Covenant and Nationhood

In our exposition of Genesis 10 on Nationhood and Nation-building, we adopted the definition of a nation as “a community of people, whose members are bound together by a sense of solidarity, a common culture, a national consciousness” (Seton-Watson 1977: 1). And “national consciousness,” at the least, is the awareness that one is part of something beyond one’s race or ethnicity. This awareness includes the sense that all the people in one’s country share a common destiny as well as have a share in building up that destiny (Fanon 1966: 162-163).

This definition of “national consciousness” upholds the Golden Rule to treat one’s neighbor the way one would like to be treated. Unless one’s conscience has been corrupted by a racist agenda, one could and would readily acknowledge that this is what a nation should be. It is then not difficult to see that the definition of a nation that we have adopted matches nicely the concept of a covenant community—a group of people who have consented to be obligated to one another to uphold the Golden Rule by doing justice and loving mercy.

In other words, the concept of a covenant community is not just about God’s will for what a nation should become, but it can also be incorporated into the very definition of a nation. And human conscience would not argue against it. We can therefore elaborate on God’s will for nationhood by elaborating on what a nation is like when it becomes a covenant community. We have already presented a covenant community in terms of the seven influential cultural spheres of a nation. What needs to be done is to elaborate on each of these spheres.

Family

God’s will for a nation is a covenant community. The family is the basic unit of a community. What then is God’s will for a family? If a covenant community is one that upholds justice, God’s will for a family is one that upholds justice in their relationships with one another as well as with those outside the family. And just as justice is to be built into the structure of the nation, justice is also to be built into the structure of the family. In our exposition of Genesis 1-2 on The Suitable Helper we have already emphasized the oneness between a man and a woman when they become husband and wife, as well as elaborated on their equal status and complementary roles within that oneness.

In terms of their contribution to the Creation Mandate to build a civilization that is consistent with God’s will and in fellowship with Him, we have also highlighted that as father and mother they are both responsible in raising up their children to ensure their well-being as adults and success in life (cf. Proverbs 1:8; 6:20). What needs elaboration here is their contribution to the Creation Mandate as a whole, and not just with respect to parenting.

Since women are also made in God’s image with God-given abilities to complement men, both husband and wife are to participate in productive work beyond raising children. This inference is confirmed by the description of a “perfect wife” (Proverbs 31:10-31), who participates even in commercial business (verses 16 and 24). Hence the contribution of the wife is also not limited to the sphere of the family.

Therefore God’s will is for both parents to raise their children together. And it is also God’s will that both husband and wife have economically productive work. This was possible before industrialization changed the structure of the economy and thus the family. Before the nineteenth century the economy was mainly agricultural, supported by cottage industry. So most people, even if they did not live on farms, basically “worked from home,” as we would say today. So husband and wife could work side-by-side in a common enterprise and raised their children together.

Hence the idea of a mother (or, for that matter, a father) working away from home is relatively recent. And the idea that the father goes out to make a living while the mother stays home to raise their children is not Biblical. Neither is it Biblical that both parents go out to work and leave their children with baby-sitters. But in today’s economy, for most couples, there seems no other option. Industrialization has so restructured the economy that it is most hostile to marriages and families. And the painful consequences are seen everywhere.

Nancy Pearcey (1990), writing in the American context, presents cogently the case for “recreating the economic base of the family,” just like it was in traditional societies. She recognizes that life in traditional societies was “often a life of arduous and backbreaking labor. Yet in terms of family relations, it had distinct advantages over modern life. Families benefited from an integration of life and labor rare in our fragmented age—an integration sought by modern couples who recreate home-based businesses.”

A home-based business can indeed recreate the integration of economically productive work and child-rearing responsibilities for both husband and wife. Not every couple is able to recreate home-based businesses. But every couple can do something to minimize the harmful effects of today’s economy on their marriage and family. Writing as a Christian, Pearcey (2004: 345-46) urges
Christian organizations to … be on the forefront in offering practical alternatives for reintegrating family responsibilities with income-producing work—through such things as home-based work, part-time work positions with prorated benefits, flexible hours, and telecommuting…. At the same time Christians must not fall into the trap of assuming paid employment is the only thing that will give women a sense of dignity…. Instead Christians need to challenge the prevailing ideology of success by insisting that individuals are most fulfilled when they enjoy a sense of calling or vocation—whether paid or unpaid. We all long for a sense that we are contributing to something larger than ourselves, to a greater good, to God’s purposes in the world.

This then brings us to consider God’s will for the spheres of education and economy as they relate to vocation and the Creation Mandate. And after surveying all the seven spheres, we will return to the sphere of the family in terms of the role of parents in raising children who would do God’s will in and through their occupation (read: vocation).

