I’m reading Wayne Grudem’s recent book, Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010). A conservative, Grudem is responding to books from the left like Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics. In my opinion, he makes some good points and some not so good points. Since this blog focuses on money, simplicity, giving, and justice, I thought I’d offer an evaluation of Grudem’s sections on “economics”, “private property”, and “giving to the poor”. In this area, I’m very disappointed. I’m quite concerned that Grudem’s biblical foundations are deeply faulty, and that many Christians who read him are being led to very wrong conclusions and opinions. His treatment of both Old and New Testament texts is vastly different from ours in the Lazarus at the Gate / Global Poverty Impact curriculum. And since Grudem’s book seems like it is meant to also be a textbook for seminary students, I want to offer a few thoughts on it for the readers of this blog.
In his chapter on Economics (chapter 9), Grudem takes the Bible as affirming private property. He seems to take this as an absolute: in fact, the right of the individual to acquire as much wealth and private property as possible by all lawful and moral means. He begins by quoting the prohibition on coveting (Ex.20:17) as assuming private property in the sense that he means it. He immediately condemns communism, or public ownership, on the grounds that it seeks to abolish private property. He cites Leviticus 25:10 as an example of how God returns land and property to individuals – a quotation I will evaluate below. He quotes 1 Samuel 8:10 – 18 (the warning of Samuel to Israel that a king will tax, take, and enslave) as evidence that big government power is an evil. He believes that economic development is God’s clear intention for the creation. He affirms the money currency and free markets as the direct derivation from biblical principles. He affirms the Bible’s concern for the poor but critiques government attempts at alleviating poverty. He believes government should encourage businesses. He believes taxes should be as low as possible for all individuals, and lower than 20% for corporations. He comments on capital gains taxes, income tax rates, and eschews a higher tax rate on the rich. Based on his reading of selected Scripture, he believes that God gave people the unlimited right to pass on economic inheritance to their children (Proverbs 19:14; Numbers 27:8 – 11) and that government should not interfere with that (Ezekiel 46:18). He says, “The Bible clearly takes the side of individual ownership of property. My conclusion is that the estate tax should be permanently repealed.” (p.309) Etc. etc.
For the moment, I’ll set aside the fact that American wealth is, to a very significant degree, built on stolen land (from Native Americans, Chicanos, and Mexican Americans), stolen life and labor (from African Americans), stolen wages (from underpaid immigrant strikebreakers to today’s migrant workers, with underpaid women throughout), and stolen health (from people affected by pollution, toxins, harmful products, workplace injuries, etc. who went without legal defense). I’ll only address Grudem’s misuse of various Scriptures which undergirds his thinking about economics and private property.
Even though we cannot reinstate the Law of Moses as if we were Mosaic Israel, it is still valuable to discern principles that we will find developed further in the rest of Scripture. One lesson is that in Israel, wealth was God’s blessing for all, including future generations. Leviticus 25 is quite significant because in this section we find the clearest statement about God’s desire for Israel’s use of the land over time and as it relates to family and “private property”. But Grudem truncates it down to the individual.
Leviticus 25 demonstrates that God’s vision for biblical Israel was virtually the opposite that Wayne Grudem has for America. Israel divided its land up by clan and family in a roughly even distribution, starting from the point they settled the Promised Land. The fiftieth year was called a “Jubilee year.” It was a “reset button.” During the Jubilee year, people returned to their ancestral lands (Lev.25:13), even if they were indentured to someone else in a debt-contract. They did not pay for the remainder of the debt contract that they left unfulfilled. Land, too, would return to its original tribal and familial boundaries (Lev.25:14 – 28), so people could not be permanently displaced from their ancestral lands. In other words, land could not be permanently bought or acquired. If an Israelite fell upon hard times and was forced to sell family property, a kinsman-redeemer was required by Law to intervene (Lev.25:25 – 28). But even if there was no kinsman-redeemer, that Israelite would be restored to his ancestral land at no expense!
