just what the world needs (part 2)

Part two, here it is. It occurred to me while writing that perhaps I should do some prep work for this, since I’m going to be talking about a lot of things I don’t know much about, not only economics this time but also the Bible.
But blogging is no fun if I have to do prep work, and the only reason I blog is for fun. Further, if I did prep work for a blog post, I would seem to be implying that I know what I’m talking about. And I don’t want to be on the hook for that. So following are some of my completely unauthoritative, unsubstantiated thoughts on the subject.

Someone once mentioned to me the theory that the Bible tells us to care for the poor, but doesn’t tell us specifically how to do that. I can see that point of view, but I feel that the Bible actually gets very specific about how the poor should be cared for. Especially the Old Testament sets down some extremely specific economic rules, which, if followed properly, should make poor people very rare and very well cared-for.
However, it can be difficult to interpret the import these instructions have for our society, because the ancient economy was fundamentally different from ours. In my opinion, the major difference is that the modern economy is money-based, whereas the ancient economy was land-based. The ancient economy was very “weakly monetized”: there was no such thing as coins or currency of any kind until the Hellenistic period. There is evidence of systems of valuation based on weights of some valuable metal–such as shekels of silver in the Bible–but this probably doesn’t indicate you could walk to your nearest corner store and purchase a goat for X shekels of silver. This was probably a rule-of-thumb technique for determining the relative values of things.
There was also not much in the way of a “market” in ancient times, the market also appeared first in Hellenistic times as the agora. There is some evidence in ancient cities of “shops” or “markets” where basic items could be bought, and also of some kinds of “banking” and “investing” practices. But these were the exception, not the rule. For the most part, the ancient economy was based on land ownership: land was owned by the patriarch of a family who was responsible for the members of his household–typically his wife (or wives), children, servants and slaves. The way one acquired land was either through inheritance or by being granted land by the king. This is the primary way the majority of ancient people were provisioned–nobles as well as more humble people.
Wealth was not primarily measured in money in those days, in fact if someone was trying to get by on a cash basis only, they would probably have a hard time of it, as one couldn’t simply go out and buy what one needed–there were no ancient equivalents of supermarkets or malls. It’s not that it never happened that people bought things with silver, but that was not the primary way of “doing business.”
Land was an even trickier commodity than most to buy or sell for some kind of money equivalent. It did happen, but it was rather a doubtful thing to allow land to go out of one’s family. It involved complicated deeds of sale, ceremonies or feasting between the two people/families involved; and sometimes even “adoption” ceremonies, which allowed the parties involved to maintain the fiction that the land was still in the family, even though it was in fact a sale of land.
We can see this in the Bible as well. In Genesis 23, note that Ephron the Hittite is extremely touchy about selling land to Abraham–he wanted to give it to him instead. What does this mean? Well, it may just be a form of haggling, but it also seems that the Hittites are implying some sort of relationship between themselves and Abraham–“what is that between me and you?”. It is possible that Abraham wanted to avoid the implied family relationship that would be involved in taking land from the Hittites for free.
Note also that this sale is done before “all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city,” in other words, the sale must be witnessed and approved of by the town elders and any other members of the community, even though the only people actually involved are Ephron and Abraham. Parting with land was thus a matter of concern to the community, not just to individuals.
I believe that land was even more important to the Israelites than it would have been to the heavily urbanized or sophisticated civilizations of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt and so forth. It is from those regions that we have the most evidence of “attached specialists” or “professionals” who derived their livelihood from some kind of income (food rather than money) and land grants, and of markets in which basic goods could be bought and sold. Ancient Israel was rather rural in nature in comparison to those other regions: Judah had only one city of any size, Jerusalem; other than Lachish, the rest of the land was occupied by quite small settlements. Israel had more communities which were citylike in size and function, but still not on the scale or complexity of those found in Mesopotamia.
Keeping this in mind, I think it is easier to understand what the Mosaic law and the prophets were saying about care of the poor. For one thing, land ownership was then what a regular income is to us today: the only guarantee of access to a basic livelihood. The ideal in the Old Testament is that of the ownership of land by each individual family, that each may have his “own vine and fig tree.” Almost the worst thing you could do, according to the prophets, was to fraudulently deprive someone of his land (pronoun intentional, which will be discussed more later). But the idea that each family was to be independent on the basis of ownership of its own land was so important that even if the land was acquired through legitimate means–by sale, for example–it had to be returned to its original owner during the jubilee year.
