Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Law Is Truly And Entirely More Radical Than Marx And Its Inspiration More Politically Potent Than Would-be Science

Since she is a fine, even a great writer and an unusually deep scholar and thinker, especially by the ambient standards of our time, it's hard to choose what to leave out in studying one of Marilynne Robinson's essays.  But unless you're intending to break copyright laws it's necessary.

Right before the passage I'm going to post this morning, Marilynne Robinson notes that The Law's focus isn't the protection of wealth but the righteousness of individuals and the goodness of individual and communal life.   It would be impossible to sustain Margaret Thatcher's declaration that society doesn't exist under the theories that The Law of Moses are based in.  Thatcher's is a totally secular idea that could not have come from the Mosaic tradition of thought.

Robinson says that "The relation of law to prophecy, of prohibition to liberation, is very clear."  It is very unpopular today to attribute any inspiration of the American Constitution and laws to The Law, as found in The Bible, as if reading of Roman law, from the period before Rome was an empire or after, or Greek ideas about the law, or John Locke* or, heaven help us, the French thought around their revolution.  That is, admittedly, due to the fact that it is almost exclusively right-wing fanatics who appropriate THE NAME AND WORD, "THE BIBLE" when what is said in that book would be poison to their current political aspirations.  If The Law were imposed on us, the Republicans entire economic system, their war against the poor, the alien, the dispossessed, would crumble and the system that replaced it would be anathema to them.  That current liberals don't know this and don't use that fact in promoting their ideas which are certainly derived from those very scriptures, several generations removed, perhaps, has certainly not produced their political survival, either the welfare laws of the past or the political survival of liberalism.

The laws of Moses assume that the land is God's. that the Hebrews are strangers and sojourners there who cannot really own it but who enjoy it at God's pleasure (Liviticus 25:23).  The land is apportioned to the tribes, excepting the priestly Levites.  It can be sold ( the assumption seems to be that this would be done under pressure of debt or poverty) but a kinsman has the right to buy it back, that is, redeem it, and restore it to its owner.  In any case, in every fiftieth year the lands are restored to the tribes and households to whom they were first given. Every seventh year Hebrew slaves were freed, each taking with him or her enough of the master's goods to "furnish him liberally" (Deuteronomy 15:14 all quotations are from the Revised Standard Version).  In these years also all debts are to be forgiven,  Obviously these laws would have the effect of preventing accumulations of wealth and preventing as well the emergence of a caste of people who are permanently dispossessed.  Furthermore, in every seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath, to lie fallow, "that the poor of your people may eat and what they leave the wild beasts may eat" (Exodus 23:11). Others are to live on what it produces without cultivation and on what has been set aside (Leviticus 25:1-7, 20-23).  At all times people are forbidden to reap the corners of their fields, to glean after they have reaped, to harvest their vineyards and their olive tress thoroughly, to go back into the field for a sheaf they have forgotten:  "It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.  You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this" (Deuteronomy 24:21-22).  

These laws would preserve those who were poor from the kind of wretchedness More describes by giving them an assured subsistence.  While charity in Christendom was urged as a virtue - one that has always been unevenly aspired to - here the poor have thier portion at the hand of God, and at the behest of the law.  If a commandment is something in the nature of the promise ("Ten Commandments" is an English imposition, in Hebrew they are called the Ten Words), then not only "you are not to be stolen from" but also "you will not steal" would be in some part fulfilled, first because the poor are given the right to take what would be elsewhere have been someone else's property, and second because they are sheltered fro the extreme of desperation that drives the needy to theft.  The law of Moses so far values life above property that it forbids killing a thief who is breaking and entering by daylight (Exodus 22:2).  Judgement in criminal matters is based on the testimony of at least two witnesses, and not, as in premodern European civil law, on judicial torture and self-incrimination, which often led to the deaths of accused who insisted on their innocence.  In many ways Moses would have lifted the terrible onus of manslaughter from the whole civilization.  The benefits to everyone involved in terms of dignity and peace would have been incalculable. 

And it is certainly to be noted that no conditions limit God's largess toward the poor.  They need not be pious, or Jewish, or worthy, or conspicuously in need, or intent on removing themselves from their condition of dependency.  The Bible never considers the poor otherwise than with tender respect, and this is fully as true where the speaker is "the Jewish God" as it is when the speaker is Jesus. What laws could be more full of compassion than these?

You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Exodus 23:9

You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you;  he shall dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best;  you shall not oppress him, Deuteronomy 23:15-16

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge.  Deuteronomy 24:17

You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you.  Deuteronomy 25:14-15

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.... You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and all that you undertake.  For the poor will never cease out of the land therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.  Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11

Then there is the Sabbath, the day in which one may not exploit and cannot be exploited, even by one's family or oneself.  