This also means that children and grandchildren would not be penalized for the laziness or misfortunes of their parents and grandparents. Because land was wealth, there were very strong measures taken to ensure that, over time, no family and no individual could accumulate land at the expense of someone else (which was, incidentally, the only way to accumulate it). God was weaving a deep principle into Israel’s existence: ‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me’ (Lev.25:23). God was reminding Israel of their status as ‘aliens and sojourners.’ They did not, in fact, own the land. God did. And their experience of that reality lay in the fact that God pushed a “reset button” every fifty years on land boundaries, so that every Israelite could enjoy their ancestral land as a gift from Him as if they were first settling the Promised Land! This was something like what humanity should have experienced had the fall never happened: God was bestowing the garden land to humanity and every family would have their own portion.
Imagine if the United States followed a policy of land restitution to Native Americans, African Americans, and Chicanos. We would have a very different situation to say the least! Or, imagine if there were some way to design a social system so that the children and grandchildren of parents who fell on hard times would not be punished for what happened in the generations before them. Instead, our social system forces children of lazy and criminal parents to swallow their parents’ choices, as if we could safely assume that children of those people will share their parents’ characteristics. And, we essentially say that many of the poor are poor because they keep having children. Historically, European American people infected by the disease of racism allowed children of black slaves and sharecroppers to inherit all the unmitigated disadvantages they could handle, and more. Even for people who claim to be without racial prejudice, which may be the case on a personal level, they fail to see how the economic and legal system we have perpetuates injustice by forcing children and grandchildren to bear the brunt of all their ancestors’ misfortunes and choices. From 1979 – 2007, the income gap tripled. In roughly the same period, the racial wealth gap between white families and black families increased by fourfold. But the Mosaic arrangement of land and wealth in ancient Israel would have alleviated all that.
I am incredulous, then, that Grudem can read Leviticus 25 and still say, “The Bible clearly takes the side of individual ownership of property. My conclusion is that the estate tax should be permanently repealed.” (p.309) How can he wrench the idea of “private property” out of its context and foundation in Leviticus 25? For people to have the unlimited ability to accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children is precisely the opposite of what Leviticus 25 says. And quoting Proverbs or any other Old Testament passage about “inheritance” or “hard work” is of absolutely no use for his case. That is because every other Old Testament passage takes Leviticus 25 as the starting point and foundation. So “inheritance” in Proverbs includes God’s “reset button” of land redistribution to its original intended boundaries and nothing beyond it. It most certainly does not imply that parents should have the ability to pass down unlimited amounts of wealth and property to their children, especially when they gained it at someone else’s expense, but even when they gained it “fairly”.
Contrary to what Grudem thinks, there is not even a notion of economic or technological progress in Israel’s Scriptures. In fact, an overarching spirit of anti-progress is bound up in the Mosaic legislation to prevent Israelites from displacing each other from the land. Land was the most desirable economic commodity of ancient times, the driving force for economic growth and trade, the symbol of status, and the factor of production attached to power in that era, which is significant in that Israel valued land even more, perhaps, than other civilizations did. Their land was the tangible manifestation of their covenant relationship with God. Yet precisely because of this, land was frozen in its distributed arrangement by tribe, clan, and family.