This is a concept that makes little sense in our current economy. I don’t think many of us would accept the idea that it is morally imperative to return property which we legitamately bought and paid for to its original owner after a certain period of time. I don’t know exactly what to make of this, but here is one idea: Not only in Israel, but in the ancient Near East in general, the land ultimately belonged to God (or gods) and was administered by the king, who granted it to persons and institutions. Perhaps people who acquired the land of others, by fair means or foul, did not in fact “own” it, what they had was the use of the land and its produce. But the land ultimately had to return to its original owner, because it really belonged to God and what God wanted to do with it was to make His people independent by each household’s being able to farm its own plot.
The concept of “independence” leads us to a second issue. One did not sell one’s land unless one was quite desperate, for the above-mentioned reasons; and after one had sold one’s land there were few options left other than to sell oneself and one’s family members into slavery. Being a slave was about the worst thing that could happen to an Israelite; God led His people out of slavery, and to go back into it was in a sense a denial of God’s will that His people be free. The Mosaic law recognizes this: not only must slaves be freed after a certain period of time, but the slave must be treated as members of one’s own family, as the Bible says “because you were slaves in Egypt.” If the slave chose to stay with the family after his period of service was up, he was to be treated as one of the family.
Finally, a quick mention of those referred to in the Bible as the utterly destitute: “the widow and the orphan.” These persons were completely outside of the ancient economy: in order to have a livelihood, one must be either a male landholder or attached to a male landholder by marriage or family ties. The widow and orphan’s connection to an independent livelihood was deceased, and they were dependent on whatever had been left them or the kindness of relatives or strangers on whom they had no real claim. The Old Testament exhorts its people to show justice to and provide for these powerless persons, and I believe other practices such as marriage of one’s brother’s widow are also in part intended to draw these people back into the economy.
In short, I believe that the Old Testament ideal is of the economic independence of each household (since the family or “household,” not the individual, was the economic actor in ancient times). Practices which would seem rather radical to us–the restoration of property after a certain period, marriage of one’s brother’s widow, etc.–were intended to secure this ideal.
However, something went wrong. The prophets accuse Israel of two Big Sins: apostasy and neglect of the poor. In a sense, these two things go hand in hand: the Mosaic law should have made sure no one was left out of the economy and everyone was provided for. The mere fact that this was not the case was enough to indicate that Israel was not following God’s law. The “prep work” I spoke of earlier involved my looking up a paper I wrote once on the book of Amos for Hebrew class; I’m not going to go so far as to do that, but will quote one verse, Amos 2:8
They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.
This verse combines apostasy (“every altar”–Israel was supposed to have only one altar and that was at Jerusalem; “their god”–small g, not Yahweh) with the abuse of the poor (“garments taken in pledge”–the rich took the only thing the poor had left, the shirt off their back; “wine taken as fines”–same idea).
I must admit that I do not always know what people mean when they talk of “doing justice” to the poor. I don’t always think this reflects the concept of “justice” in the Bible. The Bible never advocates the redistribution of wealth through taxation. It takes a rather reactionary view of in which women do not have much of an independent role in economy or society and are more or less dependent on the men in their lives; and in which slavery is not forbidden or abolished but is accepted as a fact of life, although with restrictions. The Bible doesn’t seek to replace the contemporary economy with an idealized, “progressive” one. Rather, it accepted the ancient economy warts and all and transformed it by requiring those who participated in it to act like God’s people–by acting justly and with compassion. Finally, the Old Testament does not have much to say directly about the living wage debate, because “wages” were not a major component of the ancient economy.
However, I think we can take some general lessons from the Old Testament. First, I think we can say that the presence of “dispossessed” persons in society is indicative that there is something wrong with that society–not just those persons–and that what is wrong has something to do with the relationship to God. In what sense is this the case? In a “conservative” sense, in that our society’s dedication to instant gratification leads people into sinful lifestyles which inevitably lead to poverty and misery. If people continually choose gratification over responsibility, there is not much we as a society can do for them. But, here is a novel idea: perhaps we as a society have a responsibility not just to care for the poor, but to model responsible living rather than hedonism, and to hold up as an ideal “a person of integrity or rectitude; a person who is morally just, honest, or honourable” (the OED definition of the word “mensch,” which I’ve always liked), rather than the selfish individuals with highly unrealistic lifestyles we typically see on television and movies. The Bible more than suggests that Godly living and compassion for the poor are two sides of the same coin, and I don’t think one will be very successful without the other.
On the other hand, nearly as great as the sin of idolatry in the Prophets is the sin of using one’s power to dispossess the poor. The Bible was used on TC and elsewhere to defend the employer’s right to set wages, and to claim that the employee had no right to complain about those wages no matter what they were. I am doubtful of the Scriptural basis for these claims. I do think, however, that from the employer’s point of view, if one is setting low wages to take advantage of the fact that there are people desperate enough to accept those terms, one is abusing one’s power to take away that person’s livelihood, and that this is a serious problem.
