Avoiding the Bern, Part Two

This is part two in my series of posts exploring issues on social justice. Regarding our Christian responsibility toward the poor and oppressed, there is a much larger conversation to be had. Here, I wish to limit the discussion to what role government should play in helping the impoverished, and to what degree Christians should support such programs. To facilitate the discussion, I focus on reviewing a single chapter from a larger work. The original work by Dr. Art Lindsley has been made available as a separate essay, and can be downloaded from the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (https://tifwe.org/resource/five-myths-about-jubilee/). 


“Does God Require the State to Redistribute Wealth?” is one of the introductory chapters in the book For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, edited by Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley.  The overall goal of the book is to guide Christians in determining the best means for carrying out the church’s call to help the poor in our society. Given the recent popularity of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, more and more Americans are lindsleybuying into the notion that capitalism has failed in its ability to overcome poverty, and that the country would be better served by adopting an economic system more in line with democratic socialism. The contributors to this volume do not shy away from endorsing the belief that not only is capitalism still the best economic system for helping the poor, but it is the system most in keeping with the teachings of the Bible.[1] Art Lindsley’s goal in contributing this chapter is to refute the mistaken belief that both the Levitical law of Jubilee (found in Leviticus 25) and the practice of the early church in Acts 2-5 somehow teach the redistribution of wealth, a key component of socialism. Not only are there authoritative voices in the Christian community advocating this idea, but many Christians mistakenly come to this conclusion upon simply reading these texts (more so the latter than the former).[2] While it is up to the individual Christian voter to decide whether or not to support a greater shift toward socialism as a means of addressing the needs of the poor, such a decision should be based upon a proper understanding and interpretation of scripture, rather than simply on the basis of political rhetoric. The Bible must be the foundation for social action.

Lindsley begins the chapter by addressing several popular myths about the Jubilee. His intention in handling these myths is not to provide a point by point counter argument against those who advocate for distributive justice. Take the first myth for example. Lindsley simply quotes numerous commentators to support the interpretation that Jubilee has nothing to do with the blanket forgiveness of debt (myth number one).[3] It appears that Lindsley’s goal is to show that any other interpretation of this passage would be contrary to the vast majority of biblical scholarship. However, this approach highlights a weakness of the chapter as a whole. Lindsley includes Ronald Sider, one of the leading figures supposedly espousing a redistribution of wealth interpretation, as one of the commentators supporting this majority interpretation of Jubilee. If Sider is supporting Lindsley, then who is the author actually arguing against? This opens Lindsley to the criticism that he may be misrepresenting how proponents of distributive justice utilize this passage. Had he instead presented a summary of the arguments of Sider (and others), rather than relying on statements like “some argue” and “I’ve heard it said,” then the discussion would have been better served.

What Lindsley does well throughout this chapter is to allow the plain meaning of the scripture to be heard. The reader comes away with a clear understanding of what the Jubilee law entailed. Leviticus 25:15-16 is clearly addressing “the completed payment of a debt, not its forgiveness.”[4] The law specifically allowed those who owned land to sell the number of crops, or the use of the land, up until the Year of Jubilee. The law did not permit the actual sale of the land. In essence, the land was being leased out. This is what is meant in verse 16 when it says, “If the years [until the Year of Jubilee] are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price.”[5] Lindsley puts it into modern context.

image

Art Lindsley

. . . if you have a debt of $250,000, there are five years prior to the Jubilee, each crop is worth $50,000, then the lender (or buyer) would give you $250,000 for the rights to farm the land, and at the time of Jubilee you would receive your land back because the debt had been paid off.[6]

 

This more accurately describes the expiring of a lease, rather than the forgiveness of a debt. Therefore, Jubilee cannot be interpreted as the redistribution of land (myth number two), because the land “never left the ownership of the original family.”[7] In fact, the law kept land ownership exactly where it originally started.

So how does one utilize this passage to argue for wealth redistribution, if it so clearly doesn’t involve the actual redistribution of land? To get that answer, the reader must look elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is not clear if this is what anyone reputable is actually arguing. John Anderson, former senior economist with the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, instead sees the Jubilee as a means of ensuring that no members of society were cut off from the means of obtaining wealth.

. . . the law provided a system that prevented a family’s complete loss of its economic base . . . [it] provided an institutional means by which families were provided economic protection. They could not be deprived of the ability to care for themselves. If the law was followed, there were protections assured.[8]

This seems more in line with how Sider and others actually interpret this passage. If anything is being redistributed, it is the means of obtaining wealth, and not the actual wealth itself. As Christopher Wright characterizes it in God’s People in God’s Land, Jubilee was a means of restoring the “economic viability” of all members of society.[9]

In this sense, Jubilee helped Israelites who for whatever reason got into a situation where they needed money to pay off a debt or weather a financial difficulty. Regardless of how bad their situation was, they could never permanently lose their land, which was the primary source for obtaining wealth in ancient times. Sider states in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,

Today’s wealth is divided in a way that flatly contradicts the Bible. God wants every family to have the basic capital – land, money, knowledge, to earn their own way and be dignified, participating members of society.[10]

Lindsley is correct in arguing that the Jubilee does not indicate God’s desire for equality of income (myth number four), but he may be downplaying the fact that it does indicate God’s desire for equality of opportunity, which is essentially what Sider is advocating. No Israelite was ever to lose access to the means of capital. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs states, Jubilee ensures “that the market does not allow the poorest members of society to end up with nothing.”[11] Again, Sider offers additional insight.

