Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

As I mentioned in my fourth post, Schneider does, as a matter of fact, have some interesting and nuanced things to say about the Old Testament economic laws.  He, at any rate, is not content to use in the standard conservative dismissal that says these “laws” were not really laws but merely moral guidance–that would not, after all, help his case, since his interest is not in the duties of government toward the poor, but in the moral duties of Christian individuals.  Nor is he content to ascribe to laws like the Jubilee a purely spiritual and symbolic function, a mere prophecy of the spiritual jubilee of release from sin that Jesus brings (a strategy commonly employed by theonomists like Chilton and North who otherwise insist on taking the OT laws with strictest seriousness as New Covenant legal principles).  As I quoted before, he says at the outset of discussing this material that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight.”  Later he affirms that “Sider is no doubt correct (as well as in line with all mainline Christian moral teaching) in thinking that the jubilee provisions are a model of some kind for the institution of social mechanisms in law and policy that protect people from losing everything they have.”

So where’s the rub?  Well, Schneider pushes us to evaluate more closely what the Jubilee actually does.  They do not universally redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to the poorest.  For instance, he points out, “The poorest people in society were unaffected by it.  For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee.  Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.”  From this he draws the conclusion, “Strange though it may seem . . . the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.”  He returns to this theme repeatedly, hinting that the class that the jubilee helped was really what we might call the “gentry,” the “landed classes.”  Although true in one sense, this is deceptive, since the intention of the Old Testament law was that every single Israelite family had land, was a member of the “landed classes.”  Because this ownership was universal and, in intention, fairly equal, it is a serious distortion to imagine these ordinary Israelites as the “affluent gentry,” as Schneider seems to invite us to.  Nonetheless, he does have a point, at least against those who would carelessly invoke the jubilee as being alone a sufficient model for Christian social justice.  However, for anyone who does not take the jubilee on its own, but together with other provisions for the poor in the Torah, the force of his point is considerably blunted, as he himself admits: “Of course there are provisions elsewhere in the law that prove beyond question that the affluent Israelites had obligations of justice to the poor within Israel.”  Moreover, while it is quite true that the Jubilee and the law in general offers much more extensive protections for Israelites, over against foreigners, it seems that this objection holds little water once one transposes these principles into a New Covenant key. 

The Old Testament law is based throughout on a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders, between Israelites and Gentiles.  But of course it is this very distinction that is challenged so systematically in the New Testament, so that we are called to extend the principles of love, justice, and solidarity that formerly applied only to insiders to outsiders as well.  The point of Jesus’ ministry, as interpreted by Paul in particular, is that exodus and jubilee and all the rest is now not only for Israel, but for the whole world.  Of course, there does seem to remain the continuing principle of “let us do good to all, and especially to the household of faith,” because it is simply impossible from a human perspective to make sure that everyone indiscriminately has all their needs cared for.  This will be discussed further when we get to Schneider’s treatment of the New Testament and “moral proximity.”

Schneider also points out that the jubilee law, as a matter of fact, prevented one from showing unrestrained charity.  Since all land had to return to the original owners every fifty years, even if they didn’t actually need it and there were others who needed it more, it was impossible for a wealthy Israelite to permanently divest himself and share his resources with landless sojourners.  The point was to prevent extreme inequality, but considerable inequality was allowed to remain.  Granted, then, that the jubilee does not (certainly taken alone) provide a clarion call for a complete redistribution from all with a surplus to all with a lack; but what then does Schneider think it does provide?  Does he think that the model of an inalenable sacred relationship to the ancestral land is to characterize our economies?  Presumably not.  So we are not, as a matter of fact, restrained from selling our land and giving to the landless sojourners, in the way ancient Israelites were.  Given that the trajectory of the Old Testament laws is to much greater concern for the poor and vulnerable, might we as Christians not be supposed to intensify this trajectory, and go further than jubilee?  Such questions are, alas, left unaddressed.  

Schneider does not, however, leave unaddressed the implications of the jubilee for private property: “In his classic 1954 study of Leviticus 25, Robert North pointed out that the jubilee, properly understood, actually ‘stresses and safeguards the function of private property as an incentive to industrious energy.’ . . . In fact, Leviticus 25 not only affirms and safeguards the property rights of each tribe, it declares such rights to be unalienable, as unalterable and absolute as the God who gave the property to them.”  The jubilee, Schneider goes on, following North, shows us an ideal of liberty that is dependent upon the “independent small property owner,” an ideal supportive of “modern democratic capitalism.”  Social justice advocates of jubilee, he implies throughout this section, use the passage to try to undercut private property rights, whereas in fact it strengthens them.  Well, yes and no.  As I have pointed out in many previous discussions of this passage and others, the logic is in fact neither socialist (as Schneider apparently accuses his opponents of thinking) nor capitalist (as Schneider seems to think), but basically distributist, with some distinctive sacral elements thrown in.  Private property is extremely important, which is why it is important that everyone in Israel have some, and that no one amass too much property at the expense of others.  Property is not the product of one’s labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God.  Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.  It is, to be sure, a model in which property is the foundation of liberty, but property understood in stark contrast to how modern democratic capitalism understands it.  If you want to go to Leviticus 25 for a “high view” of private property, by all means do so, but recognize that it is a radically different view than the modern Lockean one, with radically different implications for economic life. 

