In the church meetings that I am attending near Santo Domingo, we heard that whenever that pietistic-sounding word righteousness is used in the New Testament, a better translation for dikaiosyne in Greek would be justice. (In Spanish translations, this word usually does come out as justicia, which might explain why Latin American Christianity is different from much North American Christianity.)

Indeed, Margaret Aymer pointed out to us, the Beatitudes—the passages in Matthew 5 and Luke 6 where Jesus offers a poetic summary of his teaching—lose a lot of their anti-Empire punch in English translations. A line of Matthew 5 might be re-translated as:

Greatly honoured are those who are famished and parched for justice

For they will be satisfied.

More dramatically, Dr. Aymer (of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta) offered a new reading of the couplets in Luke 6. An example:

Greatly honoured are you who are famished now

For you will be satisfied…

Shame on you who are stuffed now

For you will be famished.

No wonder some people almost threw Jesus over a cliff and others eventually conspired to execute him.

The poor pay the debt with their lives

Among other important life lessons years ago, Dominicans taught me about the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As we see in Greece today, countries that have trouble repaying their loans must turn to the IMF for new loans or help with debt-payment rescheduling.

As an international recession in the early 1980s worsened and interest rates increased, more countries had to go, cap in hand, to the IMF. Conditions the IMF imposed so that countries could get loans came to be called “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs): currency devaluations, elimination of subsidies, wage freezes, and cuts to government spending on housing, health care, education and subsidies for farmers—roughly what is prescribed for Greece today.

In many cases, the impact of these conditions was so harsh that riots resulted. And of course this is what we see in Greece already as austerity measures take hold.

And it’s what happened in April 1984 in the Dominican Republic when more than 120 people died, 500 were injured and 6,000 were arrested in the wake of a new deal with the IMF that saw prices of basic food and medicine increase by more than fifty per cent.

“Price hikes—Dominicans pay in blood,” read one headline, evoking images of Old Testament kings exacting taxes from the people, and also of Old Testament prophets who cried out against such practices, demanding justice.

The Catholic bishops of the Dominican Republic played the prophetic role when they criticized the IMF for the conditions it attached to a loan package. “We dare to ask the IMF, would things be as they are if there were an adequate proportion in prices in the exchange of products between North and South?”

The bishops identified the web of economic relationships that were behind debate about debt, the IMF, SAPs, and the concept of development itself. Trade, they said, is neither free nor fair; commodity prices are determined by buyers in the North, not producers in the South; countries are not allowed to determine what crops should be grown, let alone their own development priorities.

Churches have all too often failed women, Indigenous people and sexual minorities, but at their best, they nail the economic justice issues (even while confessing that what is preached is not always practiced) and may finally be catching up on ecological justice.

One of the documents talked about in the meeting I am attending this week is the Reformed churches’ 2004 Accra Confession, which declared that justice is a matter of faith and that “the church stands in solidarity with persons who are suffering and struggling.”

Strong statements on economic justice can be found in a variety of traditions:

 

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