On the other hand, how can we judge whether this is happening, and what should we do about it? Setting low wages to exploit people is one thing; but creating jobs which allow people with few skills and no money to enter the work force, work their way through the ranks or pay their own way through school, etc. is another. To set against the cases of those people who find themselves trapped in low wages, unable to advance; I personally know people who have benefited from the existence of low-wage, low-skill, low-commitment jobs–people who did not have the chance to get an education or family support who were able to begin in these jobs and work their way up to make a decent living. What would happen to people like this, who are hard workers but have had few chances in life, if these jobs were eliminated?
So this is a difficult question for me. From a Biblical point of view, the very existence of homeless people and the working poor in society is a symptom that there is something wrong with that society in God’s eyes. But what to do about it is a more difficult question.
For real change to happen, I think what we need is not a revolutionary change in the economic system, but a revolutionary change in the people in it. Even economic system detailed by God Himself in the Mosaic code did not create a perfect society, because the people in it were not obeying; so I don’t think we stand much chance in inventing a perfectly just economy on our own.
In a couple of senses, perhaps the New Testament has more to say than the Old about the issue. For one thing, money and wages were a bigger factor during that period than the earlier one. For another, the New Testament was not laying down rules for an entire society, but was for people living within a larger society which was not Christian or even Jewish. The passage I’d like to draw reference to is in Ephesians 6, and here is the passage that strikes horror into the heart of modern hearers (verses 5-7)
5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.
How can this verse, with its talk of obedient slaves, possibly speak to us today? Well, it only can with reference to verse 9:
9And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
It often seems to happen that one side of an issue gets more publicity than the other. Wives are told to obey their husbands, but somehow the husband’s duty of sacrifical love to the wife gets lost. Employees are expected to do their work and not complain about their pay, but the employer is not considered to be under any obligation to the employee. Or, sometimes, it’s the other way around!
The master/slave relationship is not identical to the modern employer/ employee one, but there is an analogy. We are to treat others as we have been treated by God, and we have been treated with more generosity and compassion than we can possibly hope to show in our own lives–but we can try. God gives special instructions on how to treat those who are dependent on us: with the kindness and generosity that we have been shown, remembering they are our equals before God. We are fortunate that as employees we do not have the same level of dependence as slaves do on their masters, but it is the case that most employees have more need of keeping their jobs than the employer has need of retaining the employee–putting the employer in the position of power, and the lower-level the job, the more that is the case.
The New Testament is different from the secular world in that it tells us not to insist on our own rights, but rather to give others their rights. As such, whether or not employers have the right to set wages that keep employees in a state of poverty is beside the point; the important point is that every employer has the opportunity to better the situation of their employees, if they choose to do so. This may not involve setting artificially high wages (whatever that might mean), but rather providing opportunities for employees to better their situation–by helping with access to health care, education, etc.
Can we legislate that? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s healthy for society for a large percentage of the population to be in poverty–from a purely selfish point of view, it leads to increased crime, drags down national productivity, puts a burden on taxpayers, and contributes to a dearth of qualified employees to serve me at the mall or phone company. So as a society, I think legislation has a role in keeping poverty to a minimum.
But what if Christian employers went above and beyond what the law requires them to do, voluntarily? I’m sure a lot of them do, although this is not what we hear about on the news. But as Christians, we are supposed to stand out from other people on the basis of our compassion, justice, and Godly living. I think one way to do that is to remain steadfast in maintaining that God’s rules for life are not arbitrary, but rather are intended most importantly to glorify God, but also for the good of people. Another way is to show generosity and compassion to those who derive their livelihood from us, by voluntarily giving them a hand up, whether that is increased wages or other means.
If we consider that it is our jobs as Christians to model and call people to lifestyles that promote our health and well-being; perhaps it is also the job of the Christian church to call people on how they use their power over others, rather than just on matters of personal holiness. Many measures of protest and such by Christians seem designed to get the attention of the secular world–they seem to want to shame the church in public, thus implicitly holding it to a secular standard rather than a Christian one. The New Testament explicitly calls Christians to confront one another about sin in private, and to preserve one another’s dignity–not to try change or destroy a person by humiliating them. If we consider matters of treatment of employees a Christian matter, perhaps we should approach Christian employers as fellow Christians if they are not behaving in a Christlike manner in the way they run their business and their treatment of employees.
Of course, we need laws about how to treat employees, but no matter what specific laws are in place, somebody will find a way to work around those laws and profit off the system somehow. Only by transforming people will the system work as it should.
That was quite a hodgepodge, and in addition to not doing prep work, I really don’t do editing either, so apologize for the mess. And once again, thanks for reading!