God wants society’s pool of productive assets to be distributed so that everyone has the resources to earn his or her own way. When members of a society lose their assets, by whatever means, it is difficult for them to participate in economic activity. People with no assets starve.[12]

It is important to put the deliverance of this law in its proper context. Given at Mt. Sinai prior to entering the Promised Land, the Israelites owned only what they could carry. There were no slaves, no land owners, and no debt. Through God’s original distribution of land, no one was intended to start off poor. Through the law of Jubilee, no one was intended to return to poverty. Jubilee served as an economic safety net for the people of Israel.[13]

Lindsley concludes this section of the chapter by questioning the applicability of Jubilee to modern society (the final myth). Here he points out that since Jubilee only applied to the Israelites, and not to sojourners in the land, it is not clear how it can be applied to society today.[14] Michael Harbin makes a much stronger assertion, maintaining that Jubilee would only be valid “in a society that collectively recognizes God as sovereign.”[15] But while Lindsley and Harbin may believe that there are too many difficulties in trying to apply Jubilee to government programs in America, Sider and ethicist Stephen Mott do not. In Leviticus 25, they argue that God essentially “institutionalized structures to prevent poverty.”[16] In order for the law of Jubilee to be enforced, the leadership of Israel would have been required to step in as an intervening power to prevent exploitation of the financially challenged. In other words, Sider and Mott believe it is entirely acceptable for Christians to not only support government programs aimed at helping those in poverty, but to proactively recruit governmental support and the formation of new policies. While it may not be appropriate for us to apply the specific mechanism of Jubilee to government policy, we can apply the paradigmatic principle embedded within the law. For Sider and Mott, that normative paradigm is clear:

 

image

Ron Sider

Justice demands that every person or family has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn a generous sufficiency of material necessities and be dignified participating members of society.[17]

 

It is not necessary to read Sider’s previous challenge for the distribution of assets in Rich Christians, and the statement above with Mott, as advocating equality of assets or resources. They are not advocating the total redistribution of resources and wealth so that everyone has an equal share. All that is required is a sufficiency of resources enabling all to have the opportunity to earn a decent living, receive a quality education, and obtain the prospect of social mobility. No one should be locked into poverty with no hope of escape. This seems to be what politicians like Sanders are arguing to be the case in America. At a minimum, this should be a principle used in guiding our evaluation and support of both government and non-government programs aimed at helping the poor. We should not be supporting policies aimed at the redistribution of wealth, but should support policies that provide safety nets and ensure all have the opportunity to flourish. We should also not support programs that involve a “hand out” rather than a “hand up.” Under the law of Jubilee, the original owners of the land simply retained access to the resources they would need to flourish. It was still upon them to take advantage of that opportunity, work the land, and avoid future financial pitfalls. At any rate, if Christian supporters of capitalism are to effectively stave off the growing sentiment for socialism, they must do more than simply provide critiques of liberal social policy. Asserting that capitalism is the best solution to poverty in America is not enough. Jubilee calls God’s people to stand behind policy that actually provides support for the poor.

The second half of the chapter focuses exclusively on Acts chapters two through five, and the notion that the early church practiced socialism. Before analyzing these passages to determine if such an assertion has merit, it is important to ask if it is possible to derive a command (or obligation) from a mere description of behavior. Lindsley speculates that even if the early church was practicing a form of wealth redistribution, it does not necessarily mean that such a practice is normative for the church in general.[18] To make this leap would be a violation of the is/ought fallacy, which states that it is impossible to deduce an “ought” (a normative statement or command), from an “is” (a mere description of something). In exegetical terms, narrative (descriptive) passages of scripture should not be taken as normative, unless there are textual clues to indicate such is intended. In regard to the Church’s practice in Acts, Lindsley asserts that “the only way you could cross this divide is by showing that other biblical passages command socialism.”[19] No such passages exist.

Turning to the actual text itself, those who assert that the early church practiced socialism focus primarily on verses 44 and 45 in chapter two.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.[20]

Again, Lindsley does an exceptional job of simply letting the scripture speak for itself. Upon first glance, the text seems to indicate that members of the early church only sold their possessions, as there was need. Lindsley points out that this is supported by the tenses of the verbs selling and distributing. This was not a once for all action, but rather something that was ongoing, as needs arose within the church.[21] The implication is that members did not sell everything that they owned in order to redistribute their wealth. This is reflected in the very next verse (v. 46) when it mentions members continuing to break bread in their own homes. Home ownership was retained. The New International Version clearly reinforces the occasional nature of this in its translation of Acts 4:34. “From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them.”[22] Lindsley speculates that this is more than likely wealthier members of the church selling off surplus property holdings; a point that seems almost certain given the example of Barnabas (just a few verses later) selling “a field that belonged to him.”[23]

