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Nov 15, 2007

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RonMck

Good stuff Michael.

The concept of land ownership was interesting. People could only buy a seven year (reducing) lease. Do you think this has any implications for land ownership in the modern world.

The idea that you cannot be alienated from your labour and capital is interesting. What are the implications for the modern world? No slavery, of course, but what else?

The concept of distribution of income or wealth is an strange one. Distibution implies a distributor. When I get my salary each fortnight, I do not think of it as income being distributed to me. I feel that I have received what I earned. I am sure other people feel the same way. The concept of distribution of income may sound nice in theory, but it simply does not match the way we live and think.

The benefit of the concept is that it opens up the way for a distributor, which is nearly always the state.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Ron. Sorry for a tardy response. I'm out of town and been in a meeting all day.

I think the general ethic is that God created us to be stewards. Stewardship requires having ownership of resources. In advanced economies land has become less essential as basic means of production for a household. Human capital in the form of knowledge, skills, and social competencies are rising compared to land, physical labor, and capital. Micro-lending is one small way to get financial capital into people’s hands to start a wealth building cycle. Incorporating folks nto larger economies and incrementally expanding opportunities for trade helps build capital as well. I think there are many strategies but I sort of see “owning” human capital is the primary way of insuring that folks own a means of economic production.

What do you think the implications are?

Charles

1. Even under the Jubilee code, people in walled towns living in houses didn't have to vacate their property. So there were items of personal property exempt from the wholesale redistribution that folks like Ron Sider have promoted. Actually Sider's views are similar to Islamic Zakat than Christian Charity.

2. The early church's holding things in common was a temporary accommodation because of the large number of pilgrims who were in the city to visit and who stayed after their conversion to be discipled.

Also, if "slavery" entails alienating someone from the benefits of their labor, doesn't the income tax function as a prior claim on everyone's labor making us all, by that definition, "slaves" in any jurisdiction with an income tax?

It's odd then how in the name of alleviating poverty, raising income taxes and increasing the servitude of everyone is given as the "solution" for the indigence of others(as opposed to private solutions such as charity). I.e. making "slaves" of all by one definition is the "solution" to the poverty of some.

And by tampering with money supplies (fiat currency), governments inflate everyone's income so that all are subject to even more taxes increasing their plight. It's really a hidden tax that increases liability for the obvious tax!

So since Clifton Kirkpatrick is calling the church to fight the new economic slavery of globalism, is he also taking up rhetorical arms against the alienation from the benefits of labor through the income tax and fiat currency?

I'll wake up from my day dreaming now. I concur, excellent post! Would that all the mainline groups had many more sane voices like yours...

Michael W. Kruse

I think there are legitmate claims that the government makes on people's property through taxes. The Mosaic covenant required farmers not to harvest to the edge of the fields so the poor could glean. Other communal demands were placed on individuals. I'm not willing to go so far as to equate taxation for certain types of support as slavery. I do believe we have over emphasized the government's role in addressing poverty to the exclusion of other institutions in society. As with many justice issues it is a balance of two competing legtimate needs (private property vs communal need to care for the poor.) That is how I look at it.

Thanks for your kind affirmation!

Ted M. Gossard

Michael,
Great thoughts and bringing together of the relevant Biblical passages and its input in general.

I see the church as the new Israel and a priority of it is to do good especially to the household of faith as well as to all people, our neighbors. Certainly high on the priority list is God's concern and care for the poor, as we see over and over again in Scripture- as you point out in the nuanced way we find there.

We in Jesus as the new Israel are to show the world what it means to be human, or be becoming more and more human in Jesus. What the kingdom of God is all about. It is a travesty in our churches if there are people who have way more than enough alongside people who are losing their homes and have inadequate or no health insurance. We need to help them as best we can with our own means, and within the system, but to keep our hands off is inexcusable. Of course they have their responsibility as well, and that will likely include good financial counseling which actually most all of us could use.

But from this example we're to have as the salt and light of the world, I think governments should be judged in how they respond to the poor in their own midst as well as how collectively they respond to the needs of poor nations in the world.

I for one believe that while certainly all people should not be making the same money: doctors versus a factory worker like myself, we should be willing to live on less so that the basic needs of others in health care and to live are met. I am for higher taxes to that end, but hopefully with the right dose of help in getting those in need to begin to help others in need.

