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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jubilee Economics

One of my daughters suggested, a few years ago, that I should read The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life, by Ross Kinsler and Gloria Kinsler (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999). (Ross Kinsler is the author of an article proposing ideas similar to those in the book) While I was still an active university professor, I ordered the book for the university library, but had not read it yet. Now I have.

Christians often seem to take property rights and supposed laissez-faire economics as if they were as important as the gospel, or as if they were rooted in the gospel. This is not the place for a dissertation on economics, nor am I an economist, but Christians should at least consider other ideas. This book by the Kinslers is a good place to start. Their chapter 7 questions free-market economics explicitly. (Others, here and here -- see Mr. Friedman's comments, near the end) have also recently questioned it, for non-theological reasons.)

The authors start right out by questioning a common interpretation of a fundamental bible passage:
In our Western culture this [fourth] commandment took on a primarily religious significance. The assumption was that no work should be done on the Sabbath Day so that people could go to church, meditate on God, and engage in religious or spiritually uplifting exercises. On rereading the text, it becomes evident that this commandment is really concerned about rest and the de-absolutization of work--that is, with breaking the cycle of work on a regular, weekly basis so that people and animals, including slaves and aliens, might rest. This is therefore a concern for the health and well-being of the entire household, which might otherwise be exploited to the point of exhaustion. The theological foundation of this commandment is here stated as the creation, for even God rested the seventh day and therefore blessed the Sabbath Day and consecrated it. (pp. 10-11)

They emphasize the Jubilee, which was established by a God-given set of rules that tied property not to wealth, but to family ownership.

The authors oppose our culture, with its emphasis on accumulation:
Israel was to live in an economy of enough for all and reject the economy of excess accumulation for some and hunger for others. Israel was to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt, so as never to repeat that experience in their new life in the Promised Land. For Egypt and Canaan, then Assyria and Babylon (and later Rome) all practiced socioeconomic systems of wealth accumulation and centralized power and of resultant poverty and marginalization. Israel's later rulers fell into the same evil pattern again and again. To remember the Lord and the Lord's deliverance from Egypt was necessarily to practice justice, to care for the needy and vulnerable, to make sure that all God's people had enough. Israel's vocation was to create an alternative social possibility. (pp. 38-39)

The authors argue (pp. 93-5) that there are economic justice overtones in healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12), and in plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). They claim that parable of the talents is about exposing the harshness of the rich master. (Matt 25:14-30, pp. 102-3) They also claim that the central theme of Christ's message, in his first sermon in Luke 4:16-30, is at least partly economic justice. (pp. 103-6)

Perhaps this quotation summarizes Kinsler and Kinsler best:
Jesus' identification with tax collectors and sinners/debtors, the transformation of Levi and Zacchaeus, and their subsequent actions were all subversive of the dominant customs and structures of oppression. They were manifestations of Sabbath economics, Jubilee spirituality, and liberty for all God's people. (p. 120)

It seems to me that the authors are on to something, and something that much of the Christian church doesn't want to hear. It makes me uncomfortable, too. On the other hand, they are clearly biased in one direction, and have left out some passages of Scripture, or some interpretations, that don't make their case. At least one example is in Acts 6, where the 12 Apostles clearly thought that the message of salvation had a higher priority for them, as leaders, than taking care of the needs of the poor. (The church did take care of those needs, but the Apostles don't seem to have.)

1 comment:

Amber B. said...

I think the Bible makes it clear that spreading the good news should be top priority. I think it is a mistake to consider spreading the good news and the act of caring for the poor to necessarily be separate, though. Even if the apostles no longer ministered to the poor directly, the gospel message declares that everyone is important and Loved by our Lord Jesus Christ. This makes it essential that those who are saved work in whatever way is best suited to them be that evangelizing, direct ministry, or the gift of generosity to treat those who our Lord died for with compassion. On the cross, we were all equals. Jesus didn't check anyone's bank account before going through excruciating pain to absolve us of sin. Becoming Christian in part means remembering that because He Loved, we are to Love and striving for a Christ-like attitude towards those who are "found wanting" in our society.

The battle against poverty and the battle against the ties that bind us to living in death on this earth are both battles for the hearts and minds of people. The battle against death and sin is more important, of course. But they are compatible. They can and should be fought at the same time.