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The Social Contract and God's Reign

by Urs Eigenmann Monday, Jan. 09, 2006 at 2:07 PM

The truth will set us free but the truth is a process, not a cudgel. Discovering the Bible in the Bible, the kerygma or proclamation of Jesus, is vital to disarm the literalists, Litera-lism can repress mystery, uncertainty, diversity, engagement and interdependence,


On the Compatibility of God’s Reign and Social Ideas

By Urs Eigenmann

[This essay from the archive of German-Swiss religious socialists is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]


The globalization of the economy with a universal and total rule of deregulated neoliberal market mechanisms serving capital accumulation has led socio-politically and culturally-ideologically to fundamental changes threatening the national consensus and opening the debate over a new social contract. On this background, criteria for a new social contract are sought that are oriented in that vision of fulfilled life for all people bound with god’s reign and God’s justice. Starting from the central status, substantive abundance, complex structure and differentiated hermeneutic of God’s reign, elements of a compatibility test of God’s reign and social ideas is formulated in theses.


2.1 Central Status

God’s reign or the kingdom of heaven was Jesus’ central proclamation according to the synoptic gospels. At the beginning of his public effectiveness, he said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of god is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1,14-15). In the Sermon on the Mount, he urged his own: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt 6,33). The central petition in the Our Father is: “Thy kingdom come” (Lk 11,2). Jesus compared God’s reign with a hidden treasure (cf. Matt 13,44) and a costly pearl (cf. Matt 13,45). Thus the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is not merely one theme among others or a regional theme but a category determining everything. Leonhard Ragaz said: “From beginning to end, the Bible has only one theme: the message of the living God and the kingdom of his justice for the earth.”

2.2 Substantive Abundance

God’s reign covers a great substantive abundance. In the course of history, God’s reign was often abridged or distorted by individualist privatization, supposedly apolitical spiritualization and ideological otherworldliness or misused to justify political or church claims of rule or revolutionary force.

Option for the Disadvantaged

At the beginning of his public effectiveness in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus’ central themes were programmatically summarized when he referred what he read in the book of the prophet Jeremiah to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4,18). Thus Jesus stood on the side of the poor, captives and the blind and was no accomplice of the rich, powerful and religious/ideological leaders. Jesus’ praxis, proclamation and understanding of God’s reign refer to the social realities economy, politics and culture/religion.


The preferred addressants of God’s reign are the poor (cf. Matt 5,3 par) while the rich are excluded (cf. Matt 19,23f par). These poor are poverty-stricken members of the lowest class, not merely needy. Jesus lived his solidarity with the poor in his praxis of sharing bread and fish so everyone was satiated (cf. Matt 14,13-21 par). He wanted to organize the distribution of vital goods through sharing, not with money (cf. Mk 6,36f par). With the parables of the corn farmer and the birds and lilies (cf. Lk 12,16-31), he protested against an economy of enrichment and for an economy of justice oriented in God’s universal concern for a life of all creatures in dignity joined with the striving for God’s reign (cf. Lk 12,31).


Jesus broke through social barriers in the table community with despised tax collectors and sinners (cf. Matt 8,10f par). To high priests and scribes, he declared tax collectors and prostitutes would enter God’s kingdom before them (cf. Matt 21,31). The Pharisees (and the scribes) reproached him for his table community with tax collectors and sinners and insulted him as a glutton, winebibber and friend of tax collectors and sinners (cf. Lk 7,34 par) and his relatives said he was beside himself (cf. Mk 3,21). For Jesus, God’s kingdom implied a critical view of the family: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother” (Mk 3,33-25 par). For him, children have access to god’s kingdom (cf. Mk 10,12-16). He was sovereignly free toward women (cf. Joh 4,1-26). He often overcame the social isolation of the sick, lepers and possessed (cf. Mk 1,30f.40-44 par).

Cultural/ religious/ ideological

Jesus broke through the line between pure and impure in his contact with lepers (Lk 17,11-19). He made an explicit connection between liberation from demons and God’s reign: “If I by the spirit of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Mk 12,28 par). Jesus’ struggle with the religious leaders was ultimately a struggle with God. What praxis and what faith are bound with what God? In the story of the healing of the paralyzed (cf. Mk 2,1-12), the God of the scribes sanctioning conditions and the healing-liberating God of Jesus irreconcilably opposed each other.


