Biblical Foundations for Broad-based Organizing

An essay by Robert Linthicum

Among the membership of all IAF-related broad-based organizations are churches and other religious communities.  It is important, if organizing is to be integrated into the life and ministry of these churches as well as their working for justice in their city or region, that they recognize that the call to building a people of power is integral to and is supported by a biblical theology of power.   That is because the themes of justice and of commitment to the building of a people of power (especially among the poor) dominate the Scripture.  Let us look at some of these themes.

God’s intentions for all humanity, the church believes and scripture teaches, is that we live in “shalom communities” — communities of peace, caring, support, prosperity, abundance and oneness with God and humanity.  God has created our political, economic and social/spiritual systems to provide the structure and means for us to live in this paradise of shalom, thus bringing glory to God (Lev. 26:3-13; Deut. 7:7-14; 26:1-10; II Sam. 7:8-16; Isa. 32:15-17; 65:17-25; Mark 10:47-52; Luke 10:1-12; Rom. 14:13-20).

The religious system has been created by God to bring the nation, city, religious institution or family into relationship with God and, consequently, into oneness with each other.  That is why both corporate and individual life was created: so that humanity might glorify God and enjoy God forever (Numbers 6:24-26; Deut. 10:12-20; Luke 10:27-28).  The political system was created by God to bring a Godly order to society – an order based upon equitable justice for all as the inevitable outworking of a corporate deepening of relationship with God and each other (Deut. 16:19-20; 17:8-13; Micah 6:8; Col. 1:15-20).  The economic system was created by God to steward the resources of that nation, city, business, church or family, so that poverty would be eliminated (Exod. 23:10-11; Deut. 6:10-16; 15:1-18; 26:1-15; Acts 4:32-35).  The Godly objective of economics was an equitable distribution of wealth, so that economic justice could be maintained between all citizens.

Of course, we know society does not fit that description.  Greed, avarice, the lust for power, the need for prestige seems to dominate all individual and corporate relationships.  And the Bible is not shy about analyzing what went wrong (I Kings 21:1-24; Jer. 6:13-15; 7:1-34; 8:10; Mark 10:21-25; John 11:45-53).  Whether describing the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, the gradual corruption of Israel’s kings, the misuse of power by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, the coterie of priests and religious leaders who put Jesus to death or the systems of Satan and God as represented in the whore Babylon (Rev. 17-18) and the New Jerusalem (Rev. 20-21), the Bible analyzes the gradual corruption of the systems God has created and the abandonment of the shalom community.

The prophet Ezekiel, in a brilliant analysis of systemic evil, contended that corruption begins with money.  The economic leaders determine that they do not wish to be stewards of the people’s wealth (commonwealth) but owners of an institution’s wealth.  Eventually they will not only seek honest gain but will find even illegal ways to build their own wealth, even if that means exploiting an increasingly vulnerable people (Ezek. 22:12, 27).  The political system, seeking to protect the wealth of the increasingly affluent (and thus protect the sources of the politician’s own wealth and power) will create laws that oppress the people while protecting the powerful (Ezek. 22:23-25).  The religious system will then support this political and economic collusion by “blessing” it (for which they will be amply rewarded).  This they will do by using that access the people think they have to God to manipulate the people to do what the religious leaders want them to do, thus creating a religion of control while seeking their own power (Ezek. 22:26).  The voices of accountability – the prophets – will gradually be seduced by money, power and prestige, and thus will be stilled (Ezek. 22:28).  The people, oppressed, exploited and controlled by the systems created to serve them, will become the exploiters of each other (Ezek. 22:29-31).  Thus, the essential spiritual nature of the nation, city, business, church or family, which has been created by God, will become implacably evil (Ezek. 22:3-12).

Perhaps the most profound analysis of this corrupting power of systems was given by the Apostle Paul.  Faced with an increasingly oppressive Rome, Paul promulgated the doctrine of the “principalities and powers”.  The increasing evil in an institution, Paul taught, is not simply because of the evil that is within humanity.  It occurs because the systems are particularly vulnerable to the demonic.  Because they deal with the most primal realities of life, the systems can become demonically possessed.  The struggle in the nation, city, business, church or family is not simply “against flesh and blood”.  Instead, it is against “the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” (Eph. 6:10-12).  And that is why it is a particularly pervasive and intense battle.

