What Jesus said about capitalism
BOOK REVIEW of "The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics" by Ched Myers, a Californian theologian
The name sabbath (the seventh day) is a reference to the biblical injunction - mainly honoured in the breach - that the Jews practice "jubilee". Every 50th year (the year following the passing of seven times seven years), slaves were to be freed, people were to be released from their debts and land returned to its original owners.
So sabbath economics involves an "ethic of regular and systematic wealth and power redistribution". You can see why this is an uncomfortable topic (for me as much as anyone else).
Many Christians would argue this Old Testament stuff was superseded by the New Testament, but Myers counters that the New Testament reveals Jesus as preoccupied with jubilee ideas.
"There is no theme more common to Jesus's storytelling than sabbath economics," he says. "He promises poor sharecroppers abundance, but threatens absentee landowners and rich householders with judgment."
It's certainly true that Jesus was always blessing the poor, challenging the rich, mixing with despised tax-gatherers and speaking of a time when the social order is overturned and "the last shall be first".
It's also true, as Myers reminds us, that many of Jesus's parables deal with clearly economic concerns: farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labour, being excluded from banquets and the houses of the rich.
Myers alleges that many churches handle the parables "timidly, and often not at all". "Perhaps we intuit that there is something so wild and subversive about these tales that they are better kept safely at the margins of our consciousness," he says.
"Most churches that do attend to gospel parables spiritualise them tirelessly, typically preaching them as 'earthly stories with heavenly meanings'. Stories about landless peasants and rich landowners, or lords and slaves, or lepers and lawyers are thus lifted out of their social and historical context and reshaped into theological or moralistic fables bereft of any political or economic edge - or consequence."
Myers devotes a chapter to the incident of Jesus meeting the rich man, who asks "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus neither welcomes him into the club nor outlines the things he must believe to gain admission.
Rather, he tells the man to go and sell everything he has, give the money to the poor and then come back and follow him. But the man, unwilling to give up his wealth, rejects discipleship and goes away.
Jesus responds, "how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God … It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
"The clarity of this text has somehow escaped the church through the ages, which instead has concocted a hundred ingenuous reasons why it cannot mean what it says," Myers says.
His interpretation? Jesus is simply saying the kingdom of God is a social condition in which there are no rich and poor. So, by definition, the rich cannot enter - not with their wealth intact.
Myers says that in first century Palestine, the basis of wealth wasn't possession of consumer durables, but land. And the primary means of acquiring land was through debt-default. Small agricultural landholders groaned under the burden of rent, tithes, taxes, tariffs and operating expenses.
"If they fell behind in payments, they were forced to take out loans secured by their land. When unable to service these loans, the land was lost to the lenders. These lenders were in most cases the large landowners," he says.
This is how socio-economic inequality had become so widespread in the time of Jesus. It's almost certainly how the rich man ended up with "many properties", according to Myers. And these are just the circumstances the jubilee is intended to correct.
"Jesus is not inviting this man to change his attitude towards his wealth, nor to treat his servants better, nor to reform his personal life," he says. "He is asserting the precondition for discipleship: economic justice."
Myers offers his explanation of a much-quoted saying from which today's prosperous Christians derive comfort: Jesus's observation that "the poor will always be with you".
This doesn't mean Christ accepted poverty as an inevitable characteristic of the economy, or part of the divine plan. Rather, he says, the divine vision is that poverty be abolished, but as long as it persists, God and God's people must always take the side of the poor - and be among them.
"Privately controlled wealth is the backbone of capitalism," Myers says, "and it is predicated upon the exploitation of natural resources and human labour. Profit maximisation renders socio-economic stratification, objectification and alienation inevitable.
"According to the gospel, however, those who are privileged within this system cannot enter the kingdom. This is not good news for first-world Christians - because we are the 'inheritors' of the rich man's legacy.
"So the unequivocal gospel invitation to repentance is addressed to us. To deconstruct our 'inheritance' and redistribute the wealth as preparation to the poor - that is what it means for us to follow Jesus.'
I think Myers reads more into the words of Jesus than is really there but his ideas are an interesting challenge. There is no doubt that Christian practice does differ in many ways from what the Bible commands. Matthew 5:39 made me a pacifist in my teens but most Christians seem to have no trouble with it. I comment on some of the issues involved in the latter part of my 2002 article here -- JR
Comment from a reader:
The biggest flaw in the Myers claims, at least according to my view, was the misuse by the author on the application of Jubilee. Aside from the fact that it was almost never, if ever, honored by the Hebrews, it ignores the major context of the command: Land was apportioned to Hebrews by family as a permanent possession. So when a Hebrew “sold” land, it was understood that the land was not being transferred, but the value of the crops until the year of Jubilee, when the land reverted back to the own. Far from fighting capitalism, God’s command to the Hebrews affirmed the importance of private property. Likewise, Hebrews were freed during the year of Jubilee but not foreigners. The land and the families were supposed to stay together.