Jesus’ criticism of unjust structures was very important for his understanding of God’s reign. He was not only there for individual persons on the edge but attacked those conditions that led to economic discrimination, political domination and cultural/ religious/ ideological paternalism. His attack on the temple as the economic, political and religious center of Palestine’s society demonstrated this (cf. Mk 11,15-19 par; Joh 2,13-16). By expelling sellers and traders, he put a stop to the business of the traders granted licenses by the temple. By overturning the tables of the moneychangers, he made impossible the exploitation of people without the silver half-shekel for paying the temple tax. By driving out the sellers of doves, the sacrifices of poor people were ended. Finally, Jesus withdrew the divine legitimation from the temple when he declared the temple had decayed to a den of thieves and was no longer a house of prayer (cf. Mk 11,17).


The most compact picture of God’s reign is the picture of the wedding feast (cf. Matt 22,1-10) or the banquet (cf. Lk 14,15-24). This illustrates what Jesus meant when he described God’s reign as the reversal of conditions where the last are the first and the first are the last (cf. Lk 13,29 par.). That there is enough for everyone to eat and drink characterizes a feast. That everyone has a place and no one is excluded is important for the celebration. Lastly, a feast that is more than a mere recovery from the dismal daily routine is the feast of a good life for all people. Jesus came so everyone could have life in abundance (cf. Joh 10,10). The parables of the wedding-feast or banquet for God’s reign could serve as a model for the true understanding of all Jesus’ declarations about God’s kingdom. For Luke, the guests whom the master calls are “the poor, disabled, blind and lame” and others from the countryside (Lk 14,21-23) and for Matthew “the wicked and the good” (Matt 22,10) in that sequence – evil and good. A table community with men and women, poor and rich, slaves and free sitting at table in a colorful line, Pharisees between tax collectors and sinners can be visualized, a social anthropology of diverse cultures. This kind of table community is described as an “open commensality.” “What Jesus’ parable envisions is an open commensality, a common meal where the seating plan does not reflect on a small scale the large social order with its vertical discriminations and lateral separations. What is really threatening in this parable is the social challenge… God’s reign as a process of open commensality negated the foundations of the ancient Mediterranean society where terms like honor and shame had absolute authority.”

2.3 Complex Structure

God’s reign has a complex structure and includes at least five fields of tension whose poles are related dialectically. These poles are emphasized equally radically, not dualistically.

God’s Gift and Obligatory Task

God’s reign is God’s radical gift. Believers radically take God up on his promise. “According to the Bible, God’s reign is entirely God’s work since it comes completely from God. With all skill and power, the person could never do this. At best he can build Towers of Babel. This is half of the truth. The other is that God’s reign cannot come if the person does not accept it and make himself available. As God’s gift, God’s reign calls to the discipleship of Jesus but liberates from the pressure of having to produce history (totum and ultimatus) himself.

Not of this world but in it and for it

For Jesus, God’s reign is not of this world (cf. Joh 18,36). It is neither the religious transfiguration of the world nor totally separated from it. In his healing-liberating praxis, Jesus showed that God’s reign takes form in the world as the leaven works through the dough and as the mustard seed grows exuberantly. The central petition in the Our Father is: Thy kingdom come. “God’s kingdom should come to us on earth. God’s kingdom comes to us now, not in a distant world to come after the Last Judgment and after the resurrection of the dead. God’s will should be done on earth, not in heaven where it is already fulfilled. It should be done on earth as perfectly as in heaven. Heaven should descend on earth; the earth should not be pulled up to heaven.” God’s kingdom is not of this world but God’s justice is in effect for this world and should assume form in it.