I don't trust the US govt to do what is right in this, at least altogether. We have too many priorities that end up pushing this one down, and both Democrat and Republican are too devoted to our war machine. War machine is probably way too strong, but I mean of course our military, and I'm not sold on alot of what America does in the world as to national interest, but neither should we sell ourselves to any national entity, or international, for that matter.

Jason Barr

I think you are fundamentally correct in your reading of the Jubilee and other affiliated passages. I see the tendency among Christians to assume these passages talk about redistribution as a kind of vestige from the influence of the Social Gospel and Christian Socialist movements, which is really no less a conforming of the church to a particular "way of the world" than the somewhat slavish devotion in some right-wing Christian circles to so-called free-market capitalism.

I don't see any particular economic model as having the "Biblical stamp of approval", but rather I see a lot of flexibility in the scriptural statements about the relationship between property, people, and God that ought to enable us to carry on a living conversation between the economic modes of our times and the scriptures as they reveal God's heart for justice - which really has more to do with the restoration of right relationship than with anything related to economic redistribution (though I would add the caveat that it's difficult to have a right relationship in a society defined by unequal power relations).

I tend towards more communal and cooperative modes of ownership, and I do think there are ways in which they're more Biblically-based than the current climate of individual ownership/consumption in America, but the overly simplistic ideas about social redistribution I see in at least parts of the Christian left don't seem workable to me. At least, I have no illusions that redistribution is the lightning bolt "quick fix" solution --- I don't think there is a quick fix, especially not as long as sin is in the world.

Jason Barr

Charles, you said:

The early church's holding things in common was a temporary accommodation because of the large number of pilgrims who were in the city to visit and who stayed after their conversion to be discipled.

How so? I don't see this in Acts at all.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Ted. I did want to highlight two things.

"But from this example we're to have as the salt and light of the world, I think governments should be judged in how they respond to the poor in their own midst as well as how collectively they respond to the needs of poor nations in the world."

First, I would strike the word "governments" and insert "societies" in the above sentence. These are not synonyms. Government is only one institution of society and because it possess the power of the sword I would suggest it should be used with restraint. Of course, determining what the appropriate level is is worthy of debate.

Second, you wrote:

"It is a travesty in our churches if there are people who have way more than enough alongside people who are losing their homes and have inadequate or no health insurance."

I agree that the church often is not of help (but I have seen churches where just this kind of help is offered.) But I would also want to avoid a zero-sum game menatility that says because someone has more than enough (however that is defined) that means someone else has less. We are asking for generosity and compassion.

Also, many of these issuses are relative. I loose my 3,000 sq ft house and must move to a 1,500 sq ft house is it the obligation of the community to keep me in my 3,000 sq ft house? The ethical questions involved are not easily solved by forumlas and there is no perfect justice this side of Christ's return. I'm not picking a fight. Just pointing to the complexity.

Michael W. Kruse

Jason, thanks for the comments.

Certainly communal ownership and shared resources a good thing for families. I have known some communities of single folks that have developed communal ownership models. Small communes exist as well. I have no issue with people who chose to live in such arrangements voluntarily. However, a communal model for any community much larger than this, and certainly for an entire society, leads to wasted resources, environmental degradation, poor productivity, black markets, and societal decay.

There is no economic model taught in the Bible but there is a narrative and there are ethics. Private property (held in trust for God) is a central theme of the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant does not undo this. Stewardship can not exist at the individual level if one does not own resources.

Thus, while there is no Biblical economic model, some economic models comport better with Christian anthropology and ethics than others. I would argue (along with Miroslav Volf, among others) that free-market capitalism comports the best with the biblical view.

Now let me head off a lot of confusion out of the gates here. By capitalism I mean an economic system with the following traits:

* Privately owned business enterprises
* Relatively free markets
* Players in pursuit of endless win-win transactions
* Investment of wealth in productive activities
* Long-term future returns oriented
* Circumscribed in a strong juridical framework governing property rights and transactional justice”

Also, I use “free-market” in much the same way talk of free speech. We do not allow someone to falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater, to incite people to violence, to commit slander, or to commit perjury. Yet we still promote free speech as very positive thing and encourage it. Economic freedom is the say way and that is what I mean by “free-markets.”

Andy

Michael,
Interesting stuff.

Have you read anything on relationism being developed by the jubilee centre think tank in the UK? There latest publication "The Jubilee Manifesto" includes lot of interesting contributions from economists. In addition to the UK, they are serious reflection going on about the relationism iddas in Holland and Australia.

