On Their Own Terms

What is the prophetic tradition?

Recently, I spoke to a "born-again" Christian who was mad as hell at me for having the nerve to express the opinion that far too many evangelical voters have lost touch with the prophetic tradition contained within the Bible they believe to be the inerrant Word of God.

Oddly enough, this gentleman, who claims to be a Bible-believing Christian for the past 40 years, asked me: "What is the prophetic tradition?"

The prophetic tradition refers to those prophets who criticized, interrogated and exhorted God's people regarding social evil – a tradition that began with the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and reached its zenith (at least for Christians) with Jesus' life and teaching (which isn't to say that Jesus was a mere prophet).

If you peruse the Bible in search of scripture that talks about the immorality of certain sexual practices or abortion, you'll find a handful, here and there. But you'll find far more verses dealing with economic ethics on earth, especially as it relates to the poor.

Just to give you a thumbnail sketch, consider the following.

"If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother (Deuteronomy 15:7)."

"This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles (Psalm 34:6)."

"He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker. But he that honoreth him hath mercy on the poor (Proverbs 14:31)."

The prophet Isaiah had this to say: "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them (Isaiah 41:17)."

"As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great and waxen rich ... they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge. Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? (Jeremiah 5:27-29)."

The prophet Amos declares: "Thus saith the Lord; for three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek ... (Amos 2:6,7)."

Turning to the New Testament, Jesus himself said that the nations would be judged according to how they've dealt with "the least of these," and he announced his public ministry with these words: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor... (Luke 4:18)."

And did you know that James, Jesus' brother, had a few things to say wealth and poverty also?

"Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you ... Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which ... you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord (James 5:1-4)."

These verses are just the tip of the biblical iceberg, which is why some theologians speak of God's "preferential option for the poor."

If the richest nation in the history of the world is populated by millions of Bible-believing Christians, then how come issues of poverty and economic justice were barely mentioned this past election season?

There are an estimated 35 million poor people in America, including nearly 13 million children. The poverty rate has increased steadily over the past three years, most dramatically among children. But not a peep about this from either Bush or Kerry.

A Bible-believing America? Yeah, and I'm the next pope. It's true that when scripture is wrenched out of context the biblically ignorant can prop up just about any polemic. But when you consider the Bible in its entirety, there are certain ethical principles that scream out at you. And because secular, anti-religious arguments will never win over the religious, I think it's more useful to engage Bible-believers on their own terms, considering the political influence they apparently hold.


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