Organism / Organization

Why is it that we have, in the words of John McKnight of Northwestern University, “crime making corrections systems, sickness making health systems, and stupid making schools”?

In an article republished recently in the journal of the Edmonton Social Planning Council, McKnight puts it down to the endless conflict between ‘Community’ and ‘Institution’—between ‘Organism’ and ‘Organization’.

Institutions are structures designed to control people. Associations are the result of people acting through consent. In their structures, and in their operations, there are therefore remarkable differences.

In an institution, structures are created where the persons considered to be most able, dominate. The unqualified have no place, and become dependent ‘hangers-on’. In a community, however, the structure expands until every willing body, even if untrained and unqualified, finds something useful to do. Communities therefore breed leadership from their very nature. Institutions, in contrast, being based on control, make leadership by all except the anointed few almost impossible to develop. And the anointed few themselves quite obviously may not have the expertise and qualifications to deal with all emergencies at all times in the most effective possible way.

Communities respond to need with incredible rapidity. Institutions are ineffective because they bog down in their own bureaucracy—committees, budget approvals, ‘channels’ of all kinds. Contrast the rapid and effective community support that sprang into action after Edmonton’s 1987 tornado with the cumbersome, grandstanding and still incomplete work of the official political agencies.

Communities come up with creative and innovative solutions. Many minds working on a single problem give a multitude of imaginative answers to a problem, from which a course of action can be developed and tried. Institutions kill creativity, by requiring procedures and channels to be followed, so that innovation rarely has a chance.

Institutions provide services. Communities provide care. If it is personalized care that people need, an institution simply cannot provide it—and the ‘institutionalized’ victims are destroyed as human beings while they try. No social worker—except in his or her off hours—could ever express through institutional procedures the simple humanity of the Good Samaritan.

Communities are forums for the development of citizenship. Institutions by their very structure of authoritarian control make the development of citizenship impossible.

We should be thinking of these things as we look into the nature of our church and its structures. Particularly is this so in the light of the emphasis of building of community that came out of our recent Diocesan Synod. Our church dies the moment it becomes an institution. It lives so long as it is a creative community, animated by the Holy Spirit. No one planned that Peter would become the first spokesman of the infant church. The situation developed, and Peter was led and empowered by the Spirit to respond, while the remaining disciples recognized his gift and his leadership. It worked! By contrast, the institutional religion of the time of Jesus and the Apostles found these persons’ behaviour and their irreverence in the face of organizational structures completely intolerable—hence the crucifixion and many other persecutions throughout history.

There’s a lesson here somewhere on the way we should be running our church, from the Parish level right up to 600 Jarvis St. and beyond. Let’s be willing to learn it!

– Anglican Messenger, May 1989

Redemptive Violence

It’s a strange concept.

It’s the idea that the greatest number of people on the North American Continent—including many who call themselves ‘Christians’—in fact support a religion that is not Christian at all, but actually originates from ancient Babylon. It’s the religion of ‘Redemptive Violence’: the belief that Order comes from Domination.

Ancient Babylonian legends trace the origins of the world from a god Marduk, who kills his mother Tiamat, and from her body creates the Cosmos. Order is created through violence. From this doctrine has come a succession of military world rulers, concepts of ‘manifest destiny’ to support empires, whether Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, German, British or American, and a pyramidal order of society in which the rich and powerful are at the top, and the weak, the alien, the poor, the old, women and children are fair targets for oppression at the bottom of the pile.

The Bible, in contrast, describes creation as the perfect self-expression of a loving God, spoiled only by the self-will of humankind, unwilling to obey God’s commands laid down for its own good. The difference? Do we believe that there is a Power at work in the universe that makes “all things work together for good,” so that salvation comes from God, not man (which is the New Testament teaching, supported, incidentally, by modern developments in chaos theory and theories on the origins of life)? Or is the world going to hell in a handbasket, only to be kept under control by violent enforcement by the “powers of this world”? Jesus says the first. Oliver North says the second.

The strange thing is, the twentieth century has seen some wonderful examples of an evil power structure being overcome by an effective campaign of non-violence. Think of the successes of Nelson Mandela, of Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Equally, most attempts we have seen to extinguish evil by force, particularly in the anti-Communist crusades of the United States in the years since World War II, have been tragically ineffective. McCarthyism, Vietnam, Cuba, the Iran-Contra affair and the CIA support of subversion of governments throughout Latin America: the American prison system, the stalemate with Saddam Hussein in Iraq—it is a chronicle of disaster and unnecessary human suffering, all caused by a ‘cops and robbers’ mentality that seeks to eliminate evil by force. The myth is supported by a thousand movies, TV programs and comic strips—mostly originating in what Iranians call ‘the great Satan’, i.e. the U.S.A.—that teach our children this same unreality day by day.

