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Aug 13, 2009


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Thanks for the interesting take. First a question about Jubilee. What research and literature has influenced your rendering of the passages and their reality in Israelite society? An alternative view (I can think of John Sietze Bergsma's work), is that Jubilee represented a kind of remedial social ethic for Israelites, but may not have been fully practiced. In other words, its quite possible that through Israelite history, before and after the Babylonian exile and during 2nd temple Judaism, Jubilee had a history of interpretation circumscribed by the political and economic exigencies of the interpreters' times. That's not to discount your thesis, but I think it suggests there is no one way in which Jubilee fits into 21st century global economics.

As to the theological habit of placing relational ethics onto societal ethics, I can testify to this and see this conflict between macro and micro in other fields. There are for instance, International Relations theories that caution the individualizing of nations. That is they point out the naivete extrapolating the actions of nations from their leaders, or assuming dispositions of charcter to whole nations. I had IR instructors in college who would come down on you hard if you suggested Germans were "belligerent" because you read too much into the historical literature. The reality is too complex for that. If as pastors and theologians we don't read economics carefully, we risk making the same kinds of generalizations.

Yet, might there be some usefulness in challenging our large impersonal systems in the way they effect very personal, face to face relationships? While not discounting the differences in scale, I do find seeing through the face to face lens does have the effect of inspiring Christians to give their economic dealings, however impersonal, a Kingdom shape. Social Enterprise could be considered an outgrowth of this. It is equally disappointing though when I see Christians hiding behind certain Scriptural interpretations of Jubilee, conveniently excusing themselves from trying alittle harder, and maybe sacrificially for the "more excellent way".

Michael W. Kruse

Let me address one of your last points first. There are some (not all) Libertarian minded folks who think the market and the impersonal market mentality should apply to all human interaction and some (not all) liberals who believe that impersonal government entities should supervise and manage our lives. The face-to-face communities are paramount for a shalom-filled society. But I would argue that so are the impersonal communities that empower us to work cooperatively with others. It isn't either/or, but rather what is the proper role of both and what ethical considerations should govern them.

Your individualizing nations caution is important in that I think it points to the tendency to think of a society as person with a unified will and mind. I'd need to think about that more it terms of its relationship to what I'm talking about here.

My concern would be applying, say, the Golden Rule to a large impersonal community. I can't possibly assess the impact my decisions will be have on thousands of others who are in someway remotely connected to the decision I made and whether I did them as I would like to be done unto. The information simply can't be known. So either we do away with impersonal cooperative communities or they must be governed by a different set of ethics.

As to the jubilee, I've read so many views in recent years I'm not sure I could point to one source. Christopher Wright's "The Mission of God" has a passage on jubilee that is very good. He looks at it from a social, economic, and theological angle. From an economic standpoint he notes that compared to surrounding cultures, it guarantees an equitable distribution of, an inalienable title to, the land.

Note the consequences of this. It ensures that everyone becomes a free participant in a face-to-face community (family) where people take responsibility for themselves and others in the community and no one permanently becomes a servant to anyone else. It sets the rules of the game for face-to-face communities. It is akin to the household codes. What it does not do is create large impersonal governmental structures whose operatives continually survey social outcomes and then try to readjust macro level polices to change outcomes toward some standard of fairness. Nor does it establish impersonal large communities of economic exchange. Production and consumption occur largely within the context of the family. The instruction isn't opposed to the development of these impersonal structures ... it is indifferent because they just aren't imaginable.

Rick McGinniss

This is a fascinating point, Michael.

However, I am wondering: is the idea that the scripture was directed at face-to-face communities a widely-accepted understanding or is it debatable? Can you point to some literature which supports it? Given the promise of judgment of nations in the prophets, it seems like there is at least some evidence the other way.

Also, I have a not-yet-Christian friend who is a proponent of local consumers unions for the very reason that your post lays out: the ethics are so much clearer. (I doubt he has thought through the fact that he wouldn't have pencils or an IPod if that was the primary economic structure). Therefore, I'm very interested in what your next post will say. Where do we get the ethics for "impersonal communities of cooperative behavior" if the Bible is primarily written to face-to-face communities?