Personal-existential and political-structural

Jesus praised god’s reign as engagement for individual sick, materially disadvantaged socially excluded persons possessed by demons and religiously outlawed. At the same time he criticized the conditions and attacked their representatives who sanctioned them as structural necessities damaging human life. God’s reign includes both the personal-existential plane by inviting to personal conversion and solidarity with the disadvantaged and the political-structural plane by obligating engagement helping the holistic development of all people. God’s reign cannot be reduced to either a reductionist concern merely for individuals or a distanced occupation with structures. Rather a critical analysis and liberating organization of the dialectical conditions of the individual and society, subject and structure correspond to god’s reign.

Symbolically celebrated and practically attested

Jesus spoke in parables of God’s reign and concretely testified to God’s reign in his life. As long as we are underway to the promised perfection, we recall God’s reign arriving in Jesus in religious speech and liturgical ceremony or symbolically anticipate its perfection. Religious speech and liturgical celebration should give orientation and encouragement to seek first God’s reign and God’s justice. God’s reign has a religious-spiritual dimension and intends an inner attitude in the spirit of Jesus. This is genuine insofar as it is joined with a personal, pastoral and political praxis of faith in the discipleship of Jesus.

Dawning in the present and promised in the future

God’s reign already dawned and approached in Jesus. God’s reign is present everywhere in a fragmentary way where actions are in Jesus’ spirit. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (cf. Matt 25,40). However the perfection of God’s reign is still in the future as God’s promised act. Both must be affirmed at the same time, that God’s reign is present in a fragmentary way and that it represents the eschatological-utopian horizon of all efforts. That it is unattainable in principle is part of the nature of the horizon. We are infinitely far removed from what is unattainable. Therefore the difference between the present condition and God’s reign is not a quantitative difference that could be reduced step-by-step and completely annulled one day.

The difference is qualitative. What is central is the qualitative question whether the social structures and practices are compatible in principle with God’s reign, not the quantitative question how near or how far we are from God’s reign. God’s reign is not a future or pending static utopia that could be sought and fully realized one day in an endless progress. God’s reign is not a goal that can really be attained by realizing an historical project (market economy, planned economy and so forth). The identification of God’s reign with an historical project is a utopian anti-utopia. We may not say of any historical act or action that God’s reign is present with it. Nevertheless where this happens, this has the consequence of a triumphalist mystification of earthly conditions, denying the eschatological reserve and sacralizing the status quo.

2.4 Differentiated hermeneutic

To avoid a fundamentalistically abridged appeal to God’s reign, a differentiated understanding of its status and its content is necessary. To that end, the “alternative” model of correspondence of relations proposed by Clodovis Boff is helpful. According to that model, the biblical text and our situation do not correspond directly. Rather the biblical texts refer to their historical context on one side and our answer and praxis refer to our context on the other side analogous to the relation of biblical texts to their context on the other side. Thus a correspondence of relations is involved. Scripture: its context = We (praxis and answer): our context. In this sense, no formulas or techniques exist for copying or applying Holy Scripture. Orientations, models, types, guidelines, principles and inspirations are offered, in short elements encouraging a hermeneutic competence because they enable us to evaluate the new and unexpected situations constantly confronting us today for ourselves in the sense of Christ or in harmony with the Holy Spirit. The Christian scriptures give us a way, a style and a spirit, a how not a what.”

For the understanding of God’s reign, this means our praxis in the sense of God’s reign must b realized in analogy to how Jesus attested to God’s reign in referring to Palestine’s social structures. Thus the content of God’s reign cannot be fixed definitively. This is true for the ecological problematic that was not virulent at that time. This is also true for judging the situation of women for which there are only marginal, not central guidelines for a liberating praxis in the biblical writings.


3.1 Option for life

The most fundamental opposition is the opposition of life and death. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of life. Jesus testified to God’s reign as liberation from everything that damages or destroys life and proclaimed it as a vision of true, healed and fulfilled life for all people on earth before death. He wanted everyone to have life in abundance (cf. Joh 10,10). The compatibility of God’s reign is unconditionally connected with the option for life. This option includes nature because human life is only possible in a society in which nature has a place. The option for life in the sense of the judgment address (cf. Matt 25,34-40) means that elementary love that comes to all people in material goods, human affection and cultural-religious meaning necessary for life in dignity and abundance. The criterion of satisfying everyone’s basic needs is absolute and valid universally. It implies the universal regulation of all goods. Accordingly the right to private property is subordinate to the right to life. There is no right to private property as long as a person suffers or dies after being denied the satisfaction of basic needs.