Jesus said “that ye resist not evil.” A better translation is “Do not use force to combat evil.” That does not mean that we cease “manfully to fight under Christ’s banner against sin, the world and the devil.” It means that “the weapons of our warfare are spiritual.” Most of these are defensive—truth, righteousness, faith, the Gospel, Salvation, prayer. The one offensive weapon is “the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God.” Christ’s cross may well be “an emblem of suffering and shame,” but it was also the supreme moral defeat of all the structures of this world that rely on violence for their effectiveness.

One could only wish that the Christian church could learn this lesson from its founder. Crusades, Anathemas, Inquisitions, Persecutions, religious wars, even insensitive missionary work. None of them pay attention to Christ’s command to “love your enemies,” or Paul’s, to “overcome evil with good.” None of them recognize that “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.”

No wonder that, with a history like this, many people recognize the goodness of Christ, but will have no truck with the organized church.

We have homework to do.

– Anglican Messenger, March 1999

Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion is a wonderful thing. By it, we are allowed to adopt any view we choose as to the nature of the world and the way humankind should behave so as to keep in tune with its Creator and/or the created order. It leads to a wonderful diversity of practices, all of which no doubt provide solace to the souls of believers, and meaning in the spiritual world.

Freedom of religion has its limits, however. The state gives religions bodies some breaks on their income taxes, but the suggestion made by the Hutterites, for instance, that their communities are religious organizations which should pay no taxes at all never got much of a reception. Conscientious objectors have often enough found themselves pretty unpopular in time of war. The Druidic Church still hasn’t got to first base in its efforts to have sacramental drinking of beer made grounds for charitable registration as a religious organization.

Worse than that though, is when religion goes on the offensive. Then it can be very offensive indeed. We have gentlemen on street corners offending our ears with endless quotations from the Bible. Regardless of whether our homes may be our castles, we cower or feign absence as grim faced Witnesses or Mormons bring their literature to our door. The safety of our medical clinics and the peace of our neighbourhoods is shattered as self-appointed guardians of public morality besiege abortion clinics. Beyond this, see Iranian fundamentalists decree worldwide death sentences on publishers and writers who offend their sensibilities. Watch also the true believers in the class struggle cause all kinds of mayhem, harassing their fellow workers and the innocent public as they protest the inadequate amounts that they allege the government pays them.

Doesn’t freedom of religion include the freedom not to believe? The freedom not to be debarred from lawful pursuits by zealots anxious to interfere with our lives because our activities offend their moral code? Once it was Prohibition—now it is the banning of dancing in bars. The Bible-believing religion that on one hand states that humans are made “in the image of God” and “very good”, now seeks to prevent the display of God’s handiwork, whether it be by banning nude dancing, or by putting pants on Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel. The unbelieving public is at least observant enough to note that it is precisely this holier-than-thou antagonism to sex, characteristic of a particular religious attitude, that has been associated with the secret sins of preachers such as Swaggart or Bakker, let alone the regrettable sexual abuses of children by certain religious Brothers and Fathers.

As Oliver Cromwell one said to some of his more rabid supporters: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, have the humility to consider that you may be mistaken.”

Whether it be drugs, alcohol or sex, impulses that might otherwise be met only with a yawn, gain double attractiveness, and become twice the social problem the moment they are “banned in Boston.”

– Gemini, January 1992

Decisions, Decisions

“Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision …”

Saint Paul, on trial for his beliefs and actions, indirectly shows the difference between the lifestyles of the believer and ‘the world.’ To those without a vision (or often enough, with the vision provided by modern science) the Universe has been set up by some unexplained ‘blind watchmaker’, and is in the process of slowly running down, purposeless and battered by the forces of chance and chaos.

In contrast, the Christian is a person propelled by a vision—a vision of the coming Kingdom of Heaven on earth for which Jesus taught us to pray, coming into being through his path of obedience, prayer, humility, self-sacrifice, compassion, wisdom, healing and service to those in need. So Christian lives are shaped by a vision of the future, not by the consequences of the past—they are filled with hope and purpose rather than despair, meaninglessness and drift.

In the book of Daniel, we learn how Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, dreamed of an enormous statue, with a head of gold, chest of silver, loins of brass, legs of iron, and feet one of iron and one of iron mixed with clay, that was destroyed by a stone that came out of a mountain, which grew to fill the whole earth. Daniel’s interpretation was that four successive kingdoms based on violence—Babylon, Persia, Greece and later Rome—would be destroyed by a new and different power sent by God.

The empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece have long since perished. Rome ruled the world for many centuries; later its empire was divided by barbarian invasions. After the fall of Rome in the fifth century A.D., Constantinople anchored the Eastern political empire for a further thousand years. Rome, however, became the center of a new religious empire, the Roman Catholic Church, of which the Anglican Church is an offshoot.

In all of this, I find that the image of the “feet of iron mixed with clay,” in relation to the Roman Empire, gives food for thought. The church has embodied the gospel of Christ in a religious structure still based on the power politics of ancient Rome. In our Synods, as in Parliament, we still overrule the wishes of minorities through the power of a majority vote.

Within the Quaker community, decisions have to be arrived at by consensus. A person in the assembly who disagrees with a proposal has the right either to ‘stand aside’ (in which case, the proposal will be allowed to proceed, though without his approval) or else to ‘stand in the way’—having a veto on the action until he or she changes his or her opinion. A consequence of this is that the reasons of those opposed to a proposed action, instead of being ignored or overruled, have to be considered carefully and out-argued, before action is taken on any new proposal.

It struck me that if we used consensus rather than the power of a majority vote in coming to our decisions, whether in Parliament in deciding on the Kyoto accord, or in our Synods in deciding on matters of clergy remuneration or the blessing of same sex unions, we might be much more able to preserve “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” A more respectful atmosphere, and one where people paid more attention to the arguments of those who disagreed with them, would be a welcome result.

– Anglican Messenger, March 2003

Horse Sense

An interview early one morning on CBC, heard while I was imprisoned in hospital waiting for the two ends of my spine to reunite, caught my fancy.

The interviewee was Chris Irwin, renowned trainer of horses, and author of a slim book: Horses Don’t Lie.

His theme was the psychology of the horse, compared with the mental makeup of man.

Along with dogs, cats, lions, tigers, wolves and coyotes, man is a predator. He needs to kill his prey to obtain food to survive. His two eyes point forward and work together, to focus on his prey. Dominance within the pack is determined by physical contest—whether among a group of puppies, or young schoolboys establishing their position through horseplay in the company of their peers.

By contrast, horses are prey, not predator. Like deer and other ruminants, their food grows all around them on the ground—no problem there of supply. The challenge of being a prey animal is rather one of avoiding becoming food for the predator. So this type of animal has eyes pointing outward on each side of its head, giving it 360 degree vision, and its brain is continually attuned to awareness of its environment and possible dangers in it, rather than concentrating its attention on any particular objective.

Consider, then, the reaction of the horse, a prey animal, when approached by the predator, man. It is an instinctive urge to run for the hills in self-preservation—as indeed, is also the reaction of cattle at a rodeo.

So ‘breaking’ a horse has traditionally been a difficult operation, sometimes achieved only by cruelly destroying the animal’s spirit. Irwin, however, has a different technique. He has learned to think like a horse, and get willing cooperation by communicating with his charges in horse language.

Horses move in herds, and have their own system of deciding on who shall be leader. Instead of fighting for pre-eminence, horses engage in a form of discussion, carried out through symbolic movements of their bodies, which end up with a leader being selected, who has the approval and support of the rest of the herd.

Irwin’s art is to use that same language, to persuade his horses that he is the ideal leader to follow; more capable and more interesting than any other member of the herd. Once that is accomplished, horse and rider are friends for life, with a rich bond of devotion and loyalty between them—so long as the leader lives up to his promises.

It seems to me that mankind has much to learn from this.

Firstly, that though the average churchgoer may find that ‘original sin’ is a difficult concept to relate to, the idea that ‘man is by nature a predator’ is not, even though it is saying much the same thing. “Men behave like wolves to their fellow men” as the Roman writer observes.

Secondly, that it’s not a bad idea to have 360 degree vision in a world of predators: “Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves,” and beware of “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” even within the church.

Thirdly, the horse’s method of selecting a leader, based on the recognition and willing acceptance of merit, seems vastly preferable to the predator leader securing his position by sheer force of arms.

But, finally, is there not a lesson for us all in the journey Irwin had to take in order to carry out his objective of relating to horses—to abandon the ways of the predator, and learn to speak the language of the prey? So, in the Bible, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” becomes also “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”: Jesus is the one who is “led like a lamb to the slaughter.” In Isaiah’s vision, “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” “the lion eats straw like the ox,” and “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”

Predators cannot live without prey, or they will starve. Prey, though, need predators to control their numbers, or they will over-graze their territory, and in turn, begin to starve. Yet in a world so dominated by man, it seems necessary that at least a good part of mankind has to learn the way of prey, not predator, or the world will end in war and starvation. That’s what civilization is all about.

