Justice, Not Charity

Justice, Not Charity September 13, 2018

From the recent article by Dr. Gregg Gardner on biblical gleaning laws and the subsequent interpretation of them in rabbinic tradition:

Although the agricultural allocations to the poor share some characteristics with charity, they function differently. Charity is a positive duty whose underlying premise is that it comes from one’s own personal property and the benefactor exercises some discretion over what is given and how. Thus, in their discussion of charity, the rabbis do not specify the time or place for when it should be given. The biblical laws of harvest allocations, in contrast, have traits that are typically characterized as acts of justice.

While charity is defined by personal discretion, justice is devoid of it. Whereas the laws of charity do not allow for the recipients to claim that they are owed anything in particular, systems of justice provide the recipients with correlative rights. Since the agricultural allocation laws do have specific requirements about what the householder must do (the six items listed above) and to whom (the poor that show up to take these items), they are better characterized as acts of justice and not charity.

I’ve blogged here before about the fact that what we see in the relevant biblical texts is wealth redistribution through something that is in essence a form of tax. It is profoundly ironic that some claim to be concerned with “biblical morality” and yet rail against taxation, redistribution of wealth, social justice, systemic solutions to address poverty, and other things that are woven into the fabric of the Bible.

Yet on the other hand, as Gardner points out in his article, the gleaning law focuses on procedure and not on whether the needs of the poor are actually met, with the result that more truly redistributive laws and policies that are post-biblical do a better job of addressing these social issues. From his conclusion:

Both in the biblical text and their later interpretations by the rabbis, the laws of harvest-time allocations center on the principle that humans neither own the land nor its produce outright. Rather, a portion of the harvest belongs to God, which in turn God allocates to the poor, who are under God’s special care. Only upon ensuring that God and the poor receive their share can the landowner claim the rest of the harvest for himself.

As such, these laws focus primarily on the procedures that the landowner must follow so that these allocations are carried out properly. The rabbis would up the ante by ascribing a set of correlative rights to the poor, ensuring that there are human agents to whom these elements of the harvest are owed. That is, the focus of these laws is primarily on proper procedure – more so than the outcome of that procedure.

That said, the biblical text establishes the primacy and importance of care for the poor, and it is perhaps from this general ethos (though not derived from any particular text) that we see the development of a parallel form of support for the poor in post-biblical Jewish texts – namely, charity. It is in the post-biblical concept of charity, especially as it is fleshed out by the rabbis, that becomes increasingly focused on outcomes – i.e., on satisfying the specific needs of the poor.

On the same topic, Christy Thomas offered this challenge:

 “Bible-believing Christians:” either wholeheartedly support a socialist governmental structure or acknowledge that you are liars. At this point, I think most are just liars.

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  • John MacDonald

    I attended a fascinating lecture once where the speaker tried to show how the techniques and strategies of rhetoric were developed in ancient Greece because people were trying to argue in Greek legal venues to get their land back from the tyrants who took it.

  • Helga Vierich

    The system of tithing is a very ancient institution. It is not just about justice or taking care of the poor. I think it predates the bible, and it may even be older than farming. We’ve been too preoccupied with the idea that the development of civilization was some kind of positive evolutionary step, whereas an ecological analysis reveal that it occurs out of desperation to preserve previous investments. It seems to me that those of us caught up in industrial economies – whatever the gradation of political flavour from communist to capitalist – must now relearn an ancient truth: there is no honour in harming others. The Golden Rule is, ultimately, about political ethics, not private morality.

    I have lived for a time in several economic systems that are much older and more sustainable than the current industrial global one. I never thought much about the concept of honour while I was growing up, but it was the key to understanding the whole worldview of the hunter-gatherers I lived with in the Kalahari in southern Africa, and also of the subsistence horticultural and pastoral people in the West African Sahel. In these systems personal honour had direct consequences in the scope and influence of those who had proven themselves to be courageous, compassionate, just, and generous.

    In such economic systems, people honour the earth, they honour the living things, near and far, that their own future depends on, and the greatest happiness is found in the company of trusted companions. Not in possessions, not in the exercise of power over others, or the acquisition of symbolic wealth (money) based upon the destruction of real wealth (food, shelter, community, living ecosystems,).

    People who were promenant in these communities were not wealthy, except in the trust of other people. They were the peace-makers, the truth tellers, and the moral examples that the young modelled themselves after. “Big men” and chiefs were not so much exercising power over others as they were exercising responsibility to others.

    Let me give an example to show what I mean: I was interviewing households in an African village in Burkina Faso, on the subject of how much grain they had in store after harvest. Every one of them had cultivated more than they needed in order to contribute to the stores of the village headman. I then interviewed this headman, and he proudly showed me granary after granary.

    He told me there was enough grain in store to feed the village through seven years of drought.