Education

Our concern here is the education that prepares and equips a person for a secular occupation to contribute to nation-building beyond the sphere of religion. Currently, for all practical purposes, such an education increasingly serves the Market. Edmund O’Sullivan (1999: 45) puts it succinctly:

The global marketplace is now the centrepiece of our current educational ventures and we are being asked to structure our schools to help students to become competitive in that emergent global sphere. This is the newest version of educational reform. It has an old ring to it; the linking of schools directly to the needs of industry and business. The only difference is that, today, the yardstick is now stretched to global proportions.

An increasing number of thinkers, especially those with New Age inclinations, are preaching against education serving the Market. O’Sullivan continues, “We have seen this business-education marriage. It has been a marriage that has contributed to the detriment of our natural world and habitat.”

He then ventures the thesis that “the fundamental educational task of our times is to make the choice for a sustainable global planetary habitat of independent life forms over and against the global competitive marketplace. We are now living in a watershed period comparable to the major shift that took place from the medieval into the modern world.” He adopts Thomas Berry’s criteria for assessing educational institutions: “All human institutions, programs, and activities must now be judged primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship” (43).

In light of the ecological crises caused by industrial capitalism, all this sounds innocent enough. Until we read what else Berry has to say. In his forward to O’Sullivan’s book Berry (O’Sullivan 1999: xiv) says,

Every profession and occupation of humans must establish itself within the integral functioning of the planet. The earth is the primary teacher in economics, in medicine, in law, in religion. Ecology is not part of economics. Economics is an extension of ecology. Human economy is a sub-system of the Earth economy. So too all other professions and occupations.... So with [even] religion. Religion is an expression of ecology....

In other words, education, including religious education, is to serve “Mother Earth.” This is certainly moving education away from serving the Market. However, whether we are aware of it or not, whatever our education serves is what we serve and worship, and is an expression of our basic belief system.

Recall that Genesis 1:1, which affirms theism, serves as a polemic against materialism and pantheism. Serving the Market is an expression of materialism as industrial capitalism assumes that all that matters or exists is the material. Serving Mother Earth is an expression of New Age pantheism, which treats the earth as a goddess. But if one believes in theism, education has to serve the Maker, so that it contributes to fulfilling the Creation Mandate. This, we have seen, will care for the earth without worshipping it.

Since education prepares and equips a person for a secular occupation, it has to be market-sensitive, but not market-driven. In the context of a market economy, there are three ways to view and use one’s occupation (a neutral term for the work that occupies us, whether it is paid or not).

One’s (paid) occupation is a job when it is viewed and used as a means merely to make a living. This is the case of low-income people. But for professionals in the marketplace, their middle-class income is far beyond making a living. How then do they view their occupation?

They usually take for granted that their occupation is their career. This is so prevalent that even dictionaries define “career” as “occupation.” But an occupation need not be a career. According to sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues (1996: 119), what it means to be “middle class” is “summed up in another term that only gained currency in the middle and later nineteenth century: career, in the sense of ‘a course of professional life or employment that offers advancement and honor’.”

Psychologist Roy Baumeister (1991: 122) puts it bluntly: “The ‘career’ definition of work is mainly concerned with the record of success, achievement, and status…. For the careerist, work is a means of creating, defining, expressing, proving, and glorifying the self.” Hence, one’s occupation becomes a career when one views and uses it for self-advancement in terms of money or prestige, or both. Is the idea of a career really so loaded with self?

The meaning of a word can be evaluated by observing what word or words tend to go together with it. We do our job, fulfill our calling, but we pursue our career (for self-advancement). One’s career can “take off” but not one’s occupation. We do not say, “His job has taken off,” unless we mean he is retrenched. There are “career paths” (to success) but not “occupation paths.”

We can also evaluate the meaning of a word by observing what word or words can replace it in the same context. Both the major English dailies in Malaysia, The Star and the New Straits Times, reported on the same speech given by the then Youth and Sports Minister Azalina Othman Saad (14 May 2004). The Star report was given the title, “Azalina: Many youths want career shortcuts.” The report in the New Straits Times carried the title, “There are no short cuts to success, Azalina tells youth.” Hence the words “career” and “success” can be used interchangeably and people do attempt to take career short-cuts to instant success.

As already indicated above, the third way to view one’s occupation is that of a calling or vocation. This is how the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (2001) defines a vocation: “If you have a vocation, you have a strong feeling that you are specially suited to a particular job or role in life, especially one that involves serving other people.” Hence when we view our occupation as a calling it becomes a means to use our talents (God-given abilities) to serve humanity (out of love and a sense of justice); promotions are then gratefully accepted as means to serve better. This view is thus consistent with our being made in God’s image and with God’s will for a nation—a covenant community.

God’s will for education then is to prepare and equip people to fulfill a calling or vocation. Since occupation is so integral to the economy, it needs to be considered in light of God’s will for the economy.

