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Time for Lent: Economic Justice I

The ways we eat, approach politics, worship God and spend money are highly emotionally charged because they emanate from the core of our identities. The values, hopes and fears that shape our practices and attitudes in these areas are veritable land mines; venture here at your own risk. This is to acknowledge that we need to offer each other abounding grace today as we talk about economics at the personal and societal level.[1]

In her essay, “The Last Crisis,” Ellen White describes both physical destruction and economic injustice. I begin today’s deliberation with the following quote from this portion of Testimonies for the Church to remind us that an awareness of injustice is part of the Adventist heritage. “The enemy has succeeded in perverting justice and in filling men’s hearts with the desire for selfish gain.”[2] White continues by citing Isaiah 59:14 and then states:

In the great cities there are multitudes living in poverty and wretchedness, well-nigh destitute of food, shelter, and clothing; while in the same cities are those who have more than heart could wish, who live luxuriously, spending their money on richly furnished houses, on personal adornment, or worse still, upon the gratification of sensual appetites…. The cries of starving humanity are coming up before God, while by every species of oppression and extortion men are piling up colossal fortunes.[3]

With our western view of justice, we can be tempted to think that any amount of wealth amassed using legal means is just, and that using our finances primarily for personal pleasure and security is the rightful benefit for our hard work. However, before we excuse ourselves too quickly, which I’ll admit is my first reaction, I think it is important to consider two strands of counter-thought.

First, an understanding of the Jewish concept of justice, which encompasses tzedakah, mishpat and shalom, enables us to hear Jesus’ priorities in Matthew 23:23—justice, mercy and faithfulness. For example, consider tzedakah:

“Tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call “charity” in English: giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. However, the nature of tzedakah is very different from the idea of charity. The word “charity” suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy. The word “tzedakah” is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness.[4]

This reveals why Jesus warns those who have wealth but don’t use it to take care of others (e.g., Luke 12:16-21). Similarly, John asks the probing question: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17). In summary, God’s justice not only involves right means of wealth accumulation, but also the right use of our resources to care for those in need.[5]

Second, a brief look at the sabbatical and Jubilee laws reveals God’s priorities and provides a lens through which to view Jesus’ ministry. The guidance given in Exodus 23, Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 “were a type of economic reform legislation to redistribute the capital resources of the community so that they would not become concentrated in the hands of a few.”[6] Even though the Israelite nation did not fully practice these instructions, and even though they would be impossible to enact in a hyper-literal fashion today, we are still able to discern God’s values in these ancient teachings. By arranging for productive assets to be distributed between families in perpetuity, God prioritized the avoidance of systemic poverty over the freedom to amass wealth.

With this understanding of God’s character and kingdom, we turn to Jesus’ hometown speech (Luke 4:13-21). The portion of scripture Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 was “one of the passages selected for reading at the commencement of the Jubilee year.”[7]

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Let’s allow the significance of this statement to sink in. Jesus’ proclamation was

“good news” to the poor, slaves, debtors, and other oppressed persons who could rejoice in their freedom. There was a redistribution of wealth and everyone was put on equal footing. Thus a Jubilee year was indeed an acceptable year to all the types of oppressed persons. Luke portrays Jesus as proclaiming the inauguration of such an era.[8]

As we look at the ministry of John the Baptist and the life of the early church, we see the embodiment of these teachings. While we may question the effectiveness of John’s preparatory ministry, his call for radical equality—if you have two coats, give one away—did embody the Jubilee.[9]

Later, after Jesus ascension, we find the young community voluntarily living Jubilee principles to the degree that there were none in need (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-37). Shane Clairborne points out that “redistribution comes from community, not before community. Redistribution is a description of what happens when people fall in love across class lines.”[10] We may not currently be prepared to live this way, but that does not mean we are more economically and socially enlightened than the Holy Spirit-infused early church.

We have seen that the Bible and Ellen White argue against both greed and economic oppression. What we have not considered are the actual expressions of economic injustice and oppression in our world today. Therefore, today’s assignment is to take time to research this ethical cancer that Ellen White said would exist until the end. Step One is to pray that God will open our eyes to the injustices that break his heart. Step Two is to begin reading. I encourage each of us to spend time browsing at Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action or Poor People’s Economic Human Rights. Step Three is to pray for wisdom and compassion to inform action.[11] Maranatha!

[1] If this essay is irksome to you, a highly effective response would be to say, “Jeff, prove that you have given all away and are free from global economic structures.” After closing my Mountain Gear catalog, my only reply would be, “You win, but together let’s keep growing in compassion and justice.”

[2] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 11.

[3] Ibid., 9:12. These writings that renounce “grinding down the poor” are consistent with the words of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ps. 9:17-20; 82:1-4; 146:6-10; Prov. 13:23; 14:31; 22:16; Ez. 16:49; 22:13; Is. 1:15-18; 58:3-7; Jer. 22:16), the life and teachings of Jesus (Luke 1:53; 6:24; 12:16-21; 16:19-31; Matt. 19:23; 21:12-13; 25:31-46), and the subsequent priorities of the early church (Gal. 2:10; 1 Tim. 6:9-18; 1 John 3:17; James 1:10-11; 2:6; 5:1-6; Rev. 3:17; 6:15; 18:3).

[4] To learn more about the Jewish conception of justice and repairing the world, see pages 3-52 in Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice edited by Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser and Margie Klein (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2008) and “Justice, Human Rights, and Government” by Ron Sider in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 168-177.

[5] It should be noted that legal business practices may be highly unethical and unjust in God’s eyes. We will consider this in Part 2.

[6] Perry B. Yoder, Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace, 1st ed. (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing, 1987), 81.

[7] J. Massynbaerde Ford, My Enemy is My Guest: Jesus and Violence in Luke (New York, NY: Orbis, 1984), 55.

[8] Ibid.

[9] As Adventists we believe we have inherited John’s ministry of preparing people to meet Jesus. It seems to me that we might have something to learn from the content of John’s teachings. That is, from the little that is recorded we see that John taught social ethics rather than (or quite possibly in addition to) a prophetic timeline. I believe it’s possible that embracing John’s priorities may play some part in fulfilling Ellen White’s comment about living God’s character, though I understand her phrase is controversial on its own without my added dimension.

[10] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 163.

[11] An alternative assignment would be to begin paying a graduated tithe. Like the author of this article, I first heard of this generous form of tithing in Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1997), a book that challenges me every time I open it. A third assignment option that puts flesh on the Jubilee act of redistributing capital is to mentor and tutor since education is quite possibly the most critical “productive resource” in this information age.

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