 

What would it look like transposed into a modern key?  Does faithfulness to this Old Testament ideal require an agrarian society of some kind?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.  We may debate over whether this principle must be applied politically, or “merely morally,” but either way, it renders the “good of affluence” a qualified and relative good, a good that can become an evil in the face of indigence.  


10 thoughts on “Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

  1. Donny

    Property is not the product of one's labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God. Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.

    Careful. Land and capital are quite distinct in modern economic thought, since capital actually does come from our own work, while land doesn't. Remember; capitalism is very different from physiocracy. Which makes me wonder; are there any OT laws that have implications for how we manage and regulate capital?

    But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.

    Not sure how you got to the ending bit about not amassing more than we can use. What does "use" mean here, and why does Jubilee imply that? Do we know how much land Israel actually had in comparison to their population? And I can't remember: how was the land divided after it was portioned out to each tribe?Another interesting factor; many laws in the OT were oriented toward converted strangers and bringing them into Israel. The implication there would be that they would actually become part of the Jubilee once they officially became Israelites. There's definitely still a distinction, but it's not always airtight.

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  2. Bradley

    Donny, you asked, "are there any OT laws that have implications for how we manage and regulate capital?" The answer is, absolutely. (1) Lending to fellow Israelites and taking usury from them was prohibited (perhaps defined as 'excessive' interest, or abusive lending in general; or perhaps just defined as <u>any</u> interest lending).(2) Selling food to desperate Israelites "for profit" was prohibited.(3) The Jubilee was every 49-50 years, but remember Israel was supposed to have a mini-Jubilee every 7 years. The mini-Jubilee didn't involve any land redistribution; it revolved around capital. Debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.(4) Gleaning laws are kind of a grey area here, because you could argue they revolves around the land or around the produce of the land (i.e., capital) depending on your emphasis.(5) The tithe went for the maintenance of priests and other Levites, and anything leftover went to the poor. So that's another OT law that has rather direct implications for the usage of capital.etc. And that's just off the top of my head.

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  3. Donny

    But capital is what you use in production, to produce goods. What you just mentioned deals with money (which is questionable and can defined differently depending on how it's being used) and goods (which is definitely not capital, unless you're talking about what you would re-plant from crops).Of course, things are probably going to translate roughly, since their economy was more agrarian. But the point is still significant; if you're going to argue for or against capitalism, we need to talk about capital. It's not just about rich guys; it's specifically the claim that capital is the engine that drives economies (or entrepreneurship considered distinctly from capital, but eh…).If you want to argue that land, or maybe money, would have been their "capital", then I guess you could do that. But that would really change how we approach capitalism.Or maybe I should just ask Brad to define what he means by capitalism. Maybe he's using it in a different way that tends to blend land and capital. And money, too. Dunno.