Additionally since you are evaluating O.T./Ancient Israel themes with economics, what do you make of the prohibition of interest as in (Deut 23:19-20), and the two occassions where this relates to the poor (Ex 22:25; Lev 25:36-37)?

Michael W. Kruse

Hi Andy. I haven't read the “Jubilee Manifesto.” Some groups use Jesus’ proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor” (euphemism for jubilee) as the launching point for proclaiming justice, and rightly so. Jesus is clearly taking the idea and expanding it (recovery of sight for the blind) into a messianic statement about all things being set aright, not a literal return of the jubilee.

The untenable stretch is that Jubilee was about debt cancellation and so therefore there is a mandate to forgive debt to developing nations. As I showed, jubilee was about limiting debts and not about cancellation. Therefore, no direct literal link can be made between jubilee and cancelling debts to developing nations. As I wrote in the second paragraph “These policies may be worthy and appropriate but that is distinct from whether the Bible teaches legislated redistribution of wealth.”

Ancient economic systems were based on two means of production: Land and Labor. Capital (equity and debt financing for economic enterprise) was inconsequential to the OT world and only significant to a minor degree in the NT world. Only in the past 500 years or so has debt financing for commercial enterprise become possible. Debt with interest in ancient culture was more typically exacted from a poor person who was trapped in a tight spot. It was exploitation and a way locking that person into servitude. Commercial debt is a win-win arrangement where the lender is able to put their capital to productive use and the borrower gains access to greater capital to undertake large enterprises.

When we look at aid to developing nations we are usually talking about loans made to governments of developing nations (often corrupt and mismanaged) not to poor people. The argument can be made that high debt owed by a developing nations is preventing them from advancing and that may be entirely true. But it is not always true. Each case has to be evaluated on its own merits and there may be very sound economic reasons for doing cancellation. But the insistence that we must cancel debts to developing nations because of the jubilee code and prohibition on usury with the poor us untenable.

Another way to say this is that just because debt cancellation may be the economically prudent and just thing to do, it does not justify us taking scripture out of context in order to support debt cancellation.

Andy

Thanks for your response Michael,naturally it will be hard to go into any depth of this discussion since i am referencing a book, you haven't had a chance to read. But just for clarification what the authors of the Manifesto argue for is not a direct application of the OT text re:jubilee or debt reduction or interest-removal as it were. But rather trying to understand what was the heart behind these ideas. Which they argue was a relational ethic "loving God and neighbour as self". So the question they ask is what would it look like if different parts of our society was govern with "good" relationships being the priority. And this extends to economics. In my study of economics, I am must say I am intrigue by this model.

I agree with you that often things sustainable development is more complex that we often give credit to and one must pay attention to the details of each situation. But my fear is that in you "swinging the pendulum" away from idealism as it were, some these ideals of biblical justice and kingdom of God vs Mammon might not be given enough time to challenge our comforts and natural assumptions here in the West. Personally I would like to see the ideal/kingdom ethic held up high and then the construction of what that looks like wrestled through in our real time/circumstances. Maybe I misunderstand the passion i sense in your posts to give clarity to "reality" but maybe if you have time you can comment on this for my sake.

Mike H

Michael, what about this:

Deut 14:28: At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Deut 15: 11
Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
Deut 15 also talks about cancelling the debts of the poor in jubilee.

Michael W. Kruse

Andy, I did order the book but I had to go to IVP UK to get it. We'll see how long it takes them to get it across the pond. :) From what I've read of some of the blurbs I suspect I will have significant disagreement but that is okay. I try to read widely.
Clearly the Biblical text is where we need to begin. I understand that some use the concept of Jubilee in a more careful reflective way. My post was not addressing that.

You wrote:

"But my fear is that in you "swinging the pendulum" away from idealism as it were, some these ideals of biblical justice and kingdom of God vs Mammon might not be given enough time to challenge our comforts and natural assumptions here in the West."

I'm really not interested in pendulums. They give me motion sickness. :) I more interested in thoroughly embracing to poles of polarity. One pole is a rigorous devotion to the narrative God has revealed. The other is devotion to learning and applying what we have learned throughout human history about how economic systems work (and don't) work as we apply biblical anthropology and ethics in the world. What I wish many idealist and reformers would do is become more precise with what they mean by markets and capitalism before they declare them evil and demand something new.