The text also seems to clearly indicate that this giving was of a voluntary nature. In the opening verses of chapter five, the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira is often pointed to as indicating that members were required to sell all of their possessions. The implication is that these two were struck dead because they refused to comply with the requirement to give all their possessions to the church. Once again, the plain reading of the text does not support this.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.[24]

Peter acknowledges that Ananias and his wife owned the land and could have done with it whatever they so desired. Their possessions were at their disposal. He does not rebuke them for giving only a portion of the sale; he rebukes them for lying about it. These two were obviously attempting to deceive everyone into thinking they were giving all of their proceeds to the church, perhaps in an effort to appear as more generous than others in the congregation. It was this deception that was their undoing. If it was required that Christians sell off all of their possessions and donate all the proceeds to the church, then why does Paul tell the church at Corinth that they are not under compulsion to give to the Macedonians?[25] Giving has always been seen as voluntary in the Church.

Lindsley finishes this section by asserting that Acts 2-5 simply recounts the church’s response to a temporal need that arose in the days following Pentecost. At this time, the city of Jerusalem was packed with visitors in town for the festival. With thousands coming to Christ and remaining in the city to hear the teachings of the Apostles, the needs must have been staggering. Where were they going to be housed? How were they going to be fed? The newly formed church gladly took on this challenge and began selling assets in an attempt to meet this temporary need. Eventually, the new believers would leave the city, return to their own homes, and take the message of the Gospel with them.[26]

Overall, this chapter presents a compelling case for rejecting the notion that the Bible supports socialism and the redistribution of wealth. If the individual Christian is going to support a socialist candidate such as Bernie Sanders, they will have to do it on grounds other than scripture. Having said that, these passages of scripture ought to challenge the church to reevaluate how she has traditionally responded to the poor and needy in our society. The church in Acts was decidedly radical in their generosity in helping those in need. They didn’t hesitate in parting with personal possessions in order to help a brother or sister in Christ. Can we honestly say that the church today is equally as radical? Reflecting back on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, we see that in the midst of challenging the church to be cheerful givers, Paul talks openly about grace abounding, seeds multiplying, and harvests increasing. To be sure, he is primarily discussing the increase of the Gospel, good deeds and righteousness that will come from their giving. However, he also clearly states that they “will be enriched in everything for all liberality.”[27] Capitalism may well be the best system for cultivating economic flourishing. To make that case, Lindsley leaves it to the other contributors in this volume. But economic prosperity is only part of the flourishing that God wants his people to experience. Absent radical generosity and compassion for the poor, all our great wealth will afford us is empty materialism. There is no question that the impact of the church is waning in our society. Might this be due to our lack of generosity toward the poor? I can’t help but think of how those early converts in Jerusalem went out and turned the world upside down with the message of Christ, no doubt powered by the love and sacrifice they experienced among the fellowship of believers in Christ.


[1] Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, eds., For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 9. It is important to note that the book does not solely focus on the issue of defending capitalism and free enterprise. The latter half of the book focuses exclusively on practical solutions for addressing the issue of poverty. However, this is a decidedly pro-free market work.

[2] In a recent gathering of friends, someone confidently voiced the belief that the early church was socialistic. The majority of those in attendance simply nodded their heads in approval.

[3] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 73-74. Lindsley provides somewhat lengthy quotations from Matthew Henry, R. K. Harrison, Gordon Wenham, and Walter Kaiser.

[4] Ibid., 74.

[5] Lev. 25:16 (English Standard Version).

[6] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 72.

[7] Ibid., 75.

[8] John E. Anderson, “A Biblical and Economic Analysis of Jubilee Property Provisions,” Faith and Economics 46 (Fall 2005): 29. Italics mine.

[9] Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 124.

[10] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 230. Italics mine.

[11] Jill Jacobs, There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009), 20.

[12] Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 161.

[13] Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 695.

[14] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 79.

[15] Harbin, 697. Whereas Lindsley fails to provide any attempt at modern day application, Harbin offers several principles derived from Jubilee. For him, the foundational principle is that people were to treat others “fairly, ethically, and compassionately.”

[16] Stephen Mott and Ronald J. Sider, “Economic Justice: A Biblical Paradigm,” in Toward a Just and Caring Society: Christian Responses to Poverty in America, ed. David P. Gushee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 39.

[17] Ibid., 40. Italics mine.

[18] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 83.

[19] Ibid., 83-84.

[20] Acts 2:44-45 (English Standard Version).

[21] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 80-81. The verbs selling and distributing are in the imperfect tense, as opposed to the aorist, which would indicate a once-for-all, completed action.

[22] Acts 4:34 (New International Version).

[23] Acts 4:36 (New International Version).

[24] Acts 5:1-4 (New International Version).

[25] 2 Cor. 9:7 (New American Standard). This verse cannot possibly read as Paul telling the church as a whole that they are not under compulsion to give a gift. Verse seven begins with Paul saying “let each one . . .” give as he has purposed in his heart.

[26] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 82.

[27] 2 Cor. 9:11 (New American Standard Bible).

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