The Good Society: A Biblical Study

A presentation to the Church and Society Committee, Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, October 1995.

Introduction

At this, the end of the twentieth century, society seems to have reached a point where it is uncertain as to the social direction it should follow.

Unrestrained Capitalism led to the workhouse conditions that writers as different as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli protested in Victorian times. Yet the Welfare State which followed it may be ending in a mass of bureaucracy, high taxes, social decay and public debt. Efforts to ‘develop’ the economies of the Third World have often failed lamentably.

On the other hand, the planned and highly controlled economies of Singapore, China and South Korea have produced development at the expense of human freedoms. The Soviet Socialist Republics have repudiated the communist process entirely, but capitalism has not brought either automatic prosperity or social justice.

In these circumstances the church, as a body claiming to give mankind guidance on life’s pathway, should surely be able to give civilization some advice on direction. Yet the Christian church as a whole is still not giving a coherent vision to society of where it should be headed socially, economically and politically in these times.

Because of this, I thought it might be good simply to go back to our roots, and start our quest for guidance with a look at the social and economic teachings of the Bible. Whether we consider them old-fashioned or not, they do in fact give an interesting and coherent recipe for “peace, order and good government” that can well give guidance on priorities for the social order in the coming century.

Old and New Testaments

In looking at the social and economic teachings of the Old and New Testaments, the most remarkable thing is the extreme difference in the viewpoints of each.

The Old Testament is a political book. Almost all of it has been written by or about practicing politicians—either leaders such as Moses and Joshua and the Judges, Kings such as David and Solomon, or the prophets whose chief message was a commentary on the political events of their time. Within it, and the Pentateuch in particular, we find a remarkably comprehensive code of law and advice to achieve a just, prosperous and peaceful society.

We also find a history of how these laws and this advice was ignored and neglected, so that by the end of Old Testament times, the glories of Solomon’s kingdom had vanished into the humiliation of the Jews as a subservient satellite kingdom in the world-conquering Roman Empire.

The New Testament comes from a different angle. It is a message for the underdog—for the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the powerless.

The Old Testament promoted an elaborate system to give land to every family in the nation (Joshua 1321). The New Testament follows a Son of Man who has “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

The Old Testament regards wealth as a sign of God’s blessing (e.g. Job 42:10 sqq). The New Testament despises the accumulation of wealth on earth, preferring that treasures be laid up in heaven (Matthew 6:1921, Luke 6:2026 cp. Philippians 3:79, Hebrews 10:32 sqq, Acts 5:3237).

The Old Testament, though it permitted slavery, in fact restricted it severely. It provided times for rest from work and release after a fixed period of service, unless the slave himself did not wish it (Exodus 20:10, 21:26). In the New Testament, we have the picture of the Christian as a slave—of Jesus Christ (Luke 17:10; Romans 1:1). Whether he was free or a slave in the outside world was a matter of lesser importance (I Cor. 7:2122).

What we have is a picture of the Christian believer prepared to suffer and forgive: blessed by what he or she lacks rather than by wealth and possessions, earmarked for the way of the Cross, for the sake of the heavenly reward beyond. Unless we lose our lives and our attachment to wealth in this world, we are not going to be able to find them in the heavenly Kingdom (cp. Mark 8:34end, Luke 14:33).

This, however, is not a complete picture. Towards one’s fellow man, the Christian is expected to be compassionate and generous. Christ’s picture of the judgment of the nations in Matthew (25:31 sqq) condemns those who do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the rich man is condemned to hell fire because of his insensitivity to the needs of the poor (Luke 16:19 sqq). Again, the theme is not so much one of social justice, as of a sharing of compassion among fellow human beings in a world controlled by evil powers (I John 5:19).

Beyond this, Jesus made it clear that it was not his objective to destroy the Law, but rather to fulfill it by going beyond its demands and establishing a kingdom of Love (Matthew 5:17). So, while remembering the New Testament requirements of “going the second mile,” it is still appropriate to look back at the Old Testament to provide us with some foundational ideals on which a just and prosperous society can and should be based.

The Old Testament Ideal

One picture of the ideal society is repeated in several places in the Old Testament—so much so, that one wonders whether it was a proverbial phrase to describe what the good society was conceived to be.

In I Kings 4:25, Solomon’s great reign is described as follows:

“During Solomon’s lifetime, Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.”

When the Assyrians invade Judah, and try to persuade the people to desert King Hezekiah, the Rabshakeh said (II Kings 18:31, Isaiah 36:16):

“Make your peace with me and come out to me, and then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree, and drink water from your own cistern.”

In the Prophet Micah, looking to a future time of peace and prosperity under the Messiah, we find the following picture (Micah 4:4):

“But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”

Finally, in I Maccabees in the Apocrypha, the reign of the High Priest Simon is described as follows (14:12):

“All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid.”