4 Responses to “just what the world needs (part 2)”

  1. KDC says:

    You’re welcome!

  2. kim says:

    For some reason, this post didn’t come up on my rss reader, so I almost missed it! Anyway, a bunch of random thoughts/questions on your excellent post (this is somewhat lengthy and not necessarily representative of my own opinions – feel free to answer or not answer whatever parts you see fit):
    Do you see the command to set slaves free in the jubilee year as reflecting a need for masters to show compassion and generosity or could it go beyond that? Could the limit on slave ownership be indicative of a limit on a master’s power, or a way of evening the playing field between the dominant and subordinated members of society?
    I love your point about how the presence of a dispossessed class in society is a sign that something is wrong with society and people’s relationship with God.
    “Doing justice” for the poor does seem to be a pretty vague term. Do you think that doing justice could be congruent with trying to fix a broken society that allows/creates poverty? Most other industrialized nations have attempted just that through extensive social programs and have largely succeeded in shrinking the numbers of the poor. If a nation like America has the means to replicate this success, is it a worthy goal to pursue, or is this solution not compatible with a Biblical vision of caring for the needy?
    How do you see the concept of the McJob fitting in? – those low-wage, dead end jobs that seem to be growing in our service-based economy. What do you think about the loss of higher wage jobs for low-skilled workers? Uneducated workers of our parents’ generation were able to find manufacturing and other jobs that paid enough to support a family – these jobs have increasingly moved overseas or have been eliminated.
    I like your point about the NT focusing on giving others their rights. Even though we hear about how much Jesus focuses on the poor, I’ve noticed a lot in my recent readings of the gospels that he seems to focus as much or more on the rich – their responsibilities, how they need to change, etc. Obviously their relationship to the poor is part of this, but their relationship to money and power in general is also central.
    Interesting point on Christians trying to shame people to get the attention of the secular world. However, I wonder – is the secular standard necessarily different from the secular standard? Or could the standards be the same but the reasoning behind them different? Does this make a difference?
    Anyway, enough from me! Good post!

  3. kim says:

    One more question: in terms of changing poverty, you talk about not modelling hedonism and not using power to dispossess the poor. But what do you think about communities where there are no jobs or hope of economic development, where poverty has existed for generations – like Appalachia or the inner city? Will these approaches be effective or is something else necessary? (Of course, where there are no wages, the argument over a living wage is moot, but I’m still curious about what you think.)

  4. michele says:

    My own blog just accused me of including “questionable content” in the comment response I was trying to post. Will post as a new blog post instead…I’m not going to let my blog boss me around.

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