Perhaps the path of good horse training is also the path to the Kingdom of Heaven!

– Anglican Messenger, April 2003

Pyramids and Circles

On a side road at the south end of the town of Hobbema, about eighty kilometers south of Edmonton, stands a most unusual cluster of buildings.

Looking through the entrance gate, one sees about ten small houses grouped around a circle, painted bright yellow with blue trimmings, with a tall, slender cylindrical meeting room at the far end. Other buildings at the entrance include an enormous circular hall, and in the administrative area, a completely circular meeting room, mostly occupied by a large round table, that would do credit to King Arthur himself.

Name of this ever so circular location? The Pe Sakastew Healing Lodge—a minimum security prison run by Correctional Services of Canada, designed particularly to accommodate First Nations offenders. The reason for all this circularity? It is a principle of organization engrained in the aboriginal culture, just as it was also with that of King Arthur.

What a contrast to the structure of public spaces in our Western culture! There, the basic shape is that of the pyramid, symbol of domination rather than equality. Parliament, with a throne at one end, for the monarch or his or her representative to deliver a ‘Throne Speech’. Space on each side below this for representatives of government and opposition. At the bottom, a ‘bar’, to keep the less privileged away from what is going on.

In our law courts, the judge sits on high, with court clerks below, counsel for prosecution and defence below that, and the accused in the middle. The jury off to one side, and there is another ‘bar’ across the court room to keep witnesses, victims and ordinary folk in their proper places. In the economic sphere, Presidents and CEOs are at the top of the industrial pyramid, then management, then foremen, down to the humble and underpaid workers. Armies have their pyramids also, from Field Marshal, through Generals and various grades of officers, down to NCOs and privates. Even the church has its Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, Clergy and Laity—and church doors sometimes look like that same ‘bar’ that keeps outsiders away from the Sacred Mysteries.

“You know how the rulers of this world lord it over them,” says Jesus to his ambitious disciples, “but it shall not be so with you.” The pyramid, symbol of Egypt’s Pharaoh and Israel’s slavery, contrasts with the circle—where all are on a level, and can sit in an arrangement of equality and work problems out together. In one case, the picture is of master and slave. In the other, of members of a family, settling their differences rationally around the kitchen table.

A big move is afoot in the area of justice—away from the pyramid model, and towards a model of reconciliation between victim and offender, supervised by the State. In this move, the ‘sentencing circle’ plays an important part.

Do we really need the First Nations to point out to us anew, the effectiveness of the structures of organization that Jesus gave to his disciples so many years ago? Could our own church structures, and church architecture, profit from making more use of the Round Table?

– Anglican Messenger, May 2001

Community Pays Off

It happened at a meeting of the Church and Society committee.

The discussion first turned on how difficult it was for farmers to make ends meet in today’s economy. The point was made that if farmers would only work together, and not each want their own full line of equipment, their overhead costs would be cut, and they could manage more easily. Hutterite communities in fact seemed able to make farming a success. Community made the difference.

The discussion moved on to a very successful project in the inner city. Parents would meet together in a kitchen, perhaps in a church hall, and work together to make meals that they could freeze and take back to their families. Skills were being taught in managing foods and budgets that made the difference between a family being reasonably well fed until the next welfare cheque arrived, and going hungry. Community made the difference.

My own story was of a program taking place in a number of Canadian prisons, called Alternatives to Violence. Groups of twenty or so people, from inmates and the outside world, learned the practical application of self-respect, care for others, faith, hope, love and the power of God, to solve problems of personal relationships. The first step was to set a number of rules of behaviour by which each person could be open with the group, and yet feel confident that he or she would not be ‘put down’. As the weekend progressed, trust developed and attitudes began to change. Community made the difference.

I believe these stories have a lesson for us. In the individualistic world we live in, it is as if we expect the failures of our society to have in some way to put themselves right, before the community as a whole can accept them. People run off in droves to therapists and counsellors, who spend hours of expensive time on a one to one basis, finding ways in which they can ‘get their act together’. After that, the theory is that we can go back to society, and pretend that nothing has ever been amiss. Our ‘image’ and our self-respect will be unimpaired.

The world doesn’t work that way. The concept that problems of poverty, health or criminality in society can be cured by simply throwing money at them and expecting people to change and cope, has been found wanting. The money has run out and the problems remain unsolved.