Economy and Business

We have already seen the economic (and ecological) implications of the Sabbath commandment, which is not just about the Sabbath day, but also the Sabbath and Jubilee years. We have also seen that this commandment embodies the Golden Rule to love one another as oneself. Hence the laws applying this commandment when translated into our context will give us a good idea of God’s will for the economy. We will highlight the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8-55) as the principles it embodies provide a Biblical alternative to capitalism and communism.

On the Jubilee year agricultural land that was sold would be returned to the original owner. So the selling price of the land would be calculated based on the number of years left before the next Jubilee year. When implemented consistently no one would covet his neighbor’s land, which in an agricultural economy is the basic means of economic production and constitutes the basic wealth of a family.

Communism does not work because there is hardly any incentive for people to work hard and smart. This is not only because there is no private ownership of the means of economic production, but also the economic rewards are not commensurate with one’s abilities and diligence. Capitalism is the exact opposite. But it does not have the moral imperative nor economic mechanism to effectively curb covetousness, which has resulted in a host of devastating problems so much so that there has been a cry for a third alternative.

The Jubilee system provides such an alternative. Since it was part of the Mosaic Law, it represents God’s will for the economy. Under this system not only is there private ownership of the means of economic production, this ownership is not concentrated in the hands of the few (the “capitalists”) but is democratized. And naturally, economic rewards will be commensurate with one’s abilities and diligence. So the question of a lack of incentive to work hard and smart does not arise. On the other hand, since covetousness is curbed, it would not result in the excesses of capitalism and the ensuing problems.

In other words, this alternative ensures adequate incentive to work hard and smart, yet does not allow the incentive to become unrestrained covetousness. This requires the political will to implement and enforce such an economic system. And it also pre-requires a community that is agreeable to upholding the Golden Rule in the economy. We are not suggesting it is possible to implement and enforce such a system today, especially in the context of the globalized economy. In fact even Israel failed to put the Jubilee year into practice. All this means that there may be no large-scale solution possible given fallen human nature and the current set-up of the global economy.

However individual families can put the spirit of the Jubilee year into practice in their economic life. This happens when they minimize covetousness in their heart and learn to view and use their occupation as a calling instead of a career. This involves practicing the Golden Rule to love their neighbors as themselves. In other words, they are motivated to work hard and smart not for economic rewards but because of their love for people. In practice this is not easy unless their love for people is an expression of their love for God. To show that this approach to life makes sense even economically we will look at business as a calling.

The usual dictionary definitions of “business,” such as “trade” or “commerce,” are not helpful. For when we think of business as trade or commerce, it is not easy to see the purpose of business beyond profit-making. And how can making profit be loving your neighbor (customer) as yourself? What then is business?

The economy can be defined as the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services to meet the needs and wants of people. Since business involves the buying and selling of goods and services, it is not essential in a subsistence economy. Business is essential in a market economy because most of the goods and services we need or want have to be bought and sold. So business is the production and distribution of goods and services beyond subsistence to meet the needs and wants of consumers. Understood this way, it is not difficult to see how we can do business to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially since business has become indispensable in meeting people’s needs and wants.

For whether we like it or not, if we want to make profits, the goods or services we produce or provide must meet the needs and wants of people. In other words, we must serve them. The better we serve them, the more profits we can make. The question is whether we serve them wholeheartedly out of love, or merely for the sake of making profits. If making profits is the focus, sooner or later it will affect the quality of our service. Even if not, we miss the opportunity to experience the deep sense of meaning that comes with serving people from the heart. So when we focus on loving the people who pay for our goods or services doing business will not only contribute to the meaning of life, profits will also be added to us.

This approach to business may sound quaint to people for whom the Golden Rule is a principle to be applauded but not applied. But in the belief-system of the Bible the Golden Rule sums up how we ought to live. And this approach to business has been empirically confirmed to be viable. Based on interviews with 85 Christian CEOs and top executives, Laura Nash (1994), who used to teach at the Harvard Business School, discusses how Christian CEOs who integrate their faith with their business resolve the potential conflicts between the demands of the capitalistic marketplace and the demands of their Christian calling. She summarizes the potential conflicts into seven basic tension points (37):

      1. The love for God and the pursuit of profit
      2. Love [for people] and the competitive drive
      3. People needs and profit obligations
      4. Humility and the ego of success
      5. Family and work
      6. Charity [concern for the poor] and wealth
      7. Faithful witness in the secular city

She calls these points “creative tensions,” for she discovered that when the Christian CEOs sought to bring their faith to bear on the tensions, they often found creative solutions and experienced win-win outcomes. And she observes that “some of the solutions, innovative at the time they were instituted, conform to what would be regarded today as top management practices. Other solutions are a creative step ahead of even current practices” (149).

Many of the CEOs she interviewed use their business to serve God through serving people (74). They serve their customers by giving them quality services or products at fair prices (76-78). And they treat their employees as human beings “by providing them opportunities to develop skills to accomplish meaningful jobs” (131). Thus they uphold the Golden Rule in their business.

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