The Domination System


Marcus Borg frequently uses the term "domination system" to describe the oppressive conditions that existed in biblical times, and which was opposed by many of the Old Testament prophets as well as by Jesus. In The Heart of Christianity, for example, Borg writes:

The issue is what is commonly called "systemic injustice"--sources of unnecessary human misery created by unjust political, economic, and social systems. Its opposite, of course, is "systemic justice," also known as structural, social, substantive, or distributive justice. The test of the justice of systems is their impact on human lives. To what extent do they lead to human flourishing and to what extent to human suffering?

This is what the political passion of the Bible is about. Its major voices protest the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and empires that dominated their world. They do so in the name of God and on behalf of the victims--slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, exploited peasants in the time of monarchy and again in the time of Jesus, and the most vulnerable in all times--widows, orphans, the poor, and the marginalized. And in the name of God, the major figures of the Bible advocate a very different vision of our life together.
I believe that this vision of social justice represents an important component of a divinely inspired faith. A theology that does not express its commitment to God by seeking to end social injustice is, in my view, a hollow faith. By their fruits shall you know them, in other words. What are the fruits of a committed, progressive religion?

Systemic injustice is not a distant memory of biblical times; while we may not have absolute monarchies and peasant-based economies in the modern West, what we do have are newer, updated expressions of the "domination system", rooted in economic exploitation and manifesting itself through economic inequality, imperialism, and war. While persons of faith may disagree on how to accomplish the goal of social justice, the reality of injustice continues to pervade the world, and it must be addressed.

I think that Americans have a special responsibility in addressing this problem. As the most powerful nation on earth, the empire that we live in is particularly influential in the domination system that prevails on the planet. In 2006, we find Americans living in a society where, according to a recent news article, CEOs earn 262 times the pay of the average worker; where their government continues to be engaged in a destructive and pointless war in the Middle East; where millions of its citizens have no health care.

The prophet Isaiah wrote "learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (1:17) Several of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible emphasized social justice as an important part of their message And what of Jesus, in the Christian tradition? Borg argues that Jesus was executed, essentially, that "the domination system of his day killed him," because Jesus in fact challenged this system. He argues that some of the Beatitudes had political implications. For example, as Luke reported, Jesus said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
This tradition of social justice is an important component of the western religious tradition, one that I believe that a contemporary, postmodern religious sensibility must retain if it is to be relevant and if it is to heed the Divine call.


CT said...

This is an interesting one as I think it is an American phenomenon. I would have thought that social justice is implicit in Jesus' message and that any economic/legal/government system should be challenged if it does not promote or practice equality, justice or compassion. To me thats a given.
I was surprised when I read Borg (based on your posts) to see page after page reinforcing this concept of a social gospel as if we needed convincing. I'm guessing in America its different due to their strong belief in the benefits capitalism. (which I'm not disputing)