Deeper than its social analysis, the Scriptures are particularly concerned about what the people of God are to do to challenge the corruption of the systems.  The essential vocation of the church is to work for the shalom of its city (Jer. 29:7).  It does this by calling the systems of its city to be what God created them to be rather than the demonic exploiters of people that they have become (Col. 2:11-15).  The church is to work for the transformation of the people and their institutions (Eph. 3:8-12, John 9:1-39, Jer. 22:1-5, 13-17).  Our model in doing this is none other than Jesus, our Lord and Master who resisted the Jewish and Roman systems, called them to accountability, built an alternative community that would recapture shalom, and died and rose again to provide the means for transforming both the lives of people and their institutions (Matt. 5-7; 16:1-27; 23:1-39; 27:41-43; 28:11-15; Mark 1:21-28; 7:24-30; 10:32-42; 11:11-26; Luke 4:18-19; 6:20-26; 18:19-19:10; John 1:19-51; 13:34-35; 18:3-19:36; 21:1-14).

What this means, in practical outworking, is that the church is to be on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited.  It is to work for their empowerment – both by the gospel and by their own self-determination.  The Old Testament scriptures call Israel to this primary task (Isa. 58:6-7; Amos 5:21, 24; Deut. 15:4-10).

In the New Testament era, because of the overwhelming dominance by Rome of the political order and because of the church’s exclusion from participation in that order, little is said in the New Testament regarding political justice.  But the Christians did have control over their own pocketbooks.  Therefore, the thrust of the New Testament’s call to the church regarding the poor is in terms of economic responsibility.  Thus, Jesus spoke more about money than any other subject except God because he perceived money as the most powerful vehicle either to keep a person away from God (Luke 18:18-27) or to enhance his relationship with God (Luke 19:1-10).  But perhaps the most substantive call to the church to use the power given it (whether economic or spiritual) to work for humanity’s liberation was sounded by St. Paul.

The book of Ephesians is about the liberation that comes to humanity through Christ (Eph. 1:3-14; 2:1-22), who defeats both the heavenly principalities and their possession of the systems that organize humanity (1:15-23; 3:1-13).  When the church becomes a body of believers committed to each other’s liberation and empowerment in Jesus Christ (4:1-16), this will have a profound impact not only upon each other, but also on all society around them.  It will radically alter the Christian’s lifestyle into a pure, disciplined life (4:17-23).  It will create a body of Christ that is truly liberating to all its members (5:1-20).  It will profoundly change the relationships in marriage, empowering the women (in Paul’s day, the legally disenfranchised party) (5:21-33) and protecting defenseless children (6:1-4).  It will transform the economic institutions of society, especially protecting the right of the employees (6:5-9).  Finally, it will equip the church to confront its city’s or nation’s political, economic and religious systems that will cause those systems to become what God intended them to be (6:10-17).

The primary way such commitment to the poor is to be lived out by the church is through working with the poor so that they become a people of power.  God’s people are called by scripture to practice charity toward the poor (Deut. 15:10-11), are to be concerned about deteriorating human conditions among the poor (Isa. 61:1-9) and are to advocate the cause of the powerless before the systems of power (Jer. 22:13-27).  But the greater emphasis throughout Scripture is commitment to the self-determination and self-initiative of the poor.

Thus, in the Old Testament, Pharaoh could only be faced down by a Jew who cried, “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1-12:32).  In the Promised Land, debts were to be periodically forgiven so that the poor could undertake the rebuilding of their lives (Deut. 15:7-11), and the corners of a threshed field were not to be harvested so that the poor could gather grain for themselves (Deut. 24:19-22; Ruth 2:1-23).  Jeremiah instructed the Israelites enslaved in Babylon to build a life for themselves there (Jer. 29:1-7).  Nehemiah called the defeated people of Israel not only to rebuild their walls (Neh. 2:16-20) but also their corporate life (Neh. 8-11).

In the New Testament, Jesus required the blind man to wash in the Pool of Siloam if he was to receive his sight (John 9).  He consistently stated when he healed people, “Your faith has made you whole”, not “I have made you well”.  Paul stressed that a person’s initiative plays a strong role in his salvation; he cannot be helped by God unless he accepts for his own life what God has already provided for him through Christ (Rom 1:16-17; 12:1-2).  The constant theme of Scripture – whether dealing with the liberation of the impoverished powerless or the salvation of the spiritually impoverished – is that of self-initiative, of empowerment through an intentional commitment to build power.

This is the biblical imperative for the church to be involved in the building of a people of power in the world and in the church.  The organizing of communities to identify and address their own needs is simply another way of acting out the biblical injunction to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:13).  Participation in community organization provides the church with the most biblically directed and most effective means for bringing about the transformation of a community through the Iron Rule: “Never do for others what they can do for themselves”.

Robert C. Linthicum, Building A People of Power (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Press, 2006), pp. 297-301. Used by Permission