Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday thought: (re)Distribution of wealth

There were interesting readings this past week. Fascinating because they covered a lot of political intrigue from the old kingdom. These make gripping reading but the religious, moral, political and economic significance for us is hard to discern. The reading that really struck a note with me is from Monday, June 14.
Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard to be my vegetable garden, since it is close by, next to my house. I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or, if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.”

Naboth answered him, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral heritage.”
If we want to apply strictly representational truth standards in our reading of the Bible, passages like this one will give us fits. Did this conversation actually take place as reported? Who knows? Even today details of conversations like this are difficult to establish.

But even though we can't be certain about the details, this conflict is very typical of the period not just in Judah but all over the ancient world. The problem was this, if you start with a situation in which everyone has there own tract of land to feed their family it will inevitably be the case that the land will end up concentrated in a small number of hands over time. One day one family will manage its holdings badly and will be forced to sell out. Or a father might end up in debt and have to sell. Carry this on over time and the land and therefore the wealth gets increasingly concentrated.

And with the concentration of wealth goes the concentration of power. Aristocrats, well aware of this, will begin to use every means at hand to get more land and to keep others from getting any. And because these cultures were largely agrarian, there were no factories and offices for displaced farmers to work at. Ancient cities increasingly filled up with people who had no choice but to beg for a living or to sell themselves into slavery.

And little guys like Naboth got squeezed in just the way that Kings tells us Ahab squeezed him. The Bible authors were keenly aware of the injustices this brought about. Over and over again, they remind those with wealth of their responsibility to look out for those who are disenfranchised by the situation. Less noted is the fact that they did not worry about economic injustice in any general sense. They—like Jesus who assured us the poor will always be with us—assumed that poverty was a fact of life. Their message was to take care of the widow and the orphan and the poor man at your gate. It was not reform the economic system to make sure everyone has enough.

More or less the same thing happens in many third world countries even today. And the solution that many modern political activists came up with is redistribution. For some reason, modern Christians are also fond of redistribution although it is clearly not in Christ's message and, more importantly, it just doesn't work! And yet, the idea of redistributing wealth drives modern Christian thought about economics like no other.

There was a telling moment at last year's Trinity Sessions. Rowan Williams had just made his presentation in which he managed to say absolutely nothing new or significant. He was then questioned by a journalist named Susan Lee from NPR. She said, “Theologians have focused on the distribution of wealth. Economists have focused on the creation of wealth." Then she went on to remind Williams that historically the theologians efforts to alleviate poverty through government control and manipulation of the distribution of wealth had been failures whereas the economists concern with promoting greater creation of wealth has considerably improved the lives of the poor.

She did not say but could have added that the emphasis on redistribution has also led theologians to make some monumentally poor political judgments. They have chastised western governments in countries such as England, Canada and the United States—governments that have done more than anyone in history to extend and protect human rights and freedoms—while apologizing for some of the vilest oppressive thugs to ever live beginning with Lenin and running through Castro to Hugo Chavez in our time.

I'm sorry to say that Rowan Williams didn't respond to her questions but dodged them instead. And he is not the only one. Much as I love the Catholic church, the political economics that have grown out of Catholic social teaching are a murderers row of unfortunate mistakes from corporatism to liberation theology.

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