When I think back to my early experience of Bible stories, I recall that King Solomon was “good,” he enjoyed God’s favour. Sure, Solomon had riches and power, but he had immense wisdom, which put him in the good books . . . or so I thought.
Looking back to my church roots, it makes sense that I would inherit such a view of so-called benevolent dictators.
I was a child born into a post-war Mennonite immigrant community in Vancouver, B.C. In the late 1940s, my dad and his family came from Russia via Germany to the Fraser Valley. They were displaced pacifists with capitalist—and deep anti-communist—values. Stalin’s troops had killed or abducted many of our people, including my uncle and grandfather.
We came to a new country of freedom and opportunity, where we amassed wealth and relative power. Just as God smiled upon the wisdom and power of King Solomon, we trusted that our new wealth and power was a blessing from God.
While I cherish the Christian atmosphere and entrepreneurial optimism of my early experiences in church, I have come to doubt the teachings that bless the power and wealth of us so-called “good” people.
But the great King Solomon, the king of wealth, power and wisdom, had it wrong. So says Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in his new book, Journey to the Common Good (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). Solomon’s reign was similar to the reign of Pharaoh, based on exploitation and suppression of freedom.
The king dominates with a bureaucracy, a system of taxes and a standing army. The “royal consciousness,” as Brueggemann calls it, thrives in a culture of affluence and requires an oppressive social policy. “The draw back into the fearful, anxious world of Pharaoh is enormously compelling for almost all of us. Our memory fades, and we imagine the security that Pharaoh’s system offered and yearn for an imagined well-being back there,” he writes.
The Prophet Jeremiah promoted an alternative to a royal consciousness. He says the Lord delights in an alternative triad of “steadfast love, justice and righteousness” (Jeremiah 9:24).
To have steadfast love, writes Brueggemann, is to stand in solidarity, to be reliable to all the partners. Justice “concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources. . . . The particular subject of [God’s] justice is the triad ‘widow, orphan, immigrant,’ those without leverage or muscle to sustain their own legitimate place in society,” he writes.
Righteousness is “taking an initiative to intervene effectively in order to rehabilitate society, to respond to social grievance and to correct every humanity-diminishing activity,” writes Brueggemann.
In the New Testament, Jesus stands in the historical stream of the prophets, challenging the royal consciousness and the assumption that God loves the emperor’s ways.
The opposite way is life-giving; the way of weakness, ironically, brings freedom. Look at the birds by the feeder: You don’t see one giant bird coming in and robbing all the food, setting up storehouses for itself.
Look at the flowers: You don’t see them putting on a new outfit every day. “Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these”
This is a prophetic word against the way of Solomon, the way that is normally held in high esteem. This gives energy to those who are oppressed and is threatening to those who are comfortable. As one who is comfortable, I still feel numb, but it’s losing its grip.
Aiden Enns is a member of Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man., and the editor of Geez magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.