I believe that biblical law is God’s revelation of how to apply relational priorities in a specific historical context.
This biblical social vision is summarised in the word righteousness (hebrew tsdq), meaning right relationships in society. Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech inspired the whole civil rights movement in the United states. What was his dream for American society? What was it that he longed for? It was that blacks and whites would come to live together in real harmony. That was his vision, his dream. And that was an expression of tsdq, of righteousness, of right relationships. While we may have reservations about King’s personal life and ethics, I think that expression of public ethics comes close to the biblical vision.
There are, of course, some objections to using biblical law today. I don’t intend to spend time on those now. I want to focus instead on the question of where Jesus fits in once we say that biblical law is an important category for thinking about public policy.
The first thing to say is that Jesus demonstrates perfect relationships. It is to him that we have to look for our model. His relationship with women is very interesting. I’m sure you can think of the many examples in his ministry where Jesus demonstrates his respect for women.
It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that while Jesus had perfect relationships, they were of varying depth with different people. So, for example, some people he only met once, often as part of a crowd. With the twelve disciples he developed relationships of considerable depth. With three of the disciples he seems to have developed particularly close and special relationships. So Peter goes up the Mount of transfiguration while his brother Andrew is left behind. God does not expect us to have deep relationships with everybody. Jesus didn’t. Yes, he had perfect relationships, but they were of varying depth with people according to the way he believed the Father led him. Jesus managed his time in that sense in ways that i think many of us could learn from.
Equally, Jesus understood that many issues, around money or health for example, were really about relationships. The paralytic lowered through the roof wanted his health restored. But the first thing Jesus said was, “your sins are forgiven.” Jesus deals with the relationship between the paralytic and God before he does anything about his physical condition. So Jesus looked at this man’s health needs from a relationship perspective rather than a physical perspective.
Second, Jesus demonstrates the full meaning and application of relational values and priorities. He applies the laws governing actions to cover attitudes also. And Jesus speaks on a number of occasions about the way money in particular affects relationships. He uses debt as a way of talking about the relational consequences of sin. And in one parable he shows the importance of using our money in ways that build relationships. He says that when money is a thing of the past we should aim to have made friends for ourselves in heaven. (Luke 16.9) Money has huge impact on relationships and Jesus discusses it at length.
Above all, Jesus provides a solution to the breakdown of relationships. It seems that at all levels, there is a constant problem of dysfunctional relationships and broken relationships. In Kosovo, perhaps more than ten thousand people were killed in ethnic violence. Yet i’ve been in Rwanda where they remind us that they lost ten thousand people every day for ninety days in a row and nobody from Europe ever intervened for them. No one ever spent fifteen billion pounds on some form of intervention in Rwanda. Yet the violence there was on a totally different scale from anything seen in Kosovo, let alone Northern Ireland.
How do you build relationships after genocide? How do you overcome years, decades, of bitterness in a country like Rwanda? I have to say that it’s very difficult to find any form of solution without going back to the cross. There is no motivation to forgive people who have wronged you, who drove out your family or as neighbours, murdered your family. What do you say to a church leader who speaks bitterly of the other side? What do you say to him when you realise that he lost his wife and five children in the genocide? What does it feel like to lose your family to people who murdered them simply because they were from the other side? What hope is there in that situation without the cross?
Britain doesn’t face a breakdown in relationships of that kind, but in western culture at the end of the second millennium, relationships are breaking down in an unprecedented way. I can’t speak for Ulster because I don’t know this part of the world so well, but in mainland Britain I can speak with a considerable knowledge, and I regard the relational breakdown as very severe, particularly within the family. Nearly fifty percent of marriages now end in divorce with all the consequences of that for children. Recently a child psychologist suggested that the vast majority of children find it very difficult to ever overcome the effect of a divorce. Of course, there are all kinds of factors involved in divorce but I think we shouldn’t underestimate the immense consequences of this on the relationships in our society.
Why is it happening? What’s going on? What’s driving it? In the light of our understanding of what the Bible teaches we have come to see certain issues as key. First, there is the loss of faith in God. Perhaps people lose the motivation to sustain a marriage if they’ve lost their faith. Second, there is the loss of a sense of place. Many people in mainland Britain don’t know the names of their next door neighbours.
Then there is the impact of capital markets and the individualisation of finance. People today have personal bank accounts, personal pensions, personal insurance, and people are taxed individually. Indeed, the government encourages us to do our savings individually by setting up individual savings accounts. If, financially, the world is organised on the basis of individualism, how then can we expect to encourage a strong sense of family and community? We don’t do things together; we have no sense of shared purpose.
Or take our criminal justice system where we punish people through social exclusion. Look at the welfare system which provides people with a certain amount of money but ignores relational issues – if you don’t give people work to do you don’t affirm their position in the community. Consider the impact of new technologies. Time is the currency of relationships but we only have a fixed amount of time each day. You can use that time to have a very small number of relationships but have them in great depth. Or you can use it to have an enormous number of relationships which will, inevitably, be much shallower. And what is happening with the new information technologies and communication technologies is that we are in touch with more and more people every day but at a shallower and shallower level. I have heard it said that we meet as many people in a week as a medieval person met in a lifetime. It makes you think doesn’t it?
(The last part of the conference will be published next week)
Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.
I have dealt with some of these issues in a Cambridge Paper Relationism: pursuing a biblical vision for society (Cambridge Papers 6.4 December 1997)
For the divorce rates at a European level, country by country, as of 2016, visit : https://www.statista.com/statistics/612207/divorce-rates-in-european-countries-per-100-marriages/