Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Bible and Economic Justice

Published in the Fiji Times 9 April, 2014

A few weeks ago I shared a summary of a presentation by the Pacific Conferences of Churches on the Exodus formation for Israel on Social Justice.  The two key points were self-determination or political freedom and the covenant with God and it involves collective responsibility - Israel is to exercise social justice within itself and to ensure that no one is excluded from the shared graciousness of the community. Freedom requires responsibility and to be responsible requires freedom. “A society in which the few prosper but the many starve, in which some but not all have access to good education, health care and other basic needs, is not a place of liberty” (Sacks, 2000). Nor is it a place of collective responsibility. The Biblical narrative insists that a free society cannot be built on the rule of law alone; it must also be built on a just distribution of resources (Tzedakah). The greatest act of tzedakah is one that allows the person to be self-sufficient. In Mosaic Law: a person dependent on tzedakah must give tzedakah, highlighting the truth that giving is an essential part of human dignity.                The Biblical narrative understands equality to mean human honour and a society must ensure equal dignity to each of its members.

If social justice is the organising principle of the new social order, the economy and economic activity is the mechanism or the means for wealth creation and distribution. Last night’s final presentation at the PCC/FCC Lenten Talk Series was on Economic Justice. The Biblical narrative does not prescribe how the economy ought to be organised (or of any economic system). It does, however, provide moral guidelines as to its purpose, the values it should be premised, and examples of corrective measures. It is very important  to understand that insofar as the Biblical narrative is concerned, the economy is a means by which humanity creatively participate in producing wealth and the means by which it (wealth) is distributed. Central to it is the care for the poor. The fundamental moral principle is this: since we are trustees of God’s creation, we are bound by its requirements to ensure that the benefits of what we produce are shared.

The primary purpose of economic activity is precisely that since each one is made in the image of God and, therefore, sacred, is not to be excluded from the graciousness of the community (Gen 1:26). The earth and everything in it is the Lord’s and Israel is bound by the responsibility of trusteeship to ensure the freedom and creative participation of all, especially the poor, in the development and enjoyment of the community’s wealth (Deut 10:12-19).

The specific economic principle is that Israel is to be co-creators with God and they are to create and distribute the wealth they produce to cater for everyone’s basic needs. The Biblical story of humanity begins with the command: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) Work is more than mere labour; there is a difference. Two Hebrew words: “melakah” which means “work as creation” and “avodah” which means “work as service or servitude”. Melakah is the word used to describe the arena in which Israel were to transform the world and, hence, become partners with God in the work and stewardship of creation. The creative God seeks creativity from His human creation. It is in this sense that the Biblical narrative sees the systems of economic exchange and trade as necessary because these allow for the creation of wealth through human creativity and competition. At various times in the Old Testament and the New Testament, Israel failed to remember these principles and Moses, the Prophets and Jesus chastised them for doing so.

The Covenant expresses God’s desire that: “There are to be no poor among you” (Deut 15:4). The Sabbatical Year (Lev 25:1-7; Deut15:1-11) and the Jubilee Year (Lev 25:6-17) set in place mechanisms to restore justice and greater equality in society.  These mechanisms were to remind Israel that, as a people freed from slavery and oppression, they were to be concerned for the poor in their midst and not to exploit and oppress (widows, strangers and orphans) and not to allow anyone to be downtrodden and treated as slaves. Even though the promise land was given to Israel, they were to share it with strangers who might come to live among them (Eze 47:21-22). The Old Testament Prophets  Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Ezechiel and others often raised their voices to speak out in God's name when the dominant socio-economic system of their day stood in opposition to God's dream expressed in the covenant.  Jesus revived the covenant dream under a new name - what he called "the Kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43).  The Kingdom envisaged a time of reversals and alternatives to the existing socio-economic regime.

Economic activity is necessary because it gives expression to human freedom, creativity, although the biblical narrative insists that there must be limits to how far economics can interfere with nature and equity in the participation of wealth creation and wealth distribution. God seeks the free worship of human beings, and two of the most powerful defence of human freedom, creativity and integrity are “private” property and economic independence. Moral dimensions of economics or the “market” as understood by the Biblical narrative as the medium of trade and exchange of goods
If anything has a moral dimension, economics does. Prophet Isaiah (1:17-23) makes the point that without political and economic virtue, religious piety or holiness is vain.

The Biblical narrative views wealth as a blessing is to be enjoyed as such. The reason is that this world is God’s creation, therefore it is good, and prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing
One of the recurring themes in Deuteronomy is: “You shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given you and your household.” (26:11). Economic growth has religious significance, first and foremost because of the degree (perhaps more than other economic system in the past) to which it allows us to alleviate poverty. Yet the Biblical narrative is aware that economic gain and interest is not from benevolence but from self-interest. “I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour” (Eccl 4:4). “Were it not for evil inclinations, no one would build a house… or engage in business” (Genesis, Rabbah 9:7)

The great concern of the Biblical narrative was the elimination of poverty by creating a society which the poor have access to help when they needed it, charity for sure, but especially through job creation. Therefore, while wealth is seen as a blessing, it comes with great responsibility. Successful business men and women (Prov 31 is essentially a hymn of praise to the businesswoman) were expected to set an example of public generosity and communal leadership. Conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. The key point is this: since wealth is a blessing, it carries a grave moral obligation to use it for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Jesus was strong in the challenge he issued to the rich of his time. In the Kingdom, he said, the rich must learn to share their wealth with the poor or they will face eternal condemnation (Lk 16:19-31). 
The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the marginalized and the lonely must be at the centre of our concern otherwise we will be cast out of God's presence on the day of judgment (Mtt 25:41-46). 
Without putting into practice the kingdom values of caring and sharing and concern for others we can expect to hear Jesus’ harsh words:
"How terrible for you who are rich: you have had your easy life! How terrible for you who are full: you will go hungry! How terrible for you who laugh: you will mourn and weep!" (Lk 6:24f)

In other words issues of economic justice are very serious for us and we must give them very serious attention. Bryan Hehir notes that economic globalization has its own logic, but not its own ethic.  The ethical principles on which globalization need to be challenged are:  the dignity of every person, the common good, the option for the poor and solidarity.  He writes:
“No political system or economic system is self-justified: all social systems must be tested by what they do to and for the dignity of the person. … Whatever threatens that dignity becomes the business of the Church” (2001:1700-1702)
Of any economic system, we are challenged to ask these questions:
Does it enhances human dignity, create self-respect and encourages creativity?
Does it allow everyone to participate in the material blessings of this created world?
Does it sustain a climate of equal regard – for employees as well as employers, the poor no less than the rich?
Does it protect the vulnerable and help those in need to escape the trap of poverty, does it ensures that no one lacks the means for a dignified existence and do those who succeed share their blessings with those who have less?
Does the economic system strength the bonds of solidarity? Does it know its own limits – that the market is not the only mechanism of distribution, and that an economic system is a means not an end?

Food for the soul and food for thought as we approach the end of the season of Lent.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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