You mentioned “"loving God and neighbour as self". Adam Smith wrote about self-interest and used the example of dealing with the butcher and the baker. Smith agreed that it would be a wonderful world where everyone served everyone else out of their own benevolence and good will. However, Smith’s assessment of human nature suggested to him that depending on the benevolence of the butcher and baker was impractical because all of us are to some degree selfish and untrustworthy. Some butchers and bakers might rise to the occasion on a regular basis but many would not. He would rather have the butcher and baker motivated to serve him because they understood it to be in their self-interest to do so rather than fickle notions benevolence coming from sinful people. This was Smith’s primary understanding of the importance of self-interest.

But self-interest was only the starting point that insured a well integrated and reliable economy. For society to be truly civilized required the higher virtues of empathy, compassion, and benevolence which society must seek to instill in every citizen. In “Theory of Moral Sentiments” he refers specifically to the Golden Rule as the basis for making decisions.

“So the question they ask is what would it look like if different parts of our society was govern with "good" relationships being the priority.”

This is fine so long as we appreciate the very fallen nature of humanity. What are the checks and balances built in against human sinfulness? I see economic freedom exercised by virtuous people as the goal. I think free markets and capitalism make this possible.

Michael W. Kruse

Hi Mike. Let me go to you last passage first.

Deuteronomy 15 is dealing with the Sabbath years happening every seven years, not the jubilee that happens every 49 or 50 years (depending on how you read the text.) Deut. 15:1:

“Every seventh year you shall grant a remission [shemittah] of debts.

Shemittah is from the root shamat, meaning to “let drop,” “throw down,” or “release.” It can mean either a temporary or a permanent act. Context is needed. I’m persuaded that it is a temporary release from debt payment for two reasons.

First, in Exodus 23:10-11 we read:

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest [shamat] and lie fallow, …

Does this mean that the land will rest forever more? No. It is fallow for the Sabbath year. Similarly, the debtor is free from making payments during the Sabbath, otherwise he or she would be compelled to work during the Sabbath year to make the debt payment. When the Sabbath is over, debt payments resume.

Second, if debt were permanently cancelled every seven years, this would make the jubilee provisions every 49-50 years, presented in Leviticus 25:47-50, pointless. There the instructions are given to calculate loans based on the number of years between the transaction and the next jubilee. The jubilee presumes ongoing indebtedness until the jubilee. Deut 15 legislates a suspension of debt payments during intervening Sabbath years.

Back to the larger question. Do I understand correctly that you see these verses as contrary to what I’ve presented? I don’t in the least. Let me frame two questions.

Is the biblical notion of justice that the poor should be cared for?

Is the biblical notion of justice that wealth should be equalized to roughly the same amount for everyone?

I’m saying yes to the first question and no to the second. People routinely confuse justice for the poor as equalized income across society. By reducing the amount of wealth for the rich we help the poor. I wrote “It is akin to the reasoning that suggests that the way we make sick people better is by making healthy people less healthy.” It is tied to the Zero-Sum Game fallacy that perceives one person’s gain coming at the expense of someone else’s loss.

Is that clearer?

Mike H

Michael,
I was thinking they contrasted with what you are saying although that may have been a misunderstanding. I agree with your answer to your two questions. Also, I do not think the verses entail a move towards total equalization. The confusing part for me is figuring out the difference between "redistribution" and giving to the poor. Or, what is the Biblical model of helping the poor? I do not know quite what to ask to get at that.

Virgil

Michael, I have not read all the comments above so perhaps I am repeating what was already said. The concept of jubilee, slavery and deliverance from it were pointers (at least in my opinion) to a "higher" spiritual truth that can help us understand not only how to treat each other, but how God has approached us with his grace and how that grace and forgiveness has affected our lives.

So yes, using those truths to justify redistribution of wealth is misguided. If would go along the lines of saying "Jesus wants all mankind to be happy...so he wants us all to be rich - or he wants us all to give up material riches" - just pick your side.

I am looking forward to your New Jerusalem installment. :)

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Virgil. I've actually already changed it to "New Creation."

Michael W. Kruse

Mike, I would suggest that our framing of issues frequently gets us in trouble. Last week I wrote a post Reframing the "Why are the Poor Poor?" Question. I’m suggesting that poor is the natural condition. The better question is, “Why are the affluent affluent?” How do we make that a universal human condition?

