Some Tasty Morsels of Blogdom

Is it just me, or has the blogosphere churned out some unusually fine fare over the past week or so?  Well, the narrow corner of it I sample certainly has.  Here’s some highlights you should check out:

Peter Leithart bucks the Moscow trend by offering a qualified endorsement at First Things of the recent growth of evangelical interest in social justice.  In particular, he turns to the Torah to confirm the importance of this concern, but also to critique facile equations of Christian justice with welfare statism.  If we want to care for the poor the way God wants, we should pay careful attention to the view of property and poverty enshrined in these laws, and the way they worked in practice, rather than simply appealing to vague “Jubilee principles.”  Any regular reader of this blog knows that this has been a prominent theme in my own thinking and writing for the past couple years, and that Leithart is my patron saint–so naturally, I was pretty jazzed about this essay.

Stewart Clem at Transpositions offers the finest reflection I have yet encountered on Tree of Life, a film of breathtaking beauty and theological depth which has occupied my thoughts daily since I saw it two weeks ago.  The gist of Clem’s reading–the film is not, in fact, about the dichotomy of nature and grace, as it seems to claim; rather, it teaches us that nature is graced, and it is only our fallen distortions of it that make us unable to recognize it.

Davey Henreckson, after a long period of comparative blogging dormancy, has erupted in the last week with a pair of fine posts on Annabel Brett’s new book Changing States.  The most recent of these, on the relationship of natural virtue and God’s law in early Protestant political theology, is right up my alley, even majoring on that oft-neglected but ever-fascinating Florentine, Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Finally, Jeremy Kidwell, having just migrated to a new blog home,, offers some provocative reflections on Protestantism, vocations, and intentional communities.  This post almost exactly echoed some thoughts that I recently shared with a friend, and that I’ve been continuing to reflect on; I never discussed them with Jeremy, but we did have a meal together that day…must’ve been some mental osmosis going on.

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.  

“Thou Shalt Not Steal” (The Problem of Private Property, Part Two)

In Christian circles, if ever any question is raised which seems to constitute an attack on private property (as almost any attempt to critically discuss the subject seems to PP’s jumpy defenders), the response is likely to go something like this: 

“Well, the Bible speaks very strongly and highly of the importance and legitimacy of private property.  (Often at this point, the very peculiar language of a “sacred right” or a “sacred institution” is used.)  A defense of private property is built right into the Ten Commandments, with “Thou shalt not steal,” and the rest of the laws show a great concern for the rights of property-holders.  God’s approval of private property is further demonstrated by the approbation given to so many wealthy men throughout the Scriptures–from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Job and Solomon to Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas, and Lydia.  In the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles never call the institution into question, but on the contrary, they presuppose it and bolster it, whether through parables that feature wealthy landlords, or through the case of Ananias and Saphira, where Peter tells them that they were completely free to sell or keep their lands as they saw fit (Acts 4:4).”

Now, to those accustomed to take the institution of PP for granted (which is to say, almost every modern western Christian), this argument seems amply satisfactory.  But a closer look at the components of this case shows that they prove very little of what they are called upon to prove.  In this post, I’ll address the eighth commandment, and in a following post, the rest of this argument.

“Thou Shalt Not Steal”

It is first worth remarking in passing that this commandment does not come at the very beginning of our Bibles.  We have a fairly clear example of PP ownership as far back as Abraham, though no earlier, and this is the first normative reflection on the subject.  In the fourth installment of this series, I will return to look at how we might go about filling in this lacuna–that is to say, how PP fits into the very earliest bits of the narrative–Creation, Fall, and all that.  

But for now, what does the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” give us?  Does it provide an account of the origin of PP?  The basis for it?  The conditions of its legitimacy?  Does it tell us whether PP is the only appropriate system for property, whether it is a biblically mandated institution?  Does it tell us whether PP is an imprescriptible right, or merely one “right” among others, which under various circumstances should be constrained or even abolished in favor of other considerations?  Unfortunately, I don’t think we can resist the conclusion, once we turn to really consider it, that it does none of these things.  All that it tells us, in fact, is that in a society where there is a settled system of property rights (which, as Jeremy Waldron points out, does not necessarily mean a PP system–there are a number of different non-PP systems of property rights), it is wrong to take it upon oneself to violate such rights, unilaterally appropriating for oneself what is considered the property of another.  Put this way, it seems that theoretically, the eighth commandment might indeed offer no endorsement of PP, but merely to tell us how we ought to act if we find ourselves under such an arrangement–much like a command to pray for our enemies and persecutors.  