There are certain principles established in this concept, and I would like to expand on them, and consider some of the machinery established in Old Testament law which was to establish this happy state of affairs. I may also comment briefly on some of the customs of Twentieth Century society that, ignoring these commandments, are leading us to a much less satisfactory style of life.

(1) All the people. There is a ‘principle of universality’. There are not separate communities of rich and poor. Prosperity and security were extended to all classes of society. Contrast the alarming and increasing disparities between rich and poor, both in New Testament times, and in our own.

(2) Sat. This implies two things. One is that everyone had a place to sit. There was no class of the homeless. Secondly, that the ideal society was one of leisure, of Jubilee and Sabbath, not of full employment (compare the ‘curse of Adam’ imposed upon his exile from the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3:17).

(3) Under their own vines and fig trees. In contrast to our Society, where the proletariat earns its income essentially by toiling for a wage, while a small elite enjoy unearned income from property and investments, these citizens owned the means of production, and therefore enjoyed the fruits of ownership, without excessive labour. The ‘Protestant work ethic’ is conspicuously absent.

(4) None shall make them afraid. There was both economic and political security, the product of good laws and good government. Contrast our twentieth century society, scene of major world wars and of repeated economic panic, on both the individual and collective scale, as the economy has blundered between boom and depression. Poverty and insecurity can come in a minute with the loss of a job. Even governments quail at the perils of their National Debts and the terrors of the International Monetary Fund. Curiously enough, as things are at present, it seems as if only the arms industry and war can create the economic conditions that give ‘full employment’ and so prosperity. As one writer has put it—“War is economic peace, and peace is economic war.” These things ought not so to be, and in Christ’s peaceable kingdom, would not be so (cp. Isaiah 11:6, Micah 4:35).

Achieving the Ideal

Let us examine now some of the machinery by which Old Testament Law made it possible to achieve this ‘good society’. I would like to break it down into the traditional economic divisions of Land, Labour and Capital, with an extra category for Social Security.

In Old Testament times, this was initially achieved in each sector through established rights of person and property, without the use of money. It is good to remember, even today, that wealth is always a matter of satisfying physical and spiritual needs through the physical provision of one or a combination of these elements. In a money economy such as ours today, each one of these divisions puts a cost into the price of the wealth we buy: Rent expresses the value and cost of Land: Return on Investment expresses the value and cost of Capital: Wages and Salaries represent the value and cost of Labour, and Taxes represent the value and cost of the Governmental system. Conversely, each one of them is also a source of income to those who have the right to receive payment from one or other of these sources.

However, the lesson of King Midas is that, when it comes to the crunch, it is not money but the real things in life that make our standard of living what it is.

Land. Joshua invaded Palestine around 1400 B.C., with a Divine commission to exterminate its Canaanite inhabitants, and settle the twelve tribes of Israel in defined districts, with each family to have a specific “inheritance” (Numbers 33:50 sqq). Land could not be bought and sold, except on a lease basis, and every fifty years, in a year of Jubilee, it was restored to its original tenant. (Leviticus 25:1317).

            “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine: with me you are but aliens and           tenants” (Leviticus 25:23).

There seems to have been an exception in the case of urban property (Leviticus 25:2934) and it seems as if this approach was put to the test as time went on. Naboth’s vineyard is a story of resistance to an attempted expropriation in defiance of this custom (I Kings 21). Isaiah reproaches those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you”—the real estate speculators of his day (Isaiah 5:810).

In an era where homelessness of the poor, and their inability to pay rent and obtain decent housing, is a major and increasing problem, Moses perhaps has a lesson for us. We should similarly consider the part that the need for land reform plays in, say, the politics of Central America, or in urban homelessness today.

Economic Security. With the security of a land base, went other tools for economic security. Government services under the law of Moses were limited by a simple and efficient formula—they were provided by the tribe of Levi, and paid for by a fixed income tax of ten percent (the ‘tithe’)—though there appear to have been tax evaders even in those days (2 Chronicles 24:114). Solomon seems to have breached this rule, with taxation and forced labour for public works—the result after his death was a successful separatist revolt by the Northern Kingdom, a warning to us all today! (I Kings 12:117).

Besides providing for worship, the Levites appear to have had responsibilities for public health, settling disputes (Deuteronomy 17:813) and the teaching of the Law. It would also appear that the tithe provided support for the “widow, stranger and fatherless” (Deuteronomy 14:29)—a precedent for modern Public Assistance.

Security for old age came essentially from within the family (e.g. Exodus 20:12). Children were expected to support their parents, and in due course, be supported in their old age by their own family: childlessness was a major and deeply felt deprivation (Genesis 15:2, cp. I Samuel 1:19). There was a specific obligation towards widows, to be taken into the family of their nearest relative (cp. Ruth 3:9, Deuteronomy 25:510)—a possibility in a society where polygamy was not frowned upon. Note that, in an all-female family, there was provision for the family land to be retained (Numbers 27:36).