Six days you shall labor and do all your work;  but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;  in it you shall not do any work, you , or your son or your daughter, or your manservant, or our maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.  You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.  Deuteronomy 5:12-15


One of the most commonly made accusations against religion these days is that The Bible was the inspiration of what we generally understand to be slavery, meaning that kind of slavery practiced in the American colonies and states, including all of the original colonies, from what would become Maine, down to Georgia.  But if just these laws in the Bible that was widely read in all of those states was the foundation of American slavery, it would have been almost nothing like the system of slavery which the American Constitution made a part of the foundation of our political system and which it and the laws passed and sustained under it maintained for almost a century into the government's existence.  That is the reason that when slaves and those who escaped slavery, such as David Walker mounted the organized and serious attempt to abolish slavery, they used those books of the Hebrew Bible quoted by Marilynne Robinson in opposition to such heroes of The Federalist Society as Thomas Jefferson.

And as Marilynne Robinson mentioned earlier in her essay, capitalism, not to mention most of the oppressive laws and institutions of Europe and in other countries deputed to be "Christian" could never have been adopted or enforced. If The Law that Jesus said he came to uphold to the letter had been fully adopted by Christians, almost the entire program of slander, derision and mockery that we have been witness to in the past century would have been known to have been a lie.  The world would be entirely different.   It would surpass anything that today's liberals envision as a good society, a just society.

If, as well, the commentary on The Law that Jesus made were to inform the law of Christian Europe and the Americas, even the penalty of capital punishment which our Supreme Court is hearing today as I type this would be in question.  As I noted, Jesus gave the qualification of complete inculpability as a prerequisite for people taking the life of someone who violated one of the Mosaic laws which prescribed death.   A qualification which Christians had to believe has been met only once in history, in the person of Jesus (and for Catholics and some others who subscribe to that theory of Mariology , his mother).

Liberals are stupid if they don't publicize these facts, laid out in Marilynne Robinson's essays and use them to challenge those who have stolen the most potent of moral and so political theories that would transform our politics, entirely.  The few passages in those books which violate our modern sensibility are generally either attributable to a far different understanding of sexuality or magic than we have today.  That the inspiration of God - and I can't imagine how they would have come up with such inspired thinking from common human experience - has to have come through human limitations has certainly given their expressions some defects but those in the Mosaic law are tiny as compared to our own Constitution.  As human beings, it is for us to figure out how to weed out the bad ideas from those which are truly good.  I entirely believe that taking our cues from the general tenor of The Law of Moses is a far better place to start from than those usually held up as heroes of modern political theory.  The law of Jefferson, Madison, Locke, Marx, etc. are certainly not without their vicious and undesirable consequences.   The "scientific" thinking advocated by many of those who despise The Law produced even worse, their body counts, far higher.

*  In her essay,  Open They Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism, Robinson points out that the legal system that John Locke wrote up for the Carolina colonies,The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,  instituted an actual feudal system, one which institutes virtual rule by aristocracy.  That the purported prophet of modern democracy had that as a vision of good government should certainly discredit his current reputation that could only be held in ignorance of that example of his ideas in action.  That Locke is lionized by the oligarchic party in America today is far more understandable than that liberals would think he, a full fledged member of the lionized enlightenment, were a better model of thought than The Law which is, in almost all respects, far more liberal.  I'm not well enough versed in the history of the Carolinas, but they quickly abandoned the enlightened system of Locke.  I suspect that was more out of refusal of people to be lorded over in a new land than it was out of anything more in line with sustained virtue.

1 comment:

  1. And it is certainly to be noted that no conditions limit God's largess toward the poor. They need not be pious, or Jewish, or worthy, or conspicuously in need, or intent on removing themselves from their condition of dependency. The Bible never considers the poor otherwise than with tender respect, and this is fully as true where the speaker is "the Jewish God" as it is when the speaker is Jesus. What laws could be more full of compassion than these?

    This is something that cannot be stated enough. Yes, there is a gap between the believers and their scriptures, but their scriptures always call them, always challenge them to a better practice, a better vision. It is entirely possible to read the Hebrew scriptures as exclusionary (as, if Luke got it right, Peter did, contrary to Paul). But it also possible to read them, with Isaiah's vision of the holy mountain as one of the touchstones here, as a call to Israel to be faithful to God, which faithfulness will become a blessing to all the nations. And that blessing won't be pie in the sky by and by, but real and present in this world, in the life of the nation and an inspiration and guide to all nations.

    As Karen Armstrong argues, religion is a matter of practice and, ultimately, practicality; not a matter of intellectual consent or even blind obedience.