Without a doubt, family is the most pervasive metaphor for the people of God in the Bible. We are all children of Abraham. We are the household of God where God is the paterfamilias. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ with God as the head of the household.
Families are face-to-face communities. People know each other’s character and abilities. They are accountable to each other. They know when someone is pulling their weight and when someone is free-riding on the work of others. They sacrifice for each other according to needs. Greco-Roman households, which could include several families, were unlike modern families in that they largely produced what they consumed and consumed what they produced.
The large impersonal socioeconomic forces we wrestle to understand and manage today were largely invisible to ancient cultures. These realities were inexorable forces of the gods and of nature. If the desire is to improve the human lot in such a context, one is not occupied with how to master what is in the purview of the gods but rather with what can be changed … the behavior that occurs within face-to-face communities. The disciplines of sociology and economics only emerged in the past 100-150 years.
Greek sages like Aristotle offered practical instruction for life in what become known as “household codes.” Instruction was given to the paterfamilias of the household on issues like financial management and on governing the behavior of wives, children, slaves and others connected with the household. Various passages in the New Testament are presumed to be modeled on these codes, like Ephesians 5:18-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, and 1 Peter 2:11-3:17. Scholars Carolyn Osiek and David Balch even suggest that Jesus may have been riffing on the household code in Matthew 19 and 20. (See earlier post.)
Old Testament teaching is also about face-to-face communities. Broad macro social structures are not in view. A surface appraisal of some passages … like the jubilee or gleaning requirements … might seem to suggest otherwise but this has more to do with projecting our experience back into the text.
The jubilee redistributed nothing. It prohibited the permanent sale of land and labor by one member of a community to another. A “sale” of land or labor functioned as a lease agreement. The price was based on the number years between the agreement and the next jubilee. At the jubilee, the land and labor reverted back to the permanent owner. These provisions established God as the landholder with his people as his tenants, divided by tribe and clan into face-to-face communities. Our modern tools of economic analysis tell us that the jubilee had economic impact but it is anachronistic to see the jubilee as economic justice initiative. The jubilee regulated land and labor transactions of people in face-to-face community.
Gleaning was also mandated but who did the gleaning? The poor in the community who were known to the farmer. Gleaning was a provision that made it ethically incumbent to care for the poor who were a part of one’s face-to-face community.
It is also instructive to note the outcry of the prophets. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no condemnation of inequality in wealth distribution … as though someone had done an analysis of income quintiles and found something amiss. What we find are repeated invectives against corruption at the city gates (the courts), the use of bribes, and the use of dishonest weights and measures. We find condemnations of the rich who acquired wealth dishonestly. These are about unethical behavior in face-to-face communities. To the degree that “social justice” is discussed in the Bible, indeed throughout pre-Nineteenth Century history, it is about ethics of people in face-to-face communities.
So what has changed? Through specialization of labor and the emergence of markets in Europe, people’s lives became ever more interdependent. With the explosion of the industrial revolution in the late Eighteenth Century, individual economic behavior became inextricably linked with millions of people. We were now economically connected through large impersonal communities with people we will never know (and as we will see, these changes have led to more than a doubling of life expectancy and a stunning improvement in the quality of life for much of the world’s population.) And therein is the problem.
All our ethical reflection up until very recently presumed the management of behavior in the context of face-to-face communities. As noted, these communities have built in knowledge among the members about each others character, abilities, needs, and shortcomings. There is accountability. But face-to-face communities can only grow so large. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says that the maximum size an individual’s social network can grow and still maintain stable interpersonal relationships is about 150 people. Groups that have attempted communal living find that beyond this size mutual monitoring of each other’s behavior disappears, innovators break with the community creed, free-riders begin to take advantage of the community, and overly productive workers become disillusioned. The Hutterites, a communal group that has endured over generations, require that a community split into two communities when they reach 120 members. Congregational growth studies tell us that one of the most difficult transitions is when a congregation grows into the 150-200 range. It moves from a being a family church to a programmatic church. It is simply impossible for large group with hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, to function as a family or face-to-face community.
No person or human entity has the omniscience to sort out issues on a case by case basis, weighing each individual’s particulars, and then make just decisions. The interpersonal knowledge necessary to manage the affairs of millions of people is simply absent. Yet when it comes to economics, the dominate means by which theologians wrestle with economic questions is to impose face-to-face ethics on large impersonal economic structures, merely presuming that someone has the knowledge to adjudicate wisely. Other theologians discern the difference in face-to-face structures, but reject the presence of impersonal socioeconomic structures as anti-Christian because they can’t be made to function according to face-to-face ethics.
This failure to come to grips with the implications of impersonal communities of cooperative behavior is one of the single biggest obstacles theologians have in understanding economics.