Blog Action Day: Poverty and Biblical Economics

Today is Blog Action Day 2008, and this year’s theme is poverty, so I thought it would be interesting to blog about “Biblical economics”. There is a long history of appealing to the Bible to justify economic practices, such as the notion that the commandment not to steal places a divine stamp of approval on the notion of private/personal property. And of course, were it not for such arguments, the alliance between conservative Christianity and Republican values would be completely inexplicable.

Yet there is much more in the Bible that is often overlooked from this perspective. If one considers the legislation about the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25, what one finds there is quite far from the notion of private property. Indeed, the land is emphatically said to belong to Yahweh, and about once per generation, the land would return to its original owner.

I do think Christians ought to be concerned about poverty and social justice, which is emphasized in the Bible to such an extent that it can be baffling how it is ignored by such large numbers of Christians. But perhaps a key reason is not a failure to notice what the Bible says, but confusion about how to apply it. Reinstituting the Biblical “year of Jubilee” would not help alleviate poverty. Wealth is amassed rather than land, and presumably it would make no sense to suggest that dollar bills should return to their original owners once every 70 years. Our economic system is very different than that of the ancient economy for which the author of Leviticus sought to offer a solution.

An interesting case in point is the Bible’s condemnation of usury, of lending with interest. There is probably no better example of the selectivity nearly all Christians today practice when it comes to the Bible. But for those of us who are aware that we are not trying to practice the whole Bible and don’t think it makes sense to do that, this is less of a problem. Modern banking and loans depend on interest, and were all lending with interest illegal, many people who are slowly but surely buying their homes would never have been able to do so. The point of the laws against usury is to protect the poor, and the challenge for Christians, as for all people concerned with issues of poverty and social justice, is to find creative ways of addressing these issues in a world very different from that in which the Bible’s laws were crafted. Would a world without a stock market (and thus without modern retirement pensions), without banks, and without mortgages really be more just? The challenge is to find ways of ensuring justice and fairness.

The early Christians tried communal ownership, a form of what has sometimes been called “love communism“. If we assume that Luke’s portrait of the church in Jerusalem is accurate, then we can perhaps draw the following conclusion about this early Christian attempt at communal property: it doesn’t seem to have worked. Paul not long after had to try to get the churches in other places to help the poor Christians of Jerusalem.

Approaching matters of economics from a Christian perspective today does not and cannot mean to emulate precisely what past generations of Christians did. It can and perhaps must mean to identify key principles about love and compassion, justice and combatting poverty, that we must then seek to work out in our own very different context and situation. And that, perhaps, is why so few Christians do anything more than give a little and pray a little when confronted with the injustices of our time. To do anything more will involve research, creativity, and most likely much trial and error.

But for those who truly embrace the principle found in Christianity and elsewhere, that we are to do to others what we would want done to us, then doing nothing is simply not an option.

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  • Angie Van De Merwe

    The ancient context of the Bible is problematic indeed, when one tries to implement “biblical” understanding in whatever discipline!!! I think that it is short-sighted, if not mis-guided to look to Scripture as the epitome of “truth”. It becomes oppressive, absurd, and ridiculous, but some would say that looking riduculous is an affirmation of “Truth”…as it is foolishness to the Greek and a stumblingblock to the Jew! Hmmm…

  • Livingsword

    Hi James nice to meet you….I want to congratulate you on an excellent article. I enjoyed the way you wove what could be a dull topic into one that is as it should be engaging and intelligent.As I have also blogged on the same topic today I have spent some time thinking about the dynamics in our present global economic state from a biblical perspective.It seems that we in the west are often willingly lured into forcing our political/economic presuppositions upon the biblical text. The rugged individualism vs communal sharing, welfare state vs a freedom that often attempts to go beyond freedom into anarchy, compassion vs individual responsibility. Is it really anti-biblical to have the state administer a health care system? Etc….As we often like checklist churchianity to do and not to do lists of do’s and don’ts we often try to crowd out the transformation of our souls within by Jesus. Such a transformation should be evidenced by a craving to generous compassion, love and living grace….I have bookmarked your blog for future visits….