    This was a moment of revelation for me. I had been thinking of him as a powerful and greedy man, who was enriching himself through his political position.

    Suddenly I saw the man for what he was – an ethical, methodical, and diligent person striving to live up to the great responsibility entrusted to him. He had to constantly monitor those granaries, checking for damage by rot or vermin, and carefully assess all withdrawals from this common fund.

    I looked at his household, the largest in the village, and discovered that it was large because he had taken in people who were disabled or ill or vulnerable due to age or other misfortune. It was from the chief’s stores that people got their safety net.

 Could this explain the sources deep within the human nature, which equate “moral” imperatives, courage, loyalty, compassion, justice, and generosity with imperatives to resist fascism, inequality, racism, and warfare?

    When you see theories situating human evolution in a context of deadly competition and conflict between groups, a context of aggressive and stressful internal hierarchies, and contexts of individual motivations based on self-interest and “tribalism”, then you can be pretty sure that these theories are RATIONALIZING fascism, inequality, racism, and warfare. Such theories present inegalitarian and violent politics as a result of INNATE human nature. However, what if what we now call “politics” originated as an emergent property of something other than self-interest? Maybe we can even find some evolutionary context that explains our aversion to injustice and arrogance?

    See https://anthroecologycom.wordpress.com/2017/09/29/first-farmers/

    • Kate Johnson

      Amazing post! Thank you!!

  • John Williams

    Amazing how easily some can ignore the sin of confiscating half or more of what someone produces in the name of the poor and then spends it on whatever pet project strikes their fancy. And here are the false prophets to lend justification to it.

    • Amazing how easily some can ignore the sin of misrepresenting what the Bible says, as well as ancient and modern rates of taxation, and then seeking to also misrepresent the use to which such taxes are put. And here above is an incoherently-worded comment seeking to lend justification to it.

      • The sin of misrepresenting the bible you say while plugging something that’s clearly not biblical.
        How desperate are you anyway?

        • You claim that the Bible is being misrepresented but never so much as specify how, much less demonstrate that incorrect interpretation or inaccurate information is being offered. I have discussed relevant texts such as the gleaning laws and the sharing of goods in the early church before more than once. So often “clearly not biblical” is a cypher for “I do not know the Bible well but really dislike what you are saying.”

    • Well said.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    ” a portion of the harvest belongs to God, which in turn God allocates to the poor, who are under God’s special care. Only upon ensuring that God and the poor receive their share can the landowner claim the rest of the harvest for himself.”

    2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.

    • Iain Lovejoy

      Biblical cherry-picking at its finest:
      2 Thessalonians 3:6-11: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from every brother who is living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, not working but meddling others’ work instead. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”
      The passage refers to parasitic preachers not working themselves but taking believers’ hard-earned cash for telling them what to do. It has nothing whatsoever to do with provision for the poor.

      • C_Alan_Nault

        “The passage refers to…”

        Ah yes, the old “you are not interpreting that passage correctly” excuse.

        Why is any interpretation needed?

        Isn’t the Bible claimed to be “the inspired word of god”? (some people claim it is the inerrant word of god)

        Why the need to interpret the passage? Does god mumble?

        “It has nothing whatsoever to do with provision for the poor.”

        I agree. Saying ” For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” is not about provision for the poor.

        Neither are the passages in both testaments that condone slavery

        • Iain Lovejoy

          I am presuming from the tenor of your comment that you are an atheist and therefore neither believe in God nor that there is any truth to the Bible, whatever it says.
          In which case I am unclear what your point is.
          Are you saying I am lying, and I do not in fact understand the Bible the way I say I do? Or are you saying I am somehow “cheating” and I am not allowed to understand the Bible the way I do, but am instead required to understand it in the way you do so that instead of arguing against what I in fact believe you can argue against what I ought to believe for the convenience of your argument?

          • C_Alan_Nault

            “and therefore neither believe in God nor that there is any truth to the Bible, whatever it says.”

            I am sure there are many true things in the Bible… there are also many true things in the Harry Potter books.

            But there is no reason to believe any of the supernatural events ( miracles) described in the Bible actually happened.

            “Are you saying I am lying, and I do not in fact understand the Bible the way I say I do? ”

            I am saying ( as you could see for yourself by scrolling up) that I find it curious that the Bible ( claimed to be the word of god) needs to be interpreted at all. Why is interpretation necessary? Did this god mumble? Was this god unable to present his words clearly and concisely?

            The fact is those who believe the Bible always seem to interpret it to mean what they want it to mean. Hence the vast number of sects of Christianity.

            “Or are you saying I am somehow “cheating” and I am not allowed to understand the Bible the way I do, but am instead required to understand it in the way you do so that instead of arguing against what I in fact believe you can argue against what I ought to believe for the convenience of your argument?”

