By Matthew Coomber
In a society that continually calls on us to strive for wealth and to find meaning in our possessions, the Christian ethic of caring for our neighbors finds an important and healing role to play.
One of the great joys of being a theology professor at St. Ambrose University is having the opportunity to work with students from a wide range of disciplines. Teaching those whose majors range from the medical sciences and social work to finance and the fine arts, I witness conversations opening up and taking directions that a biblical theologian, like myself, might not foresee. As one might correctly assume, our Theology Department’s new introductory course, “Just Theology,” offers many such opportunities.
A key theme that runs through my Just Theology course is a Christian ethic that resurfaces throughout the Bible’s Old and New Testaments, as well as in the writings of many great theologians: the community’s responsibility for the wellbeing of the individual. This ethos surfaces again and again as my students tackle such topics as gender inequality, racial injustice and economic systems that keep the impoverished poor. Through our readings and discussions, many of our students find that the ethic of community responsibility is paramount to living out Christ’s example, for it is one that was at the center of his ministry.
Perhaps surfacing first in God’s response to Abel’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4), the community responsibility ethos is baked into the laws, stories, prophetic oracles and in many of Christ’s parables, calling upon those who would follow God to ensure the protection and care of society’s most vulnerable.
The Sabbatical and Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 ensured that those who fell into dire straits or debt were not exploited in their hardship. Isaiah 5 and Micah 2 condemned those who used wealth to endanger the livelihoods of their neighbors. The stories of David and Bathsheba in 2nd Samuel 11 and that of King Ahab and Naboth in 1st Kings 21 made clear that not even rulers were exempt from this ethos; their abuses of their subjects, both the domestic Naboth and the foreign Bathsheba, were severely punished by God. And Christ’s continual calls to reach out to the marginalized of society with love and compassion highlight how our Savior was not abolishing the Law, but fulfilling it. Perhaps what is most powerful about the biblical ethos of collective responsibility for the wellbeing of the individual is how well it translates into any society or time, including ours in 21st-century Iowa.
St. Ambrose students grapple with what the right-to-livelihood protections of Jubilee — and the prophetic condemnations of those who abused them — might say to those layoffs and job outsourcings that are designed to further boost already swollen corporate profits. Students discuss how sabbatical’s debt protections might challenge either the debt traps set into motion by unethical lending institutions or our nation’s student-debt crisis. They consider how the Christian voice of this ethos might confront and challenge the disparagement of the poor or foreigners, as well as the recent rise in white supremacy that is infecting our nation. And through this ethos, our students bring the stories of kings David and Ahab into conversations about corruption amongst leaders throughout history and today.
Whether our students are preparing for nursing, police work, business or any other field, it is not difficult for them to grasp how the ancient texts of the Bible connect very closely with their world. Part of the reason for this is that people — and God — have continuously faced similar challenges, albeit in their many different historical contexts.
Mexican biblical theologian Elsa Tamez once wrote, “…oppressors do not oppress because they are cruel or enjoy it … [nor do they] act violently because they have an aggressive temperament … their primary purpose is to accumulate wealth.”
In a society that continually bombards us with messages of keeping up with the Jones or the false hope that wealth will bring us joy, Just Theology gives students a chance to consider the joys and the good that they can produce when they align their decision making — both in the workplace and also in all other aspects of their lives — with the Christian call to earnestly and sincerely care for our neighbor.
(Matthew Coomber is an associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)