Finding justice in context: Bible study with Rev. Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt

Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt at the CEC General Assembly. Photo: Mladen Trkulja/CEC

By Astrid Weyermüller

“Our biblical text calls us to discern responsibilities and not create guilt or shame or even apathy—feelings that are not constructive and not transformative,” remarked Rev. Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt from the Department for Theology and Public Witness of the Lutheran World Federation during her Bible study at the Conference of European Churches General Assembly.

Relating the text of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) to “Justice”, the theme of the day, she points out that the challenge lies in reading a text or a contemporary situation with the aim of finding the underlying conflict behind the problem at hand.

“Looking for the root cause requires asking ‘Who is benefiting? Who has access? Who controls the access? Where is justice?’ instead of simply reading or following laws and regulations of religion or society,” she said.

Neuenfeldt suggested that the Bible study could shed some light on the public responsibility of the church as a prophetic community, and in this role be a witness to hope in a confusing and divided society. “Faith communities and faith actors have an ethical responsibility to build awareness and to maintain a critical approach in analyzing context,” she said.

Discussing economic justice

She invited delegates to look at the text to discuss justice related to land use, production models and consumption responsibilities as an alternative interpretation to the fight between two religious systems and divinities—one good and one bad.

Different actors in the text underscore this point. For example, King Ahab would have had the right to take any land he wanted (1 Samuel 8), yet, he feels compelled to engage in a criminal plan together with Jezebel, the queen mother. “Not always what is done through law and following the law is just and right,” Neuenfeldt concluded.

Naboth, who owns the land, may simply seem stubborn at first. He however resists Ahab’s offer in favour of honouring his birthright and heritage, which also prevents land from being commodified. With their plan Ahab and Jezebel are introducing a new economic system through the back door. Invisible in the text itself, yet confronted with the consequences of Ahab’s land grabbing, are Naboth’s wife and children. “They are deprived of the economic means that would maintain them as subjects in the society.”

Injustices in Europe today

Problematic issues and injustices continue in Europe today, including, as Neuenfeldt mentioned, the undermining of minimum wages for migrant workers labouring in Spanish greenhouses to produce vegetables for Europe; land grabbing mainly in eastern European regions, causing “a deep rupture with the European model of family farming and the structural goal of a diversified and multifunctional agricultural system;” and the rezoning of fertile farmland for a whole variety of purposes, including for so-called environmental conservation or green energy production, known as “green grabs.”

In light of these challenges, Neuenfeldt called for a change in perspective: “The conflict here is about the model of development and how this model will treat people and land. It is not about possessing land—it is about the use of land and production to ensure life and dignity, food and well-being.”

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