Equality under the Law – The Old Testament’s Socialist Legacy?
A Case for Christian and Left Unity?
A Development of John Barton’s ‘Human Dignity’ Argument found in ‘Ethics and the Old Testament’
A poorly reasoned and ill-researched Liberation Theology in which Marxist-theologians placed their own values’ onto scripture has all but died, yet this does not mean that socialist thought cannot be found in Judaic-Christian Scripture. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burning for a burning, a wound for a wound, a blow for a blow’ (Exodus 21: 24 – 25), is one of the most controversial statements made in the Old Testament, yet we find under closer inspection it is a beacon of developing socialist thought in an otherwise rigidly patriarchal, conservative and dated text.
Although the supposed barbarity of such a law is apparent to modern day readers, the fact that all humans are treated equally under its constraints is rarely noticed, regardless of social status the punishment is equal, whether master or slave, man or woman. This is one of the few Israelite Laws that lacks gender or class discrimination. In the surrounding passages we find that humanity is more important than property with lower scales of punishment for the damage of goods, livestock and so on. For an ancient society this is a radical step away from a caste-like system where the poor suffer more severe punishments for crimes that both they and the rich commit. It is certainly sad to think that in many cases the criminal justice systems in modern society is far from equal. It is important to note that in practice ‘an eye for an eye’ was never taken literally as an enactment of revenge, rather a ‘good tariff for recompense’ was established based on the crimes’ seriousness. The Hebrews believed strongly in the idea of Human Dignity, which again in an Ancient Middle Eastern setting was a radical concept. Sadly however it is likely that ‘Human Dignity’ only extended to fellow Israelites, as the Elect by God they could not lower themselves to the petty ideas of other systems such as physical mutilation (which was practiced as part of other Middle Eastern cultures criminal justice systems). It is only in later historical periods that we start to see an Israelite mission to other nations, thus leading these laws to be applicable for everyone.
We certainly still have some sense of Human Dignity in the British Criminal system, yet the system is far from equal, the answer is not however to return to or to promote Old Testament values and morals but to promote the sense of equality found by closer examination of certain Old Testament passages, and to explore more deeply the possibility of unity with the Christian-Left. It is of course dangerous to promote anything scriptural, as the men who wrote the world’s ‘Holy’ books lived in radically different often agrarian cultures, with many of their ideals being confined to the time they lived, with few which are truly timeless. Although scripture can present socialist style ideas proclaiming equality, revolution and so on, we also come across a breadth of passages that are discriminatory and anti-Socialist in mind set. Moreover the risk of taking a literal reading of the Old Testament and viewing the “word” of God as infallible is too strong for those adopting its exclusive truth claims. Recoiling away from scripture yet promoting the socialist ideas which underlie parts of it could produce a great yield. Modern biblical scholarship has shown us that scripture is fallible and that Jesus was not a historical person, yet Christianity has the most adherents of any religion in the UK. Finding common ground with this majority is important for the socialist struggle, the Christian Left would be more than pleased to take part in future Left Unity agreements, but the first step is to set up dialogue with them. It could even be the case that those who are liberal minded or moderate Christians take a step towards the left when it is revealed that in some respects our views are not dissimilar. Those more read Christians however will realise that their messiah fulfilled Israelite law thus making it redundant, yet these same people will fall into the school of Christian thought that for centuries has ignored the words of their saviour and misread the passages of the Old Testament resulting in a brutal western history where equality is overtly ignored.
Equality is an ideal that both socialism and the Christian Left strive for; the time is long overdue; we must unite and open dialogue.
By James Morris