This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
It’s hard to know what the most appropriate biblical analogy is for our present crisis. The range of concerns we face are manifold. We might be worried about our own health, or the health of those we love; we might be worried about our jobs, our income. We might be worried about our children and the impact on their education. We might in the moment simply feel the absence of friends, family and our worshipping community who we no longer see in the usual way. We might simply be lonely.
There is no single biblical example that captures all of this, but like others, I think the exile of the Israelite nation to Babylon comes closest to what we are now experiencing. In moving to a new land, and in engaging with new populations, it is quite likely that the people experienced a range of new diseases that they had not encountered before. However, ill-health was probably not their primary concern. Instead, economic and religious isolation was probably their greatest fear. They were effectively taken as prisoners of war and many of them would have been in servitude. They also suffered an exile from people and places of worship. The whole of the community did not go and some would have been separated from friends and family relatives. They were certainly separated from the centre of their religious worship – namely the temple in Jerusalem which was now destroyed.
Just like our experience, then, the Babylonian exile is an experience of profound loss – of people, places and maybe things. Now the norm at this point is to highlight how in their distress the nation turned to God and found a new form of comfort and worship. The point is often made how difficult times such as these can frequently be times of spiritual growth even if it doesn’t always feel that way. All of that is true, but I want to reach a different conclusion.
In the verse quoted at the start, the phrase translated as ‘peace and prosperity’ is actually a single Hebrew word shalom. It refers not to the absence of war, but to a much fuller, grander sense of flourishing in which we are at peace with ourselves, others, the planet and God. It is wellness in all its forms. But what is interesting about the verse is that such shalom is called for as the shalom ‘of the city to which I have carried you’. God is not saying seek this shalom in the future when you are back in Israel; he is saying seek this shalom now in the place that I have sent you. This does not mean that the exiles achieved that shalom in Babylon. I’m sure they always hankered after a return to Israel, but it was an instruction not just to sit and wait, but to use the time and place where they were to do something constructive.
Speaking personally, when coronavirus first hit, I did wonder if we should put the work of CATJ into hibernation as it were until the pandemic was over. But I am more convinced than ever that now is the time for action, now is the time to articulate and campaign for a bold and innovative new economic landscape. In such a world, our tax system would not be used not to shore up the lifestyles of the wealthy but to tackle poverty and inequality, and to serve the common good. My goal is to seek the shalom, the tax shalom, of the place where God has put me, and I hope as you find your own shalom in the present crisis, you’ll also join me in my quest too.
The Bible And Tax - Revd David Haslam's in-depth exploration of the Biblical precedents for the Tax Justice Campaign with reference to both the Old and New Testaments and to theologian Ched Myers' ideas of 'Sabbath Economics'. Physical copies can be purchased at a cost of £1 per copy, £5 for 6 or £10 for 12. Email us at mail (at) catj.org.uk for more information..