Community, and the Gospel, have a different message. The church is, after all, a community of redeemed sinners. It is within this community that we confess that we have “erred and strayed” and that “there is no health in us.” It is out of this community that forgiveness and acceptance come to us, just as we are. And it is out of that forgiveness and acceptance that we are enabled to grow and change.

– Anglican Messenger, February 1994

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

“Civilization starts in a forest, and ends in a desert.”

This saying came into my mind as I watched a homemade movie giving a picture of life in First Nations country far in the North of Saskatchewan. Little settlements in the bush, sometimes without any connection to the outside world other than by canoe, whose lives were very much occupied with the simple tasks of staying alive.

Living off the land there means living off the animals. One well-rounded lady in the movie gives a detailed description of how to make delicious soup from the nose of a moose. Fishing, hunting and the trap line are essential for survival. So, therefore, is the unspoiled habitat in which fish and animals can thrive. So it was on the prairies two centuries ago—when the buffalo still roamed free, and the passenger pigeon was not yet extinct. So it was in the days when the codfish off Newfoundland could be lifted out in a barrel, and farm salmon had not yet been invented.

Living off the animal world gives man an almost telepathic relationship with the fauna. People in such an environment develop an almost uncanny ability to track game, to understand the ways of nature and to respect the needs of the environment. Life depends on it.

The surveyors brought farming and agriculture to the Prairies. The buffalo no longer roam, and the deer and the antelope have a lot less room to play in. Canada became a breadbasket of the world. The population increased and cities grew. Wild animals and their habitat—and even the aboriginals who lived off them—were treated with contempt. The animal world, where allowed to survive, was treated as if it were vegetable: no longer wild and independent, but domesticated and bred for human use and convenience. Cattle, horses, pigs—but not much else. Wolves and other predators became a nuisance to be eliminated or a curiosity to be studied in a zoo.

Now, another revolution seems to be in progress. From Animal, to Vegetable, to Mineral. Machinery has replaced draft horses for power on the farm. Chemical fertilizers have replaced manure. The chemistry of living things is being explored: the artificial growth of living organs is being researched. Within a few years, vegetables and fruits will be raised hydroponically, and the chemistry of meat and milk production will be reproduced in the laboratory. Cows and meat animals will no longer be necessary. There is not much that even skilled labour can do that cannot be replaced, cheaper and more efficiently, by robots and the computer. As Thoreau commented, sitting by Walden pond: “We have become the tools of our tools.”

I detect a spirit of unease in the world. Environmentalists may be city folk, who don’t like the mining of coal, but still want electricity for their homes: who don’t like hunting animals, but still want to eat meat. That’s impractical. But when the movement matures a little bit more, perhaps it will be able to give us some leads as to how man takes his proper place in the natural world, whatever by then will be left of it.

What does this do to our civilization—to man himself? There’s an aliveness, wisdom, cunning, courage, and a spiritual dimension to the life of a hunter. There’s patience, realism, ingenuity, understanding of weather and nature, and much plain, dogged hard work in the life of the farmer. But what is there to live for in a world where all has been reduced to mechanical processes?

At the present time, it seems as if the be-all and end-all of existence is summed up by our business leaders in the concept of an ever-increasing Gross National Product. Yet surely, there is something more to civilization than material ‘economic development’. A good challenge for the twenty first century will be to find out just what that ‘something’ will be.

– Gemini, July 1998

The Good Society: A Biblical Study

A presentation to the Church and Society Committee, Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, October 1995.


At this, the end of the twentieth century, society seems to have reached a point where it is uncertain as to the social direction it should follow.

Unrestrained Capitalism led to the workhouse conditions that writers as different as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli protested in Victorian times. Yet the Welfare State which followed it may be ending in a mass of bureaucracy, high taxes, social decay and public debt. Efforts to ‘develop’ the economies of the Third World have often failed lamentably.

On the other hand, the planned and highly controlled economies of Singapore, China and South Korea have produced development at the expense of human freedoms. The Soviet Socialist Republics have repudiated the communist process entirely, but capitalism has not brought either automatic prosperity or social justice.

In these circumstances the church, as a body claiming to give mankind guidance on life’s pathway, should surely be able to give civilization some advice on direction. Yet the Christian church as a whole is still not giving a coherent vision to society of where it should be headed socially, economically and politically in these times.

Because of this, I thought it might be good simply to go back to our roots, and start our quest for guidance with a look at the social and economic teachings of the Bible. Whether we consider them old-fashioned or not, they do in fact give an interesting and coherent recipe for “peace, order and good government” that can well give guidance on priorities for the social order in the coming century.

