Discussing the Bible as being political can be fairly troublesome at times. Certainly, it seems appropriate to remember Jesus’ words about being divisive in Matthew 10 as we find ourselves in all of the difficulties that go along with this 2016 POTUS election. Some pastors and theologians have asserted over the years that churches should keep politics out of the pulpit and even that the Bible is not political at all in its nature. I must confess that this compartmentalization sounds attractive to me in a lot of ways, especially when I think about Christians whose interpretation of scripture leads them to radically different conclusions from my own. However, a faithful reader of scripture cannot but conclude that there are political motivations and implications intrinsic to much of our Christian canon. The Bible is full of politicians, both corrupt and noble; competent and inept; godly and ungodly. In terms of genre, there are parts of the Bible that even legitimately qualify as political propaganda.
Now, I realize how that sounds… But if you read the book of Judges, you might notice the thematic repetition of “In those days there was no king in Israel…” This phrase, which is strategically peppered into the narrative of progressive moral decay of regional rulers, serves as an apologetic polemic in favor of the monarchical system Israel implements beginning with Saul. The writers of Judges were crafting an argument in favor of the hotly contested idea of a national monarchy, ergo, the content is fairly labelled as propagandist, even if that sounds disrespectful of scripture.
Ezekiel is a prime example of a biblical prophet with a political axe to grind.
In my last blog, I discussed the fall of the Kingdom of Judah in c. 586 BCE. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, was active in this time and experienced exile as a Judean deported from his homeland. It was a time of political upheaval as Babylon conquered, destroyed and subjugated Judah and its capital of Jerusalem. It is important to keep in mind that it was contrary to the so-called royal theology that existed in pre-exilic thought that Judah could be destroyed. After all, hadn’t God promised that a descendant of David would always sit on the throne? So, as events like these inevitably do, the exile of the Judeans generated a whole collection of difficult theological questions about whether God had abandoned Jerusalem, whether the Israelites deserved their destruction, why such suffering had come upon the people, etc. It was this set of questions that set the stage for Ezekiel’s career as a prophet.
Ezekiel turned his eyes to the ruling class of Judah, whom he calls shepherds, and his answers to the questions surrounding Judah’s exile came through his criticism of the apparent political and economic inequality and oppression. Ezekiel records,
The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds: Thus says the LORD GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.’ (Ezekiel 34:1-3)
So why has God allowed Judah to be conquered? For Ezekiel, God judges the political leaders of Judah for their refusal to meet the needs of the needy and to liberate the oppressed. Because God is just, God cannot allow even God’s chosen nation to go on existing because of rampant political injustice. Ezekiel continues,
You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:4)
So, in the midst of a particularly contentious time in American politics, my question for us is this: How might Ezekiel’s radical message against wealth inequality and oppression of the less powerful impact our political ideologies as Christians? Perhaps there is more nuance to biblical politics than the Moral Majority would have us believe.