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    "Careful. Land and capital are quite distinct in modern economic thought, since capital actually does come from our own work, while land doesn't. Remember; capitalism is very different from physiocracy. Which makes me wonder; are there any OT laws that have implications for how we manage and regulate capital?"Hm…actually, in Toward a Truly Free Market, one of John Medaille's chief complaints against modern economic theory is that it fails to coherently distinguish between land and capital. Maybe I need to go read some more modern economic theory and see which of you is right. In any case, my point was that, in the ancient Israelite economy, land was the primary form of capital, or, you could say, it served more or less the same function for them that capital does for us. Therefore, we can reason by analogy from the way that land concentration was restrained to principles for a restraint of capital concentration. That seems pretty straightforward. I'm not sure why you're hair-splitting in reply to Bradley. Money can be used as capital, and crops, inasmuch as they are needed for seed to replant, are capital. But these points also relate to goods for consumption, which is relevant in response to Schneider as well. The basic point seems fairly simple: limitations were established on ancient Israelite's ability to accumulate productive resources, and on their consumption as well (e.g., the tithe or gleaning). This was done for several reasons, but a chief one was surely in order to ensure relative economic and social equality among the Israelites. And that suggests that we should seek to do likewise. This is not question of arguing for or against capitalism, as you say in your second comment. As I've said, Schneider is not primarily interested in that. He assumes capitalism as a good, as an engine for creating wealth that does not involve exploitation or a zero-sum game. This assumption is crucial to his argument, and is largely false, I am afraid. But his argument is actually about why amassing and enjoying large personal resources, even in the face of the indigence of others, is perfectly fine. And that seems hard to maintain in view of these laws."Not sure how you got to the ending bit about not amassing more than we can use. What does "use" mean here, and why does Jubilee imply that?"I figured you would pick on that. I phrased that poorly, and I knew I did, but I've had very limited internet access for the last week and a half, and so didn't want to take the time to try and fine-tune it. Let me see if I can clarify. I do think that it's bad to have more than you can meaningfully use–the kind of wealth, common enough today, that has to buy a house with a huge garage and lots of closets just to hold all the junk that we don't know what to do with. God made material possessions for us to use, and if we have more than we can make use of, we should find other things to spend our money on. But that's really a different issue, separate from Jubilee. Jubilee is not about having too much in absolute terms, but in relative terms. And that means not amassing more than we need (not more than we can use) when the neighbour has less than they need. Obviously, "need" is not a precise term. In later posts about Schneider, I hope to get into the way he seeks to deal with the ambiguities of "necessity" and "sufficiency." (The gist is that he seeks to argue that since they're ambiguous terms, they're meaningless terms, which is a pretty bogus kind of ethical argument.)

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  5. Donny

    Hm…actually, in Toward a Truly Free Market, one of John Medaille's chief complaints against modern economic theory is that it fails to coherently distinguish between land and capital. Maybe I need to go read some more modern economic theory and see which of you is right. In any case, my point was that, in the ancient Israelite economy, land was the primary form of capital, or, you could say, it served more or less the same function for them that capital does for us. Therefore, we can reason by analogy from the way that land concentration was restrained to principles for a restraint of capital concentration. That seems pretty straightforward.

    Huh… interesting. Well, first, Medaille is making an entirely different point. I'm just saying that in modern economics, land and capital are distinct factors of production (along with labor, and, according to some, entrepreneurship). Just look "factors of production" up on wikipedia or check out a basic econ textbook.Medaille is saying that distinction isn't coherently expressed, and he might be right, since they do get blurred at times, but the distinction is still there.Here's where the interesting part comes in. If I'm remembering right, Medaille proposes a property tax as his main tax, because of the way he views land (I can't remember the details of the argument as to why). Now, modern capitalists typically oppose property taxes because they tend to treat it similar to capital; not identically, but similarly. It's a way people can build up wealth, through real estate investment, and it's good for the community/market, etc. etc.There seems to be a similar argument behind what you're saying with ancient Israel. I mean, you might be right, but you are lumping land in with capital by treating it as a means of income. But the main distinction between the two of them is in regards to how we get them, not whether they provide income. Land is anything that comes from nature, natural resources as well as the dirt we walk on, and capital is any man-made factor of production.The reason I'm hair-splitting is because of the way you formed your argument:

    Property is not the product of one's labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God. Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.

    The distinction between land and capital is exactly the distinction you're drawing here. You're claiming that "property" is not the product of one's labor and that it's illiquid. But capital is the product of labor and is illiquid. If that really is the basis of your argument, capital isn't included.Now, I'm not saying you can't reason from Jubilee to some sort of distribution of capital. But currently, you are making a leap that goes against your own reasoning.

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  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Actually, what Medaille favors is a "ground-rent tax" which is not exactly the same as a property tax, since it avoids penalizing someone for investing in improvements on their property. But I get your point now. Very fair point. My argument was unjustifiably condensed. The main point was a negative argument–you can't use this as a model for modern democratic capitalism, which depends on highly mobile and alienable capital, because the main form of "capital" they had, land, was of course non-mobile and was highly restricted in its alienability. But the Jubilee system doesn't necessarily contradict capitalism, because it simply doesn't say anything about the distribution of capital proper. Perhaps this was completely unrestricted. And even if it wasn't, that doesn't mean that we are bound to directly imitate their social system. So my positive argument would be more indirect: the Jubilee principle seems to express concern about the concentration of power and wealth-production in the hands of a few individuals, considering it harmful to the social economy of Israel as a whole. It seeks to enshrine practices that will prevent such long-term concentrations. In their economy, this usually meant land, but in our economy, it usually means money and forms of more or less mobile capital. If the same principle applies–that too much concentrated in a few hands is dangerous, unbalancing, and likely to deprive others of liberty (and I think Belloc, among others, argues quite well that this concern certainly does apply in modern capitalism)–then we should consider ways of preventing too much concentration of capital in our economies. These may be inspired by the Jubilee, but will of course have to take very different forms. Does that help?