Old and New Testaments

In looking at the social and economic teachings of the Old and New Testaments, the most remarkable thing is the extreme difference in the viewpoints of each.

The Old Testament is a political book. Almost all of it has been written by or about practicing politicians—either leaders such as Moses and Joshua and the Judges, Kings such as David and Solomon, or the prophets whose chief message was a commentary on the political events of their time. Within it, and the Pentateuch in particular, we find a remarkably comprehensive code of law and advice to achieve a just, prosperous and peaceful society.

We also find a history of how these laws and this advice was ignored and neglected, so that by the end of Old Testament times, the glories of Solomon’s kingdom had vanished into the humiliation of the Jews as a subservient satellite kingdom in the world-conquering Roman Empire.

The New Testament comes from a different angle. It is a message for the underdog—for the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the powerless.

The Old Testament promoted an elaborate system to give land to every family in the nation (Joshua 1321). The New Testament follows a Son of Man who has “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

The Old Testament regards wealth as a sign of God’s blessing (e.g. Job 42:10 sqq). The New Testament despises the accumulation of wealth on earth, preferring that treasures be laid up in heaven (Matthew 6:1921, Luke 6:2026 cp. Philippians 3:79, Hebrews 10:32 sqq, Acts 5:3237).

The Old Testament, though it permitted slavery, in fact restricted it severely. It provided times for rest from work and release after a fixed period of service, unless the slave himself did not wish it (Exodus 20:10, 21:26). In the New Testament, we have the picture of the Christian as a slave—of Jesus Christ (Luke 17:10; Romans 1:1). Whether he was free or a slave in the outside world was a matter of lesser importance (I Cor. 7:2122).

What we have is a picture of the Christian believer prepared to suffer and forgive: blessed by what he or she lacks rather than by wealth and possessions, earmarked for the way of the Cross, for the sake of the heavenly reward beyond. Unless we lose our lives and our attachment to wealth in this world, we are not going to be able to find them in the heavenly Kingdom (cp. Mark 8:34end, Luke 14:33).

This, however, is not a complete picture. Towards one’s fellow man, the Christian is expected to be compassionate and generous. Christ’s picture of the judgment of the nations in Matthew (25:31 sqq) condemns those who do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the rich man is condemned to hell fire because of his insensitivity to the needs of the poor (Luke 16:19 sqq). Again, the theme is not so much one of social justice, as of a sharing of compassion among fellow human beings in a world controlled by evil powers (I John 5:19).

Beyond this, Jesus made it clear that it was not his objective to destroy the Law, but rather to fulfill it by going beyond its demands and establishing a kingdom of Love (Matthew 5:17). So, while remembering the New Testament requirements of “going the second mile,” it is still appropriate to look back at the Old Testament to provide us with some foundational ideals on which a just and prosperous society can and should be based.

The Old Testament Ideal

One picture of the ideal society is repeated in several places in the Old Testament—so much so, that one wonders whether it was a proverbial phrase to describe what the good society was conceived to be.

In I Kings 4:25, Solomon’s great reign is described as follows:

“During Solomon’s lifetime, Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.”

When the Assyrians invade Judah, and try to persuade the people to desert King Hezekiah, the Rabshakeh said (II Kings 18:31, Isaiah 36:16):

“Make your peace with me and come out to me, and then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree, and drink water from your own cistern.”

In the Prophet Micah, looking to a future time of peace and prosperity under the Messiah, we find the following picture (Micah 4:4):

“But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”

Finally, in I Maccabees in the Apocrypha, the reign of the High Priest Simon is described as follows (14:12):

“All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid.”

There are certain principles established in this concept, and I would like to expand on them, and consider some of the machinery established in Old Testament law which was to establish this happy state of affairs. I may also comment briefly on some of the customs of Twentieth Century society that, ignoring these commandments, are leading us to a much less satisfactory style of life.

(1) All the people. There is a ‘principle of universality’. There are not separate communities of rich and poor. Prosperity and security were extended to all classes of society. Contrast the alarming and increasing disparities between rich and poor, both in New Testament times, and in our own.

(2) Sat. This implies two things. One is that everyone had a place to sit. There was no class of the homeless. Secondly, that the ideal society was one of leisure, of Jubilee and Sabbath, not of full employment (compare the ‘curse of Adam’ imposed upon his exile from the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3:17).

