For the past few days I have written about economic justice as we find it in the Bible (Distributive, Commutative, and Remedial.) As we look at the world at Israel's birth, we find cultures that were full of economic oppression. Slavery was wide spread. The poor were of little consequence. Court justice was skewed toward those with power.
As we have seen, God entered the picture by calling out the nation of Israel and establishing a code of behavior that would set them apart from other nations. Slavery was abolished among Israelites as was interest on loans made to the poor. The Jubilee Code eliminated perpetual servitude by restoring each person’s land and labor every 49 years. Instructions like the ones about letting the poor glean the edge of the fields sought to address poverty at the expense of economic efficiency. Provisions were made that would create just economic transactions and remedial standards were set for those who suffered criminal loss.
The New Testament was much a different time. Israel was under the thumb of the Roman Empire and had little say in many of the issues addressed. Jesus and the New Testament writers said little about commutative or remedial justice as much of that was not within their control. They did however repeatedly warn against favoritism for the wealthy and oppression of the poor. Jesus taught his followers not to be anxious about material needs and seek first the kingdom. Jesus kept pointing to a higher vision that included but went beyond the prescriptive rules of the Old Testament. He spoke of the Kingdom of God as present on earth but he pointed toward a future date in which everything would be reordered.
With all that said, what is the answer to economic injustice today, especially among the poorest of the poor who make up half our planet? Those of a more liberal view are likely to advocate for wealth redistribution through debt cancellation and aid. The more conservative types are more inclined to suggest that stable governments with sound fiscal policies and democratic institutions are the place to start. There can be reasonable cases made from the Bible for both these avenues and I suspect in most cases both are required. But there is still an essential ingredient that has not been mentioned.
There is a story of an experiment involving a fish in a fish tank. A glass partition was placed in the tank separating into two halves. Food was dropped into the side of the tank opposite the fish. The fish would swim at the food and encounter the glass. It would try again. After several episodes of this the fish would not even try for the food even after the barrier was removed. In fact, the fish would just sit at the bottom of the tank with the food falling around it. It had become hopeless.
Hope is the key to economic transformation. Somehow people have to come to believe that tomorrow can be better than today. Delayed gratification, so essential to investing, is based firmly on the ability to hope for a future reward. Hope is what is needed to believe that time invested in education and training will make any difference. Without hope, all the debt cancellations and redistributions combined with political and governmental reforms are just so much food falling around the fish in the fish tank. These are not approaches that incarnate hope.
Hope is the unspoken theme of the passages I have been writing about. Sabbath rest required the regular exercise of hope. Jubilee gave hope that at some future date there would be a new chance. Jesus encouraged us not to be anxious about our future and material needs. He pointed to a vision of a coming Kingdom where there would be complete shalom. He incarnated that message. Yes, we are called to push for just debt arrangements, as well as for political and governmental reform. But it is also the mission of the Church to be the incarnate presence of Christ giving witness to hope.
Hope is the economic catalyst. The Church can contribute to economic justice in a way no government or corporation can. It begins with these simple words among the poor:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Luke 4:18-19 NRSV