A society is compatible with God’s reign when it is guided by the option for a life in abundance and dignity of all people.

3.2 A society and world where everyone has a place

The option for a life in abundance for all people corresponds to the project of a society and world where everyone has a place and no one is excluded. In Jesus’ vision, God’s reign is compared with a feast in which everyone is invited in the sense of open commensality and all barriers are abolished. God’s reign in the sense of Jesus intends the universal-solidarian community of people in which everyone recognizes each other as needy material, social and cultural-religious subjects. This project represents “a universal criterion relativizing social principles that demand general authority. This universal criterion does not imply knowing what is the best form of human life. Ideas about a good life are subject to the criterion that the good life of one may not include the impossibility of life for others.”

A society is compatible with God’s reign insofar as it is committed to the project that everyone has a place and no one is excluded.

3.3 Equal rights of women

Women are disadvantaged economically, politically and culturally. Men worldwide control 90% of the income and 99% of the assets. The paid work of women is poorly paid compared with men. Some (working poor) women in full employment lose their jobs on account of precarious working conditions and quickly fall into poverty. In addition, their reproductive work in the family and their contribution to public welfare through social and cultural services is hardly paid or not paid at all.

3.4 Renouncing on Utopianizing Social Principles

The project of a society and world where everyone has a place includes renouncing on universal social principles in the sense of an anti-utopian utopianizing of the total market or of an historical socialism because ‘the exclusion of parts of society. lies in the nature of totalized universal social principles.” This renunciation follows from the productive-critical eschatological reserve announced toward all historical projects. This reserve on account of God’s reign is the ultimate qualitative and temporal eschatological utopian horizon. Proclaiming the fullness of times promised as God’s act as the end of history does not allow sanctioning present conditions.

A society is compatible with God’s reign insofar as it does not identify its historical project in an idolatrous way with the whole (the totum) and the ultimate (the ultimum).

3.5 Primacy of politics against appeal to practical necessities

Given the ecologically and socially destructive consequences of neoliberal deregulations in the name of a utopianized total market, a society must be ready to assume responsibility for prevailing conditions and the related practices. These are historical, not decreed by nature. Therefore responsibility may not be shifted in an idolatrous act of perverse irresponsibility to market mechanisms that are allegedly infinitely wise. The primacy of politics over the economy must replace the primacy of the economy over politics.

A society is compatible with god’s reign insofar as it responsibly organizes its conditions instead of submitting irresponsibly to alleged unalterable practical necessities.

3.6 Associative-Symmetrical System Dynamic against the Two-Thirds Society

The threatening two-thirds society is the product of a neoliberal deregulation policy of all social areas in the service of anonymous capital. A re-regulation policy oriented in the well-being of the weak and their integration and canceling the income- and assets-redistribution from the bottom to the top. The social system dynamics of economic, legal and cultural forms must bind people associatively with one another instead of separating them dis-associatively from one another. Hey should prevent individuals or parts of the population from being economically marginalized, socially excluded and culturally outlawed.

A society is compatible with God’s reign insofar as it regulates the dynamic of conditions and practices so everyone has a place and no one is excluded or subject to a social inclusion-exclusion logic.

3.7 Meaningful Work or Guaranteed Minimum Income for Everyone

Production and reproduction work are both objectively-socially necessary and subjectively important for individual persons. Therefore everyone should have a right to meaningful work. The traditional division of socially necessary work in paid production- and unpaid or poorly paid reproduction- and nursing work must be abolished and new models of time developed so this will be possible given decreasing paid- and increasing reproduction-work. Those who cannot work or can hardly work on account of physical or mental reasons have a right to a guaranteed minimum income. According to religious faith, no one needs to justify his or herself with works for personal existence. This must be organized so a high measure of social participation and life in dignity are possible and people do not lead a minimum financial marginal existence..

A society is compatible with God’s reign so far as it provides meaningful work for everyone or guarantees a minimum income to everyone insuring life in dignity.

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