(3) Under their own vines and fig trees. In contrast to our Society, where the proletariat earns its income essentially by toiling for a wage, while a small elite enjoy unearned income from property and investments, these citizens owned the means of production, and therefore enjoyed the fruits of ownership, without excessive labour. The ‘Protestant work ethic’ is conspicuously absent.

(4) None shall make them afraid. There was both economic and political security, the product of good laws and good government. Contrast our twentieth century society, scene of major world wars and of repeated economic panic, on both the individual and collective scale, as the economy has blundered between boom and depression. Poverty and insecurity can come in a minute with the loss of a job. Even governments quail at the perils of their National Debts and the terrors of the International Monetary Fund. Curiously enough, as things are at present, it seems as if only the arms industry and war can create the economic conditions that give ‘full employment’ and so prosperity. As one writer has put it—“War is economic peace, and peace is economic war.” These things ought not so to be, and in Christ’s peaceable kingdom, would not be so (cp. Isaiah 11:6, Micah 4:35).

Achieving the Ideal

Let us examine now some of the machinery by which Old Testament Law made it possible to achieve this ‘good society’. I would like to break it down into the traditional economic divisions of Land, Labour and Capital, with an extra category for Social Security.

In Old Testament times, this was initially achieved in each sector through established rights of person and property, without the use of money. It is good to remember, even today, that wealth is always a matter of satisfying physical and spiritual needs through the physical provision of one or a combination of these elements. In a money economy such as ours today, each one of these divisions puts a cost into the price of the wealth we buy: Rent expresses the value and cost of Land: Return on Investment expresses the value and cost of Capital: Wages and Salaries represent the value and cost of Labour, and Taxes represent the value and cost of the Governmental system. Conversely, each one of them is also a source of income to those who have the right to receive payment from one or other of these sources.

However, the lesson of King Midas is that, when it comes to the crunch, it is not money but the real things in life that make our standard of living what it is.

Land. Joshua invaded Palestine around 1400 B.C., with a Divine commission to exterminate its Canaanite inhabitants, and settle the twelve tribes of Israel in defined districts, with each family to have a specific “inheritance” (Numbers 33:50 sqq). Land could not be bought and sold, except on a lease basis, and every fifty years, in a year of Jubilee, it was restored to its original tenant. (Leviticus 25:1317).

            “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine: with me you are but aliens and           tenants” (Leviticus 25:23).

There seems to have been an exception in the case of urban property (Leviticus 25:2934) and it seems as if this approach was put to the test as time went on. Naboth’s vineyard is a story of resistance to an attempted expropriation in defiance of this custom (I Kings 21). Isaiah reproaches those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you”—the real estate speculators of his day (Isaiah 5:810).

In an era where homelessness of the poor, and their inability to pay rent and obtain decent housing, is a major and increasing problem, Moses perhaps has a lesson for us. We should similarly consider the part that the need for land reform plays in, say, the politics of Central America, or in urban homelessness today.

Economic Security. With the security of a land base, went other tools for economic security. Government services under the law of Moses were limited by a simple and efficient formula—they were provided by the tribe of Levi, and paid for by a fixed income tax of ten percent (the ‘tithe’)—though there appear to have been tax evaders even in those days (2 Chronicles 24:114). Solomon seems to have breached this rule, with taxation and forced labour for public works—the result after his death was a successful separatist revolt by the Northern Kingdom, a warning to us all today! (I Kings 12:117).

Besides providing for worship, the Levites appear to have had responsibilities for public health, settling disputes (Deuteronomy 17:813) and the teaching of the Law. It would also appear that the tithe provided support for the “widow, stranger and fatherless” (Deuteronomy 14:29)—a precedent for modern Public Assistance.

Security for old age came essentially from within the family (e.g. Exodus 20:12). Children were expected to support their parents, and in due course, be supported in their old age by their own family: childlessness was a major and deeply felt deprivation (Genesis 15:2, cp. I Samuel 1:19). There was a specific obligation towards widows, to be taken into the family of their nearest relative (cp. Ruth 3:9, Deuteronomy 25:510)—a possibility in a society where polygamy was not frowned upon. Note that, in an all-female family, there was provision for the family land to be retained (Numbers 27:36).

Labour. The condition of working people was protected by law. Their wages were to be paid promptly (Deuteronomy 24:14): servitude was for a limited time, and ended after six years with the donation of a basic capital (Deuteronomy 15:1218). There was provision for worker safety (Deuteronomy 22:8). The Sabbath provided a regular day of rest even for servants (Exodus 20:10). It is worth noting that the institution of slavery did also provide economic security for workers, so much so, that some slaves voluntarily decided to remain in the service of their masters (Exodus 21:56).