Thanks for your response. Lots of food for thought there. My main question, and perhaps its one Christian ethics needs to tackle more, is the same as Rick's last one, but with a caveat: how do we avoid the biases of reading our preferred policy prescriptions arrived at through non-Scriptural means, into Scripture. Yet how do we arrive at a set of ethics to deal with systems not explicitly addressed in Scripture?

A different approach might be to largely abandon (save a few critical issues) trying to shape macroeconomics through Scripture, or conversely trying to rationalize macroeconomics through Scripture. What would it then mean to reinvest most of our energies in the efforts of smaller economic units? Will smaller units still have the ability to effect the broad issues of poverty for instance, for which mission minded Christians have a large concern. Maybe you have some thoughts on this coming.

Michael W. Kruse

Rick, I do think historians and scholars of biblical culture would agree. It wasn't just that they were focused on face-to-face communities. It is that elaborate networks of impersonal communities simply did not exist. Ancient cultures structured very much like spokes on a wheel with lines of connection extending from the ruler at the center outward with the lowest in society at the far end of the spoke. There were few connections between the spokes. Reflection on society was in terms of behaviors of the various players up and down the spoke and then with central focus being on managing the affairs of those at end of the spoke. At the end of the spoke were people in face-to-face communities.

In contrast, our life is in terms of a vast incomprehensible three-dimensional web of relationships with very little concrete vertical integration. This web is the impersonal communities I'm referring to.

Michael W. Kruse

Rick and JMorrow

What then to make of these impersonal communities? Bingo!

That is indeed where I headed over these next few posts. And to avoid rewriting all of what I have upcoming in these comments I'll just ask you to please stay tuned!


Travis Greene

So, did economics (as a field) create this vast impersonal web, as a new thing on the earth, or did it simply discover what was there?

Michael W. Kruse

Economists discovered what was there.

Historically, signs of market economies begin to emerge in the city states of northern Italy in 12th-14th centuries. They created banking networks that spanned all of Europe. Market fairs were expanding across the continent. As Spain began to assert repressive control in the area, the epicenter moved north to the European lowlands with Holland becoming the driving economic force.When William of Orange came to power in the England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and life the continental conflicts crippling Holland, he brought most of Holland's creative financial and business minds with him. There had already been moves toward greater specialization of labor and trade in England (thus the source imagery for Bunyan's "Vanity Fair") but this made it the epicenter.

Just like Darwin didn't invent evolution (he was the first to synthesize a coherent presentation of what others were already seeing) Smith didn't invent market economies. Smith and Malthus were trying to process what the saw on the eve of the industrial revolution, when all of these trends that had been emerging over the centuries went into overdrive. It wasn't until a hundred years after Smith that the field was really born as a distinct discipline. I think you could say that since that time economics has had some hand in influencing market developments but it did not give birth to market economies.

Jesse Blocher

Michael -
Excellent points all around. Being more of a professional economist and amateur theologian, I want to re-emphasize the benefits of the "impersonal web" since that name along gives the connotation of something inherently bad.

There are many benefits to small communities, which I won't elucidate, but acknowledge. The costs, however, are lost on us in the modern day since we study them primarily as historical artifacts. The fact is that small, self-contained communities were highly exposed to things like drought and famine. In fact, in the Middle Ages, 50 miles was an enormous distance and it was common for one village to be starving while there was surplus food just 50 miles away. (see NPR Planet Money Podcast on the Economics of the Middle Ages, August 10th.)
Adam Smith's main contribution was to recognize how specialization helps everyone. Imagine if you and your family had to not only grow all of your own food, but also grow the cotton or other plants needed to weave fabric and make clothing, make all of your own tools, etc. Pulling together 100 friends makes this easier, but not a lot easier. Everything still would be made by hand.
Even theology as a discipline has benefited, because there is less time as a community that we need to spend on necessities such that some could specialize in Theology without it being a threat to our basic needs.

Michael W. Kruse

Jesse, thanks for the helpful observations. I'm fascinated by economic history. I enjoyed the NPR link. Have you ever read Fernand Braudel's trilogy on Civilization and Capitalism? Great stuff.

Travis put me on to your new blog. I look forward to following your work there.

Jesse Blocher

I've not, but I'll note it down. Seeing as I'm still pushing through my PhD program, the reading list is long and growing, so no idea when I'll get to it.
Travis actually recently agreed to post on the blog as well, so it's both of ours now :)

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