            Before we continue. perhaps you can answer a couple questions.

            1) do you believe the Bible?
            2) do you believe the Bible provides us with guidance for what is moral and what is immoral?

  • Matthew Kilburn

    Translating biblical principles into economic policies can be tricky business – but even if we except the principles of tithing and a set portion belonging to God, who distributes it to the poor….these would be principles that favor a flat taxation system: a set percentage of what is produced is set aside for a specific need, regardless of who produces it. So the wealthy man who lives in a great house with innumerable fields and servants and barns overflowing – gives 10%. And the poor man who earns a meager living as a humble manual laborer…..gives 10%.

    That doesn’t remotely reflect what we have today, and it doesn’t remotely reflect what left-wing individuals advocate for today. Indeed, if we accept that such a flat percentage system is the biblical option, and we implemented said flat percentage system, the increased burden would fall almost exclusively on those at the low-end of the income spectrum.

    • Iain Lovejoy

      Not so. The system was not an income tax but a tax on the income specifically from land: the poor, the landless and day labourers all paid nothing at all. A taxation system that exclusively taxed income-earning assets would fall largely on the very rich. This tax was also part of a system whereby all property acquired in excess of one’s ancestral holdings had to be returned every 30 years at the Jubilee – effectively a periodic 100% capital gains tax on top of the property tax.
      It was a system which not only taxed the rich to assist the poor but forcibly prevented the creation of a class of super-rich arising in the first place.
      Practically socialism, in fact.

      • Matthew Kilburn

        “The system was not an income tax but a tax on the income specifically from land”

        It was still a flat tax, where your share of the object of your tax was equivalent to your share of the tax. That looks nothing like what the modern left wants. Nothing.

        • PedasiPaul

          It was a tax only upon those wealthy enough to own and farm land. The majority did not pay. Kind of like a millionaire’s tax, which looks a lot like what the left would like. In my state Democrats proposed a surcharge on millionaires, but every Bible-thumin’ Republican voted No.

        • Iain Lovejoy

          “It was still a flat tax, where your share of the object of your tax was equivalent to your share of the tax.”
          Um, no. Those who paid the tax got absolutely none of it, since it all went to the poor who, not themselves owning land, didn’t pay it. Unless you mean something by the “object of the tax” other than its recipients: if I have misunderstood, please clarify what this means.

  • PedasiPaul

    The Jubilee year was another form of redistrubtion.

    • TinnyWhistler

      I was shocked the first time I sat down and read the Pentateuch all the way through.

  • Pastor Craig

    Taking money (via taxation) and giving it to the poor is theft. The wealthy voluntarily giving money to the poor is charity. Forced charity is not charity! Furthermore, if I voluntarily gave my tithe to the government, I would be lucky if 1% of it actually made it to those who need it. The rest would go in the pockets of bureaucrats, not the poor.

    Isn’t it interesting how Democrats who promote such charity are the very one who consistently give less to real charities than Republicans.

    • So you view the biblical legislation about gleaning and about the Jubilee year as theft?

      • Pastor Craig

        Both are OT law. Jesus taught that faith is determined by what is in the heart, not through adherence to the law. Forced charity comes from law, not the heart.

        • So you disapprove of legislation of the sort ancient Israel had, for instance prohibiting murder and theft? We should just leave everything as a matter of the individual heart?

          • Iain Lovejoy

            I was wondering whether he was going to go for “that’s the bit of the OT doesn’t apply because I don’t like it handwavy reasons or “different dispensation”. Interesting that he’s having a go for the Law being actively immoral: I’ve not seen that before.
            I am not aware that Jesus taught that “faith is determined by what is in the heart” – it sounds more like an “inspirational” Christmas cracker motto. (I really hope I am not wrong on this.)

  • Pushing a progressive/socialist agenda and calling it Christian- now that’s the real laugh a minute.
    Not to mention it’s vigorously promoted by those who don’t believe in the basics of the faith anyway proving it’s just a political stunt to waylay the ignorant. .

    • I would have said the ignorant one are those who don’t know about the Jubilee year legislation, or haven’t read and understood the message of Amos and other prophets…

      • The Jubilee Year represented a reprieve from debt certainly nothing to do with legislation or redistribution.

        • In what sense is the law about the jubilee year “not legislation”?

          In what sense is the redistribution of property back from the wealthy who accumulated it back to the families that had owned it previously but had lost it as they slid into poverty “not redistribution”?

          • I’m talking about debt and you’re talking about something else… entirely. We’re not on the same page. ….redistribution of property??????If most people never took over the title deed of property to begin with so how can it be called wealth redistribution? It was a debt reprieve,

          • No, I’m just reading the text. “In the Year of Jubilee the field will revert to the person from whom it was bought, the one whose land it was.” https://biblehub.com/leviticus/25.htm