Of course, I think that such a reading would be much too weak, if we are to take the Decalogue seriously at all as a sort of compendium of natural law.  After all, we wouldn’t want to find ourselves arguing that “Thou shalt commit adultery” tells us no more than that, should we happen to live in a society that establishes and expects stable faithful marriage relationships, we ought to refrain from transgressing those bonds.  Just as we would like to take the seventh commandment as a statement of the intrinsic importance of fidelity to an intrinsically important bond, in which the distinction between my spouse and your spouse is not merely one of convention, but part of God’s intention for human life, so it seems we would want to take the eighth as establishing that God favors an ordered system of property rights in which it is wrong to unilaterally ignore the distinction between mine and thine.  

However, this comparison does not quite so easily solve our problems.  When we consider what the institution of marriage involved in ancient Israelite society, we will quickly see that it involved some rather dramatic differences from our conception of marriage.  Marriage did not need to be monogamous, did not depend on the consent of the two parties, did not involve equal legal standing for both parties, but was a very asymmetric relation in which the husband had many powers over his wife that we would consider tantamount to property rights, etc.  It will readily be seen that similar problems attend the concept of PP.  The seventh commandment establishes the existence of something called marriage that it is wrong to transgress, and the eighth establishes the existence of something called property that it is wrong to transgress, but in and of themselves, they don’t get us that much further than that.  

With marriage and adultery, indeed, we are able to say rather more than that, because Scripture as a whole has a great deal more to say, addressing almost all of the questions we put to the eighth commandment above–its origin, basis, conditions of legitimacy, normative status, circumstances when it can be dissolved, etc.  We are given to understand from very early on the rationale for marriage, and its place in the divine plan for the human race.  We could say something very similar, indeed, about the fifth and sixth commandments–they rest on a very deep and wide biblical foundation of teaching about why parents are important and why murder is wrong.  But to point this out is to highlight just how little is said on similar questions about private property.  Indeed, with the eighth commandment, we are perhaps on ground more similar to that of the ninth commandment–we are given to understand that lying is wrong, but the Bible gives us precious little guidance as to exactly how wrong, or when it might be legitimate, leaving us with an interminable maze of ethical dilemmas on the subject.  

Of course, someone might offer the rejoinder that the eighth commandment does not come to us in a vacuum at all, but in a context of quite extensive discussion of property rights and duties in Exodus through Deuteronomy.  But to point this out is simply to confirm my contention that an appeal to “Thou shalt not steal” helps very little in trying to vindicate private property rights in the modern, post-Enlightenment sense.  For the various laws surrounding property in the Pentateuch do not really enshrine a private property system, so much as one in which the various families of Israel each hold a plot of land from Yahweh as perpetual tenants.  As such, they have a great many constraints on their property “rights”; for instance, the right of alienability, absolutely fundamental to our conception of property rights, is very attenuated.  The system thus functions somewhat like a collective property system, and also has many elements of a common property system, such as of course gleaning laws, tithes, etc.  

(Note: this way of conceiving things offers a helpful and very elucidating corrective to the way I was trying to sort through Pentateuchal property law in my work at the beginning of this year.  Before, I was assuming all along that we were dealing with a private property system, and then trying to make sense of exactly how the various constraints might operate, and how they could in fact be legal constraints.  Jeremy Waldron’s book, however (plus a little help from The Hebrew Republic) has provided the necessary conceptual clarification–there is no pure unitary concept of private property to which all systems must conform, and so there is no need to try to conceive the Israelite system in those terms from the start.)

Moreover, it is worth remarking, as Patrick Miller is keen to point out in his article on the Ten Commandments in the book Having: An Account of Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life, that most of the specifications of the eighth commandment in the Torah, and hence it would seem the eighth commandment itself, are aimed more to protect the “have-nots” (that is to say, the relatively impoverished) against the “haves”, than to protect the haves against the have-nots.  Whatever our protestations to the contrary, modern defences of private property generally have the tenor of a protection of the haves against the have-nots.

On balance, then, the appeal to “Thou shalt not steal,” the cornerstone of the standard Christian response to challenges to PP, goes very little way toward answering the needs of a theory of private property.  It does not tell us why there should be private property, whence a private property system derives, how one justly becomes a private property owner and under what circumstances one’s ownership rights must be abridged, etc.  Indeed, it does not even establish a private property system per se, and in the context of the Torah, it seems intended to undergird a mixed system of property ownership that corresponds only partially to what we would intend by “private property.”