At election time every political party promotes its agenda. It tells us what it thinks most needs to be done. It appeals to values voters like. Most voters inherit their values from their society without knowing where they come from.
Our left-right debate has a long history. It goes back to different systems justified by different gods. The Bible contains one side of a debate – against different gods with different political implications.
Many Christians do not realise how controversial the Bible was in its day. We have been trained by 300 years of Pietism to reinterpret the Bible as though it was nothing to do with politics; but the authors of the Bible had different ideas.
Some biblical authors reacted against the political system of the Mesopotamian empires, Assyria and Babylon. For the Mesopotamians – or at least for their ruling classes – humans were created to work for the gods by maintaining temples and burning sacrifices. Between them the people had to make sure the gods got everything they demanded. Otherwise the nation would be punished. Plagues, droughts, floods and military defeat could all be understood as divine punishment for inadequate sacrifices. If they saw fit, the gods might even give up on the human race and allow the world to return to the original chaos.
To us today it may seem astonishing that anybody could believe such nonsense. It is easy for us to fall into the trap of believing we are wiser. We don’t know how many ancients did believe it – as well as emperors, temples and priests there were also armies to make sure everybody played their part. What drove the theology was the politics.
The gods were wooden statues standing in their temples. After the sacrifice the priests would offer the meat to these gods. At the end of the meal-time they would take the ‘leftovers’ away, eat what they wanted and sell off the rest. It was a system of taxation: the peasants provided, the ruling classes benefited. Justification of the system lay in the constant threat of divine punishment.
So the community had to work hard to provide for the gods. To ensure success they needed discipline, and therefore hierarchy. At the top were the experts, the priests who knew what had to be provided. For the majority, the farmers, life was a treadmill, with constant pressure to provide the resources. At the bottom were those who failed to work hard enough. They were dispensable. If they starved to death it didn’t matter.
The editors of the Bible made it as obvious as they could that they didn’t believe it. On the first page – the first chapter of Genesis – they put their alternative account of the purpose of human life. One god has created the world as an act of generosity. God needs nothing from us. We have been created as a blessing, for our own sakes. The world has been designed to provide for our needs. There is no threat of a return to chaos.
This theology produces an expectation that shalom – peace and fulfilment – is a real possibility for everyone. The biblical texts that most strongly appeal to it are the eighth century prophets, Deuteronomy and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.
In this way the biblical authors provided a different agenda for human life. To please God we do not burn sacrifices; instead we make sure everybody shares in the shalom. This is classic monotheism. In every age the poor and oppressed appeal to it. It tells us there is a supreme moral authority passing judgement on exploitative governments.
Conversely, governments hardly ever like it. It makes them responsible for hunger and homelessness. Governments prefer to believe that these misfortunes are caused by forces beyond their control. If Constantine hadn’t suppressed the message of those biblical texts, some other emperor would have.
How does this political disagreement compare with the left-right debates of our own day?
Superficially, the most obvious difference is that secular political debate doesn’t appeal to any gods at all. Anyone who does is written off as a crank. Yet the older logic still applies. Governments still want to exonerate themselves from blame by appealing to forces beyond their control. They invent substitutes for hostile gods.
Two of these substitute gods now dominate the political agenda. The first is 400 years old and is the main cause of our environmental crises. This is the belief that the natural environment is hostile to human well-being. The political agenda has been dominated for so long by the drive to artificialise our lives with new technologies, that it has become difficult to imagine it was all a big mistake.
The other is the cult of economic growth. Political rhetoric about the need for economic growth repeats with remarkable accuracy the rhetoric of those ancient Mesopotamian emperors: we need to ‘make sacrifices’ and ‘tighten our belts’ to avoid economic ‘chaos’.
Today we are well and truly back where history started. Secular political theory has got rid of the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has replaced them with hostile forces, chiefly ‘the laws of nature’ and ‘the economy’. We are now governed as though the laws of nature have unthinkingly produced a world which needs improvement, and the economy is a struggle against ‘market forces’. We don’t call them gods, but we treat them as though they were.
Once again, the political agenda presupposes a permanent struggle against hostile forces. Once again, to succeed in the struggle we need a hierarchical society. The people at the top are indispensable; the people at the bottom may as well starve to death for all it matters.
The peasants of ancient Mesopotamia could have told us how this works out. There is no limit to the wealth and power the ruling classes will want. They have the means to enslave us while telling us that we are free.