There is also a considerable body of teaching regarding provision for the poor, immigrants, and prevention of abusive practices towards those in debt (Deuteronomy 24:1013).

Capital. Perhaps the most notable prohibition in the Jewish law that is not observed in modern times (except by Muslims) is the prohibition on lending at interest (Exodus 22, 25, Leviticus 25:3637, Deuteronomy 23:19-20)—particularly on loans to the poor. See also Ezekiel 18:8, Psalm 15:5, and Nehemiah 5:1–13.

Although no reason is given for this, my own interpretation is that, since the future is in the Lord’s hands, for someone to put the risk of either gain or loss in the future entirely on the borrower, is to maintain one’s own economic return at the risk of a double jeopardy for the borrower. It is a way, therefore, of using Mammon in an effort to dispense with our dependent relationship on God. In Matthew 25:24–28, moneylenders are branded as those who “reap where they do not sow, and gather where they do not scatter.”

This is something that has serious economic consequences in the modern world. Essentially, the whole of the money supply in a modern economy is created by loans of bank credit to borrowers: business financing from this source discourages the accumulation of private ownership of the means of production (“Our own vines and fig trees”). It causes rewards to flow to dabblers in finance by robbing the value of the public’s money through inflation: conversely, when bank loans are repaid, the cancellation of credit leads to deflation, falling prices, and business stagnation.

It is not for nothing that the Book of Revelation includes as one of the final catastrophes before the return of Christ a total and sudden collapse of the whole financial and trading system. (Revelation 18)


It may be presumptuous to sum up the whole teaching of the Old Testament in a few propositions, but I do suggest that there are some fairly clear directions in which the Bible indicates Society should be organized. These would include:

(1) Universality. Although the poor will always be with us (Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11), there should be a basic ‘place to stand’ for all. Homelessness is unacceptable. (Note in this connection the proposals for site value taxation advanced by Henry George in his book Progress and Poverty, and the recommendations for a Guaranteed Annual Income advanced by both the Croll and MacDonald Royal Commissions, so far not implemented.)

(2) Public Health. Perhaps the responsibility of the Levites for public health can be expanded in these modern days to an obligation to see that safe food and minimum health care is available to all.

(3) Ecology. ‘Crown Land’ does not exist in the Mosaic system—all land is the Lord’s, but also the responsibility of some owner or another. Land ownership is not absolute: the poor, for instance, have the right to glean (Leviticus 19:910). Trees are to be preserved, even in wartime (Deuteronomy 20:1920). Long term private ownership of all land means respect for it from its owners, and not, for instance, the clear cutting of forests which, because they belong to everybody, have no individual person’s interest or protection.

(4) Justice. The state does have the obligation to reduce conflict in society by providing a system for the judging of disputes. In the institution of the Cities of Refuge we see the beginnings of a prison system—note that this was to protect the wrongdoer from excessive punishment at private hands, rather than to inflict punishment itself!

(5) Taxation. The idea of a fixed and limited proportion of national income being spent on the institution of Government appeals to me immensely, and the tithe is an obvious forerunner of modern ‘flat tax’ proposals.

(6) Private and inalienable ownership of land and resources. Ownership of income producing property needs to be as widely distributed as possible: this is how incomes can be provided in a world where technology is making ‘full employment’ almost impossible to achieve.

(7) Humane and just working conditions. Employment standards, protection of the worker from danger on the job and exploitation by his employer, reasonable holidays and hours of work, and prompt payment of wages all need to be enforced.

(8) Financial Control. Exploitation of the public, the economy and the taxpayer by financial manipulators must be prevented.

(9) Family Support. The primary obligation for family members to care for each other should not be preempted by the State, or the economic reasons for maintaining family unity will be weakened. The economic position, and need for economic security of children and the aged, and of women as wives and mothers and of children, needs to be respected and provided for.

(10) A Sense of timing. The rhythm of Jubilee every fifty years, and Sabbaths every seven, is something missing from modern life. Indeed, as Society swings to seven day a week shopping, even the once traditional ‘Sabbath rest’ and pause for worship is beginning to disappear. However, systematic times of rest enable society to ‘stand back’ every so often to evaluate its direction, and set targets for future achievement.

How nice it would be, for instance, to plan that fifty years after Expo 1967, that is in 2017, Canada’s National Debt would be eliminated!


The Lord’s Prayer does teach us to pray that God’s Kingdom might come on earth, as it is in heaven. Hopefully, this study gives us some idea of what we might expect such a kingdom to be like.

– Text of a presentation given October 1995