I wrote for posts about the Imago Dei and the Material World you may want to look at. My basic point is that God point us here to be in relationship with him and each other, and to be productive stewards over creation. Creation and stewardship are ontological expressions of being in the image of God. Viewing the poor only in terms of making sure they have enough to consume dehumanizes them. They, like us, were created for stewardship and the means having access to the minimal resources needed to function as stewards and a societal environment that allows them to succeed. I think the Mosaic law was in part to make sure that each person had an ownership stake in the enterprise God was unfolding in the world.

There are always the mentally/physically disabled, children, and others who can not function fully as stewards. Society must care for these folks. However, I think the challenge is to convert the subsistence poor into the creative productive stewards God wants all of us to be.

Roy Smith

I've always seen the Jubilee as restorative rather than redistributive and an attempt to ensure that the Children of Israel did not fall prey to their entrepreneurial instincts and sell off their land to passing Arabs. It ensured the integrity of the land stock under the covenant. To equate the Jubilee with the redistribution of wealth seems a pretty lame attempt by socialist academics and politicians to add respectability to a tawdry political philosophy.

If we are equating the Church with Israel (both covenant people) we must still be careful in way in which we equate modern social economics with the maintenance of God's covenant relationship with His Chosen People. The "redistribution" taking place in Acts 2 was the work of the Holy Spirit and seems to me to recreate the Garden of Eden - in other words the installation of the ideal relationships before the Fall, and the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was analogous to the Fall - the perfect conditions ruined through man's sinfulness. Although it is perilous to attempt to recreate these conditions through human interventions or systems there are many instances of church members being prompted to give to their poorer brethren, in my experience, usually anonimously, and it is probably best left in this way!

In the UK for the last 10 years we have had an unashamedly redistributive government. It has attempted to create a client state by engineering the tax, welfare and employment systems to ensure that large number of voters feel obligated and self interested enough to vote for them at subsequent elections. Is it (and this is a serious question) theft to tax the income of higher earners to give to lower earners? (For the sake of political rhetoric lower earners are called the poor though there is not much evidence for this.) Is it a morally legitimate to retain power through the votes of those who are acting in a covetous and envious fashion - or to put it more plainly electing a government to practice theft on their behalf? Clearly, if a government is to practice "Jubilee" politics it needs a power base in order to do this and is the power base described above theologically sound?

Danny Gamache

Thank you Michael for your interesting post and your excellent follow up through the discussions.

One thing that I find missing from this discussion relates to the purpose of land. In the Ancient Near East the primary form of economic subsistence was the land. To have land was to be able to survive. For example, the Levites who were not given land, were given a significant tithes from the land owners so they could survive.

This importance of the land plays directly into the role of Jubilee. While certainly people could accumulate possessions such as their livestock, they couldn't accumulate extra land in the long run. Instead the land was returned to the original owning family.

It seems to me that Yahweh was particularly concerned that every have the ability to provide for themselves, and therefor had continued access to the ownership of land.

Today the primary form of economic subsistence is certainly not the land; almost no one except a small minority of our population actually earn a living directly on the the land that they own.

So what is today's equivalent of land? I'm not sure. I wonder if it might be education, or even financial capital. We need to ponder this question and allow the decision to shape our understanding of application for this passage today.


Michael W. Kruse

Roy

Thanks. As Israel was God's light to the world I think the land had eschatological significance beyond its pure economic value.

Also, greed and theft aren't manifest themselves in many ways, don't they?

Danny,

Thanks. What you articualte is pretty much my understanding. I think human capital (of which education is a part) is becoming the most important means of production, although financial capital is clearly linked to developing human capital. As I've written elsewhere, I think God's visions is for each of us to be productive stewards over some corner of his creation. Mere distribution to meet consumption needs without incorporating them in the world of exchange is dehumanizing.

Danny Gamache

Possibly this brings a good argument for more Micro-credit and less straight redistributing through financial aid.

I don't think micro-credit is a panacea but it has lots of merits. I think aid to intermediate institutions in developing nations and work through some NGOs can help. But my bias is against government to government foriegn aid unless it is limited to very specific projects with measurable outcomes.

I think rule of law, property rights, capital markets, and exchange are the soil form which the "plant" of prosperity grows. Maybe micro-credit is an improtant ferilizer.

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