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  7. Donny

    Yeah, that helps a lot. Given that argument, my next question would be about the Jubilee law itself. Does the reasoning in Leviticus support what you're saying?I'm not so sure. Read through the chapter. The reasoning throughout isn't so much about rich people; it's mainly about poor people. The two are obviously tied together, but the focus is on providing a sort of baseline for the poor. Israelite poor will never become complete slaves, dominated by oppressive masters, like they were in Egypt.There are all sorts of measures here to offer rest to the poor. No interest on loans to the needy. Every fifty years, all Israelites who became servants (because they became to poor to support themselves) are freed (the previous years, actually, in the sabbath year) and given a chunk of land, sort of a way to start over.And that's in addition to the sabbath year liberty, where they are sent out and given flocks, money, etc., according to Deut 15. In fact, this passage I think is even stronger in support of what you're trying to do. It's all about eradicating poverty – even though it admits there will always be poor, that means there's always an opportunity to do good.I don't think that eliminates the rich guys, though. The focus of these texts, and of Proverbs, in fact, is not that there if there ever is a rich guy, his goods should be given away so everything flattens out to equality. Instead, the focus is that rich guys have been blessed precisely in order to bless the needy. They've been given extra so they can give protection and provision to those who haven't be so blessed. It's the rich guys buying the servants, giving away their flocks, etc. Just take a look at what Jubilee doesn't do. It doesn't take away flocks, or money, or clothing, or anything else aside from land away from the rich. Granted, that's a big deal, but the law seems specifically designed to protect the rich while this goes on. Even look at the way pricing works: land is priced based on the Jubilee. That ensures that the rich won't get ripped off because they have to give it back at a specified time.In other words, I'm getting the impressions from these laws that it's not so much about eliminating the upper class as it is about eliminating poverty. Obviously there's overlap, but I think the distinction's important, because it doesn't imply that simple inequality is an injustice; it only seems to be injustice when that inequality is oppressive or involves poverty.Thinking out loud again, though, so let me know if that actually makes any sense.

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  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Donny,I think I agree with everything in this comment. This is where Schneider actually makes some useful points against people like Sider. Strict equality is not an end in itself, nor is inequality of every sort evil. Moses wasn't a Leveller, and we shouldn't be either. So, in cases where there are plenty of resources for everyone, there's nothing wrong with some people being considerably better off, as long as they understand that they are to use their extra resources for the good of all. However, given the situation of a fallen world, it makes sense not merely to try to put a floor under the poor, so to speak, but also a ceiling over the rich, since a highly disproportionate concentration of resources, even in a situation where everyone else has enough, is going to lead to a disproportionate concentration of power, and power corrupts. So yes, inequality is only an injustice when it becomes oppressive; but the greater inequality becomes, the more likely it is to become oppressive at some point.

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  9. Bradley

    Bradford, given this whole Schneinder discussion, what should we think of Warren Buffett? A fantastically wealthy man who lives fairly frugally. He didn't leave all his money to his children (in fact he strongly opposes that sort of thing, arguing it would lead to an oligarchy), and instead he's giving away +99% of his money after death. As far as I can tell, most of his wealth he gained in a fairly good manner, tending to avoid zero-sum games and oppression. Is Warren Buffett's example perhaps one way a rich Christian man ought to act? (One of my qualms with Buffett's example, for the record, is that he waits until death to give it all away. Why not give it away gradually while living? But perhaps the posthumous strategy is alright, and just one generous option among many for Christians…)

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  10. Brad Littlejohn

    Sorry Brad, I meant to reply to this days ago. Yes, Buffett is a curious case. Not sure what to make of him. He certainly doesn't fit the greedy capitalist pig stereotype very well, though there certainly are billionaires that do. I don't know that I could hold him up as an ideal example to be emulated, though, because I have to ask two questions: 1) Why has he worked so hard to get so wealthy? Indeed, you could complain that unlike Bill Gates, he hasn't gained most of his wealth by creating some brilliant revolutionary product, but simply by being really smart about investing in other people's products (though to be sure, his companies do do many useful things), so it doesn't look like you could say he just wanted to do some great new thing for the world and got rich almost by accident. He worked very hard to get rich, and has kept working at it long after he had more than anyone could ever imagine needing. 2) As you said, why hasn't he given away >99% of his wealth already? Perhaps there are obvious good answers, but I don't know them. So, while he seems to be pretty good about the way he approaches his affluence, it still hardly seems right for him to be so darn affluent.

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