Distributive Justice – How capital and goods are distributed throughout the society.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” and only God is eternal. Therefore, everything belongs ultimately to God. Yet God created us to be “stewards” of his creation. “Steward” is not widely used today. I love its Old English origins. Hundreds of years ago the most valued possession of the landed class was their herds of swine. Consequently, you entrusted your swine to your most trusted “ward.” A ward is someone who is under another’s legal authority. (Thus, we have expressions like an orphaned child being a “ward of the state” or having a prison “warden” who keeps watch over his wards.) Since the most important ward for the English landowner was the one who watched the pigs, you would find this ward working in the pig sty. The most trusted ward was the “sty-ward” which eventually morphed into “steward.” We are stewards of creation.
What we own and what produce comes from God and goes back to God and our only relationship to wealth is as stewards. In Deuteronomy 8, God warned:
17 Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
As all other economic issues are discussed, God as the ultimate owner must be kept in mind.
So what is our relationship to wealth as stewards? There is a tension expressed within the Old Testament law. Clearly, 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 by another. Private property was central to Old Testament economic life.
However, ownership of private property was not absolute.
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. Deut 15:4-5 (NRSV)
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. Yet, 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 I will show in a few more posts that this is not what the Jubilee code was about. The Jubilee Code was about preventing perpetual poverty in the first place and reminding the people about the origins of their wealth.
Seemingly, God desires to have billions of Adams and Eves working their own “gardens.” God created all of us to be stewards of his resources and he entrusts specific portions to us, rewarding faithful stewardship with expanded stewardship over more 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. Any increased productivity merely accrues to the slackers. Private property encourages conscientious use of resources to their maximum benefit. Without private property over which we are individually accountable there can be no stewardship. Therefore, the most economically productive arraignment is private property. Still, God’s mandate that there “be no one in need among you” trumps productivity. This is the tension that exists within the Old Testament Laws concerning distributive justice.