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.  

Those Socialist Hebrews

In the fascinating second chapter of his provocative book, The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson argues that the advocation of redistribution of wealth in the modern political tradition arose not from Enlightenment socialist ideas, but, believe it or not, from the seventeenth-century appeal to the authority of Old Testament Israel and the attempt to make it politically normative for modern societies.   This is an argument that is sure to turn the narrative of Bible-thumping Red State America on its head–according to that narrative, Scripture is adamant about the sanctity of private property, and in proportion as societies have sought to found their government upon Scripture, in the same proportion, they have protected private property rights.  Only when they have rebelled against God and embraced atheistic ideas, we are told, do they toy with evil utopian schemes like redistribution of wealth.  Right in line with this narrative, most modern Reformed advocates of some form of “theonomy”–the attempt to repristinate Biblical law in modern politics–have produced a “Biblical economics” that is curiously right-wing and libertarian.  

But, on Nelson’s account (though of course this is not the point Nelson is out to make) this paradigm is precisely backward–it was in pursuit of seventeenth-century “theonomy” that theologians and political thinkers embraced the idea of “levelling” or redistribution of property.  It was obvious to them that the purpose of the Jubilee and sabbath laws, among many other Pentateuchal land laws, was to maintain a relative long-term equality in property ownership by regular redistribution.  Similar measures, it seemed, would need to be instituted in any Christian society that followed God’s law.  Indeed, so dramatic was the force of this appeal that it worked to overturn the long-standing consensus against redistributive (or “agrarian”) laws in Christian Europe, a consensus that was grounded not, as we might expect, on appeals to Scriptural authority, but rather, on the authority of classical Roman writers who argued for the sanctity of private property rights in order to protect the original expropriations of the patrician classes from any recovery by the plebeians. 

Cicero, in particular, had rendered the authoritative verdict on this point: “Property becomes private through long occupancy, and each one should retain possession of that which has fallen to his lot; and if anyone appropriates to himself anything beyond that, he will be violating the laws of human society….The man in administrative office must make it his first care that everyone shall have what belongs to him and that private citizens suffer no invasion of their property rights by act of the state.”  The “ruinous policy” of the proposed agrarian laws, says Cicero, constitutes such an invasion.  “In short,” says Nelson, “Cicero characterizes the agrarian movement as seditious, dangerous, and violently unjust.  For what is an agrarian law, he asks in De officiis, but an initiative “to rob one man of what belongs to him and to give to another man what does not belong to him?” 

Modern Christian conservatives thus find themselves in the awkward position of parroting Cicero, over against a tradition that sought instead to follow Moses.  

Of course, as I have always hastened to point out in the past, this kind of “agrarian” or “redistributive” drive does not issue from a contempt for private property, but rather, from a much higher valuation of private property–private property is seen as so important that it is imperative to make sure everyone has enough, which means making sure nobody has too much.  

Toward a Truly Free Market

John Medaille, a fellow with whom many of you may be familiar, and with whom I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding over the past months, recently published a very exciting new book which promises to answer all our questions (and perhaps provides that “Solution in a Nutshell” that I rashly promised)–Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.  

If like me you are eager to read it, but like me aren’t sure when you’ll have the time, you can find an excellent temporary substitute in Bp. Chuck Huckaby’s thorough review at, which he was kind enough to send my way.  Medaille is a writer well-versed in the Roman Catholic ethical and political teaching, and in modern economics, which is extraordinary rarity and makes his work very important for all of us trying to find a truly theological but genuinely workable solution to the twin evils of capitalism and socialism.