Labour. The condition of working people was protected by law. Their wages were to be paid promptly (Deuteronomy 24:14): servitude was for a limited time, and ended after six years with the donation of a basic capital (Deuteronomy 15:1218). There was provision for worker safety (Deuteronomy 22:8). The Sabbath provided a regular day of rest even for servants (Exodus 20:10). It is worth noting that the institution of slavery did also provide economic security for workers, so much so, that some slaves voluntarily decided to remain in the service of their masters (Exodus 21:56).

There is also a considerable body of teaching regarding provision for the poor, immigrants, and prevention of abusive practices towards those in debt (Deuteronomy 24:1013).

Capital. Perhaps the most notable prohibition in the Jewish law that is not observed in modern times (except by Muslims) is the prohibition on lending at interest (Exodus 22, 25, Leviticus 25:3637, Deuteronomy 23:19-20)—particularly on loans to the poor. See also Ezekiel 18:8, Psalm 15:5, and Nehemiah 5:1–13.

Although no reason is given for this, my own interpretation is that, since the future is in the Lord’s hands, for someone to put the risk of either gain or loss in the future entirely on the borrower, is to maintain one’s own economic return at the risk of a double jeopardy for the borrower. It is a way, therefore, of using Mammon in an effort to dispense with our dependent relationship on God. In Matthew 25:24–28, moneylenders are branded as those who “reap where they do not sow, and gather where they do not scatter.”

This is something that has serious economic consequences in the modern world. Essentially, the whole of the money supply in a modern economy is created by loans of bank credit to borrowers: business financing from this source discourages the accumulation of private ownership of the means of production (“Our own vines and fig trees”). It causes rewards to flow to dabblers in finance by robbing the value of the public’s money through inflation: conversely, when bank loans are repaid, the cancellation of credit leads to deflation, falling prices, and business stagnation.

It is not for nothing that the Book of Revelation includes as one of the final catastrophes before the return of Christ a total and sudden collapse of the whole financial and trading system. (Revelation 18)

Summary

It may be presumptuous to sum up the whole teaching of the Old Testament in a few propositions, but I do suggest that there are some fairly clear directions in which the Bible indicates Society should be organized. These would include:

(1) Universality. Although the poor will always be with us (Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11), there should be a basic ‘place to stand’ for all. Homelessness is unacceptable. (Note in this connection the proposals for site value taxation advanced by Henry George in his book Progress and Poverty, and the recommendations for a Guaranteed Annual Income advanced by both the Croll and MacDonald Royal Commissions, so far not implemented.)

(2) Public Health. Perhaps the responsibility of the Levites for public health can be expanded in these modern days to an obligation to see that safe food and minimum health care is available to all.

(3) Ecology. ‘Crown Land’ does not exist in the Mosaic system—all land is the Lord’s, but also the responsibility of some owner or another. Land ownership is not absolute: the poor, for instance, have the right to glean (Leviticus 19:910). Trees are to be preserved, even in wartime (Deuteronomy 20:1920). Long term private ownership of all land means respect for it from its owners, and not, for instance, the clear cutting of forests which, because they belong to everybody, have no individual person’s interest or protection.

(4) Justice. The state does have the obligation to reduce conflict in society by providing a system for the judging of disputes. In the institution of the Cities of Refuge we see the beginnings of a prison system—note that this was to protect the wrongdoer from excessive punishment at private hands, rather than to inflict punishment itself!

(5) Taxation. The idea of a fixed and limited proportion of national income being spent on the institution of Government appeals to me immensely, and the tithe is an obvious forerunner of modern ‘flat tax’ proposals.

(6) Private and inalienable ownership of land and resources. Ownership of income producing property needs to be as widely distributed as possible: this is how incomes can be provided in a world where technology is making ‘full employment’ almost impossible to achieve.

(7) Humane and just working conditions. Employment standards, protection of the worker from danger on the job and exploitation by his employer, reasonable holidays and hours of work, and prompt payment of wages all need to be enforced.

(8) Financial Control. Exploitation of the public, the economy and the taxpayer by financial manipulators must be prevented.

(9) Family Support. The primary obligation for family members to care for each other should not be preempted by the State, or the economic reasons for maintaining family unity will be weakened. The economic position, and need for economic security of children and the aged, and of women as wives and mothers and of children, needs to be respected and provided for.

(10) A Sense of timing. The rhythm of Jubilee every fifty years, and Sabbaths every seven, is something missing from modern life. Indeed, as Society swings to seven day a week shopping, even the once traditional ‘Sabbath rest’ and pause for worship is beginning to disappear. However, systematic times of rest enable society to ‘stand back’ every so often to evaluate its direction, and set targets for future achievement.

How nice it would be, for instance, to plan that fifty years after Expo 1967, that is in 2017, Canada’s National Debt would be eliminated!

Conclusion

The Lord’s Prayer does teach us to pray that God’s Kingdom might come on earth, as it is in heaven. Hopefully, this study gives us some idea of what we might expect such a kingdom to be like.

– Text of a presentation given October 1995
Advertisements