A More Distributively Just Way

by Herb Montgomery | May 1, 2020


“The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.”

Happy International Worker’s Day!

Every community has its own way of relating to the rejection of leaders in whom they see hope for the future wellbeing of their society.

“Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Luke 11:49-51)

Many scholars believe this passage in Luke to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem. In this passage, the Gospel authors are trying to make sense of such devastation. Was their interpretation healthy and life-giving or not?

I want to be careful here. Christianity has a long, anti-Semitic history of attaching punitive explanations to Jerusalem’s destruction, saying it was God’s punishment of the city for rejecting Jesus. I don’t believe that, even if the gospel authors connected Jesus’ rejection with what later happened to Jerusalem.

Whether it was life-giving or not, though, they made this connection. I also see them making a much more organic, intrinsic connection between a society that rejected Jesus’ teachings about wealth redistribution and restructuring the community to prioritize the poor and the poor people’s uprising and the revolt of the late 60s. The poor people’s revolt led to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 and then to Rome’s reprisal and razing Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The connection is less divinely imposed and arbitrary and much more natural about a political, economic, and social cause and effect.

Today, we as a society are witnessing resistance to a more distributively just way of organizing our society. A widening gap between haves and have-nots has been building over the last half-century here in the U.S. Do Jesus’ economic and political teachings have anything to offer our lives today? Even if we were to reduce Jesus’ teachings to his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, might they be able to speak into our struggles today?

Take a moment to consider Jesus’ teaching of the Golden Rule. What would a society that prioritizes treating others as you would like to be treated look like? Would it be a system that made the members of the community more “selfish, hypocritical, crass and violent” (see Robert Owen’s, A New View of Society: Essays on the Principles of the Formation of Human Character, 1813), or would it create people who are less competitive, less individualistic, more generous, and collectively sustainable?

In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)

Jesus’ version of the “golden rule” was the small gate and narrow path that leads to life.

And in the context of the golden rule, two things have caught my attention over the past few weeks as we all respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: 1) the criminal justice system in the U.S. and 2) the economic impact on the U.S. migrant community.

Setting Prisoners Free

Luke 4:18-19 is one of the key points of Jesus’ gospel: setting prisoners free. What would that mean for us today? Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney General issued an emergency order calling for especially vulnerable prisoners to be released into home confinement. Because of how closely packed people are in the U.S. prison systems, physical distancing is impossible. Prisons are being revealed to be places of mass death placing all inmates, regardless of their charges, on a kind of death row. This is specifically concerning for those who have not committed violent crimes. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses don’t deserve a death penalty in the form of COVID-19.

I also think of those behind bars whose sentencing has not come up yet, who are there, guilty or innocent, simply because they cannot afford bail. Poverty in our global society already means an earlier death for too many, and this is deeply concerning.

Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to liberate the poor, to give the entire “kingdom” to the poor. Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to shape their society according to distributive justice. In our current setting, people in prison could become infected with and die of COVID-19 only because they could not afford bail or some other technicality. That is immoral.

Hundreds of prisoners and prison workers have already tested positive for the virus. It is a cruel irony that prisoners are producing hand sanitizer for the outside world, hand sanitizer that is desperately needed within prisons, and yet the very prisoners producing the sanitizer are being denied access themselves. I heard on the news last week that 20% of people infected will need hospitalization and 5% will need to be placed on ventilators. What does this mean for our prison population, mostly and disproportionately people of color? COVID-19 sharpens an already unjust system with an even sharper lethal edge.

Again, what does it mean for us today to take Jesus’ gospel seriously, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18)? What does the golden rule look like in this context? What does basic humanity look like in this context?

Migrant Workers

My second concern over the last couple of weeks has been for the population of migrant workers at the heart of the U.S.’s food supply chain. These people are among those our present system deems the “least of these.” They already go to work every day in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. What does social distancing look like for them? They are not being provided with personal protective equipment and are working for poverty wages. They don’t receive any kind of extended sick leave or child care now that their children are not in school, nor are their work environments more sanitary or less crowded.

Thinking of our migrant community members working in these settings, I thought of a statement I read years ago now by Stephen J. Patterson:

“In the ancient world, those who lived on the margins of peasant life were never far from death’s door. In the struggle to survive, food was their friend and sickness their enemy. Each day subsistence peasants earn enough to eat for a day. Each day they awaken with the question: Will I earn enough to eat today? This is quickly followed by a second: Will I get sick today? If I get sick, I won’t eat, and if I don’t eat, I’ll get sicker. With each passing day, the spiral of starvation and sickness becomes deeper and finally, deadly. Crossan has argued that this little snippet of ancient tradition is critical to understanding why followers of Jesus and their empire of God were compelling to the marginalized peasants who were drawn to it. ‘Eat what is set before you and care for the sick.’ Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive—which is to say, salvation.” (The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, p. 74)

The migrant farmworker community is a modern-day reflection of the original audience Jesus taught about a preferential option for positive systemic change.

Because of the U.S. food supply chain, these workers are deemed critically essential. Yet this system may break down soon if their situation doesn’t change. Many are in the U.S. working on H-2A visas. While the present administration touts stimulus packages for other kinds of workers in our society, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is presently pushing to reduce wages for H-2A workers. There has to be a better way to save farmers.

Leviticus includes a Jewish application of the golden rule to “foreigners”:

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

This text informed Jesus’ preaching on loving others as oneself. It is the basis of the Golden Rule.

What would a society look like if structured on the golden rule rather than profit or a corporation’s bottom line?

The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.

And depending on how we respond right now, it may also be said of the powerful and privileged elite today, “this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

HeartGroup Application

[We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?]

1. We’ve discussed two sectors of our society deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. What other sectors of our society have been on your heart, lately? Share with your group.

2. Yesterday, Jim Wallis published UNEQUAL SUFFERING: HERE’S HOW CONGRESS SHOULD HELP on Sojourner’s website. Following Jesus involves taking action. Many charities are also on the front line providing care and help to those presently in need; many while operating with a lower level of contributions than is typical. What are you seeing organizations in your area doing and what can your HeartGroup do to come alongside these organizations and offer help? Discuss with your group.

3. Together, rewrite Matthew 25:35-36 in light of the present pandemic. Who would be listed if the text were to be written during our present crisis?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Pick something from your discussion in number two and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.