powerless: the “Law” is to be a critique of the law.
Covenants are not new; it existed in the near East at the time of the Old Testament, but the Biblical narrative took over and gave it moral and religious significance. A covenant is an attempt to create partnerships without domination or submission. “It exists because of one extraordinary feature of language: we can use words to place ourselves under obligation” (Noam Chomsky, 2008). A covenant exists because we are different and we seek to preserve that difference, even as we come together to bring our gifts to the common good. Pluralism is a form of hope, so says Prophet Isaiah (19:19-25). Precisely because we are different, each of us has something unique to contribute to the community’s common good is inter-generational. “Not with you alone who are standing here today in the presence of the Lord our God, am I making this covenant with its oath, but also with those who are not here today” (Deut 29:14-15); “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (Edmund Burke).
A covenant is an answer to the most fundamental question in the evolution of societies: “How can we establish relationships secure enough to become the basis of co-operation, without the use of economic, political or military power?” It is more foundational than contracts; it creates societies; it is like the declaration of independence. It defines the moral principles on which a nation is founded. It reaffirms the basic features of morality (Philip Selznick, 1994):
- deference to a source of judgement beyond autonomous will
- constructive self-regard
- concern for the well-being of others
- affirms that there is dignity in difference
The point is that without some form of covenants, it is doubtful whether we would even care. But the fact that covenants make us aware of the limits, scandals and our obligations. The “covenants” we make (marriage, church, cultural grouping, etc.) matter a great deal for they create communities. “The knowledge that you matter to others is a kind of security that money can purchase.” (McKibben, 2007:156). At the same time covenants “establish the principles of a particular way of life… it is not an abstract morality” (Philip Selznick, 1994). These, remind us that the covenant conditions we pledge to uphold extend our responsibility to the past, the present and the future; remind us that we are guardians of the past for the sake of the future and broadens our horizons to the claims of the generations of which we are a part; hold us accountable to the consequences of our actions: from how we treat stranger – the one who is different - among us, exploitation and abuse of the environment, condition of the poor and the neglected among us, exploitation of human labour and the those unemployed, abuse of women and children, or to discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS.
The Lenten Talks are held every Tuesday at Dudley Church at 7pm. Next week the “The Exodus and Social Justice.”
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”.