It is not even as simple as the contemporary Roman Catholic posture, “Justice takes priority over progress, but progress that equally benefits everyone is acceptable.” The entire notion of progress is called into question by the Bible. It is quite impossible that Israel thought they should ever improve on the land as it was given to them. The sabbatical ordinances of letting the land lie fallow for an entire year reflects a certain ideal, the ideal of humanity simply receiving provision from the land in as undisturbed and unprovoked a manner as possible. Israel was to let the land experience Sabbath rest every seventh year (Lev.25:1 – 8 ) and every fiftieth year, that is, after seven Sabbath cycles (Lev.25:9 – 12). These Sabbath years for the land were more than simply a year of planned crop rotation to let the soil recover. It was an act of trust in God to provide what they needed, without agricultural planning, irrigation, or cultivation. Every seventh day, seventh year, and fiftieth year, Israel was to experience something of a return to the garden of Eden, eating freely from the land. Furthermore, it was impossible for Israel to plan intelligently for the future because God commanded the people to sacrifice the best tenth of their harvest (normally used for future seeding) and their animals (normally used for breeding). The embodiment of future economic certainty was destroyed to leave room for God Himself to supply it. Economic development under these conditions was not even an intellectual category for Israel. Improving domestic stock through intelligent breeding was literally laid on the altar. Thus, rather than seeing the land as an object God gave them to harness, Israel understood the land as God’s medium of blessing His covenant people. The land was one of Israel’s sources of identity. It mediated their existence. The promised land mediated between God and Israel in the same way the Edenic land mediated between God and Adam. The land was sustained by God (not by them) and supervised providentially by Him (not by them) in correlation with Israel’s obedience to Torah, not in relation to whether they used the best known agricultural methods, worked the hardest they could, etc. This is clear from Deuteronomy 11:11 – 17. Israel saw a significant distinction between their land and the land of other nations, like Egypt. God would bless Israel on their land because of their love for God and love for neighbor, the original responsibilities of both Adam and Cain. No other people had a land like this one. No pesticides needed. No chemicals. Organic. Sustainable. Tiny carbon footprint.
Furthermore, the Jews were not to loan money to each other at interest (Ex.22:26 – 27, Lev.25:35 – 38, Deut.23:19, Ezk.18:10 – 18, 22:12) which put a check on capital, the second factor of production and the driving medium for innovation. Banking as we understand it today, which already existed in ancient Babylonia and the Mesopotamian region according to Hawkes and Wooley, was impossible in Israel. With this prohibition, Israel had no incentive to profiteer at the expense of creation’s resources. They had no impetus for technological advancement, and the institutional motivation for economic growth was dismantled. Israel could not make human ingenuity part of the process of receiving God’s blessings from the land. They could not link the future to the present by means of money. They could not even describe risk in monetary terms, but instead had to place time and uncertainty into the hands of God. In fact, given that the practice of usury favors the wealthy, as they are the only ones with such capital to loan out, it is not surprising that God forbade usury among the Israelites. Once again we see God instituting laws that prevented the acquisition of more property, protected people from their own greed, mitigated against the permanent displacement of the homeless, and halted people from evaluating everything and everyone in terms of material wealth. The church during the Middle Ages likewise generally forbade the practice of interest-rate lending, carrying over the disdain for usury present in early Christianity and also in ancient Greece. Only with Calvin and his followers, with their reliance on trade and commerce for funds, did Christianity and usury become bedfellows. To ill effect: We have not had a vigorous Christian critique of banking for about five hundred years. It would come in useful right about now with the global financial system in a crisis.
When God revealed Himself personally in Jesus of Nazareth, he called his Jewish followers to disinherit themselves from the Mosaic land system (e.g. Matthew 6:19 – 34; 19:13 – 30; Luke 6:12 – 49; 9:51 – 62; 12:13 – 34; 14:25 – 35; 18:15 – 30; 21:1 – 4; etc.). He did this because of his global evangelistic mission; Jewish disciples couldn’t hold onto their ancestral lands and go out into the Gentile world at the same time! He did this also because the generosity of his people was now unlimited. God was no longer utilizing a stable economic system in which people were anchored in a land, which would then become a geo-political community. Instead, Christians are called by Jesus to be a mobile, flexible, pilgrim people, not claiming permanent roots in a land, but looking forward to reunion of the new heavens and new earth.
All of this, Grudem apparently rationalizes away. He never even considers the biblical theme of power and what Jesus and Paul might suggest about a fundamental redistribution of power. Much to the detriment of Christian scholarship, devotion, witness, love, and yes, political action. While Grudem is eager to criticize the consolidation of government power, he fails to mention the growth of corporate power and its skewing of American democracy. He doesn’t even consider the role of banks. If he had listened to populist Republicans like Kevin Phillips, who presciently warned us in Wealth and Democracy of the corruption of democracy and the perils of a financial economy, his book would have much more balance. But alas, he did not. I could hardly stomach how he addresses Native Americans in ch.15. To readers of this book, I can only say, “buyer beware.” To those who are in relationship with fans of the book, I can only say, “Please have them read this blog post.”