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."
In addition to distributive justice and commutative justice, there is also the issue of remedial justice. Remedial justice addresses just compensation and punitive action when there has been malicious or careless damage done to life, liberty or property. It is necessary for someone to have a reasonable certainty that the fruits of their labor will not be taken by capricious or malevolent behavior if we expect them to invest their resources in producing goods and services. Otherwise, why take the risk? It stifles the role God intends for us as co-creators and renders the idea of private property meaningless. Here are just a couple passages addressing remedial justice in the Old Testament:
Lev 19:15 NRSV
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.>
Deut 16:19-20 NRSV
19 You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
There are even specific penalties listed for various crimes:
Ex 22:1-2 NRSV
1 When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft. 2 When the animal, whether ox or donkey or sheep, is found alive in the thief's possession, the thief shall pay double.
Ex 22:7-8 NRSV
7 When someone delivers to a neighbor money or goods for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the neighbor's house, then the thief, if caught, shall pay double. 8 If the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall be brought before God, to determine whether or not the owner had laid hands on the neighbor's goods.
Ex 22:14-15 NRSV
14 When someone borrows an animal from another and it is injured or dies, the owner not being present, full restitution shall be made. 15 If the owner was present, there shall be no restitution; if it was hired, only the hiring fee is due.
These are just a few examples of the laws God prescribed for Israel illustrating his concern for remedial justice.
The lack of justice in Israel was a constant refrain with the prophets. Amos had one of the most eloquent pronouncements:
Amos 5:12-15 NRSV
12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins--you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. 14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Amos 5:21-24 NRSV
21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Jesus and the New Testament spent little time addressing governmental structures. Instead, Jesus encouraged us to go beyond simple justice equations like “…an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus instructed us to love our enemies which would include respect for their possessions and health. If this ethic were widely shared, there would be no theft and violence, and no need for remedial action in the first place. When Jesus met Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus seemed instantly to understand that he must make restitution for what he had stolen if he wanted to follow Jesus. When Jesus announced his ministry at Nazareth, he announced the Jubilee; the ultimate in remedial economic action to prevent permanent economic bondage.
Commutative Justice is about honest and just economic transactions. It is a major theme in both Testaments of the Bible. From the Old Testament:
Lev 19:11 NRSV
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.
Lev 19:13 NRSV
You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.
Lev 19:35-36 NRSV
You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
Deut 25:13-16 NRSV
13 You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. 15 You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the LORD your God.
Economic transactions of the time often involved grain, ointments, food, and precious metals. A scale consisting of a beam balanced on a stem, with trays of equal weight on each side, was used to determine weight and price. Weights were placed on one side and the substance to be weighed was placed on the other side. Standardized weights were removed one by one until the two trays were in balance. Then a price was rendered. A dishonest merchant would use weights that would misrepresent quantities to his advantage.
Proverbs frequently warns against dishonest behavior and use of false scales and measures. The prophet Micah wrote:
Micah 6:11-12 NRSV
Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
In the New Testament, Jesus said, “Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37) Upon meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus decided to refund anything he had overcharged people. (Luke 19:8) Paul, referring to the Old Testament, instructs, “…for the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and, "The laborer deserves to be paid." (1 Tim 5:18) James warns the rich, “4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5:4-5)
Our culture operates in a much more complex economic environment and many of the issues we face were not addressed specifically in scripture. For instance, discrimination in hiring and promotion would clearly fall under commutative justice. Nevertheless, honest and just economic transactions were a central concern of biblical ethics and must be a central part of any Christian economic ethic.
Reading the legal codes in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it is clear that private property was taken for granted. One of the Ten Commandments was “Thou shall not steal.” There are numerous references about appropriate restitution when someone’s property has been taken or damaged. Private property was central to Old Testament economic life.
However, ownership of private property was not absolute.
Deut 15:4-5 NRSV
4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, 5 if only you will obey the LORD your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.
The law required that farmers not harvest all the way to the edge of the field. (Leviticus 23:22) The Jubilee placed restrictions on the permanent transfer of land. (Leviticus 25) Also, the Israelites were required to make contributions for care of the Levites and certain governmental activities. There were communal issues that took precedence over property rights.
No where in Scripture do we see a mandate for an equal distribution of income. Some argue that the Jubilee Code in Leviticus 25 was wealth redistribution but, as I showed on Monday, it was no such thing. Some have used Acts 2:45 to suggest that the Early church intended communal ownership of property:
Acts 2:44-45 NRSV
44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
These actions were done under extraordinary circumstances. The church was exploding. Many new believers would have been disowned by their families. Christians voluntarily pooled their resources to meet the need. This was not a model for ongoing church community. Even Jesus parables seem to endorse the idea of investing and earning according to the resources that have been entrusted to us. (Matthew 25:14-46)
Seemingly, God desires to have billions of Adams working their own “gardens.” He created all of us to be stewards of his resources. When all goods are held in common, the productivity and creativity tends to drop to the level of the laziest and most incompetent. There is no incentive to work harder. Any increased productivity merely accrues to the slackers. Private property encourages conscientious use of resources to their maximum benefit. Therefore, the most economically productive arraignment is private property. Still, God’s mandate that there “be no one in need among you” trumps productivity.
Before we can talk about globalization, debt cancellation, or any of another topics related to economics, we have to come to some understanding of what constitutes economic justice. The term means different things to different people. I believe there are three aspects to economic justice:
1. Distributive Justice – This addresses how capital and goods are distributed throughout the society.
2. Commutative Justice – This addresses the truthfulness of parties to an economic exchange.
3. Remedial Justice – This addresses just compensation and punitive action when there has been malicious or careless damage done to life, liberty or property.
I want to visit the biblical implications for these three over the next few posts, but first I think it would be good to make explicit three underlying assumptions:
1. God is owner of all there is and we are but stewards of God’s resources. This takes economics out of the realm of the purely human and puts in eternal perspective.
2. Humanity was made for co-creative work. Work is good! God created each person with a set of gifts and gives them a passion for certain kinds of work. God gets immense joy out of our work.
3. God wants economic bondage for no one. The curse pronounced on Adam was that he would earn his living by the sweat of his brow. This was not God’s plan. Humanity exacerbates the problem through a combination of individual sinfulness and corrupt social structures.
With all this in mind, what does the Bible have to say about economic justice?