Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Christmas Economics--How Both Pentateuch and Pentecost Promote Wealth Redistribution

 “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; each of you is to return to his family property... It (accumulated property) will be returned in the Jubilee.” Leviticus 25:10, 28b

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel your debts...there should be no poor among openhanded toward your brothers (and sisters) and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15: 1, 4a, 11b

“There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the money from the sales...and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” Acts 4:34-35

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply your need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He that gathered much did not have too much, and he that gathered little did not have too little.’” II Corinthians 8:13-15

     From Thanksgiving to the end-of-year deadline for charitable deductions, many North Americans become extra generous in their giving. Christmas gift giving alone provides the kind of boost to the economy that many retailers depend on for their survival. So like the Leviticus 25 Jubilee, the season moves us well beyond our usual charity.

How could this Jubilee-like mindset, this holiday season thinking, transform our stewardship?

At a recent session of our Virginia Conference assembly we had an extended discussion of a plan to provide affordable health insurance for needy pastors. Delegates voiced their approval, but in light of leaner economic times, wondered whether the required number of congregations could afford to fund it, especially in light of growing concerns about meeting existing mission and conference budgets.

But I couldn’t help wondering why a church as well-to-do as ours should ever have even one needy pastor among us, or have a single outreach programs that is underfunded? And why should our church agencies have to increasingly depend on salaried fund raisers to help them meet their annual budgets?

One answer may be that we have been focusing on only half of what the Bible teaches about stewardship. We have taught well the half that has to do with contributing generously of our tithes and offerings, but have said or done little about the other Biblical mandate, that of radically and regularly redistributing our wealth in the spirit of Christmas and in celebration of a Jesus-inspired Jubilee.

Unfortunately, far from regularly redistributing our wealth, most us aren’t very generous in even contributing from it, according to sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell, authors of a book called "Passing the Plate, Why Christians Don’t Give Away More of Their Money" (Oxford University Press, 2008). Their study finds that one in four US Protestants doesn’t give at all, and that the median rate of annual giving for that group is only $200, or less than half a percent of their taxable income. According to a 2005 study commissioned by MCUSA, the “typical” Mennonite member gives just less than 10 percent of income to some kind of charity.

According to the Passing the Plate authors, what makes churchgoing US Christians look especially miserly is that together they earn a staggering $2.5 trillion dollars a year. That would be enough wealth, they claim, to qualify for membership in the G7, a group representing the world’s seven largest economies. A modest ten percent of that sum, they point out, could do wonders to alleviate poverty and promote missions around the world.

Few of us would expect the unemployed and financially destitute to tithe. But the rest of us who live in one of the wealthiest economies in the world should be able to give far more. Regular giving, after all, is like paying rent for the privilege of enjoying life on a truly great planet.

But can simply giving from our surplus, without any regular redistribution of wealth that narrows the gap between rich and poor, be seen as an adequate expression of Biblical economics?

Ched Myers, author of "The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics," doesn’t think so. He argues that both the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early church support a more radical stewardship, one grounded in Old Testament practices meant to periodically reboot and re-level the economic playing field.

Myers points out that in Jesus’s first recorded message (Luke 4:16-30), he highlights the prophet Isaiah’s announcement of good news to the poor and the release of prisoners, and reminds us that prisoners in those days were usually impoverished people who were unable to repay money they borrowed in bad years to keep their families alive. The Isaiah 61 text that Jesus uses appears to be linked to two passages in the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomy 15 teaching on canceling debts every seven years, and the Leviticus 25 Jubilee text, one that mandates that no profit be made from the land every seventh year, and that repossessed land be restored to the original owners every 50th year, a "year of the Lord’s favor.”

Today we hear almost nothing about regularly forgiving others their monetary debts or about restoring property taken in foreclosure. But Jesus promises salvation to Zaccheus when he commits himself to redistributing his wealth, and later asks the so-called “rich young ruler” to do the same. And in each of the first three gospels, the latter story is accompanied by Jesus teaching us to become like owner-less children in order to become a part of the Jubilee-based God-Movement.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Spirit-led early church went well beyond simply sharing contributions from their surplus. The book of Acts describes how believers joyfully practiced Jesus’s form of Jubilee justice by selling property and distributing the proceeds among those in need.

 In the same spirit, the apostle Paul appealed to the church at Corinth to practice a Jubilee-style sharing of their wealth with needy believers abroad. And the apostle had harsh words for those who ate and drank to excess at their community agape meals while refusing to share their abundance with poorer members of the congregation.

All of this makes it clear that followers of Jesus are not to gain ever more wealth for themselves while the Lazarus-like poor in the world become ever more destitute. In order for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” periodic redistribution is called for. Regarding the Lord's Prayer, John Howard Yoder, in "The Politics of Jesus" writes, “Jesus... tells us purely and simply to erase the debts of those who owe us money; which is to say, practice the jubilee.”

Claude Rosenberg and Tim Stone, in a December, 2006, article in the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, make the case for giving based on our assets, and not simply on our incomes, a principle they believe is clearly taught in the Torah and amplified in the New Testament. Our common practice of a tithe- and offering- based stewardship, they say, provides false justification for believers becoming as wealthy as they can as long as they give regularly and generously from their surplus.

A current illustration of this is the case of Dave Ramsey, considered one of the nation’s leading advisers on Christian money management. Over a million people in 5,600 churches recently tuned in to his 90-minute televised infomercial-style “Town Hall for Hope” broadcast. His DVD-based “Financial Peace University” courses are offered in churches everywhere, including Mennonite congregations. Profits from his book and DVD sales and from his many seminars have made Ramsey a multimillionaire, and he has just built a lavish home on a $1 million lot in a gated community overlooking Tennessee's richest county.

One of our problems is that we find it hard to make the case that this is even a problem. After all, Ramsey earned his money legally, saved it carefully, and no doubt has given much of it generously, just as we are all taught to do.
What is missing is a theology of stewardship that deals with the other half of the Biblical teaching on wealth, that of periodically and systematically redistributing and reinvesting it in ways that give a hand up to the underclass. We have overlooked the fact that the Pentateuch actually commands this, and that the church of Pentecost and of the apostle Paul clearly promotes it.
Here are some modest examples of how congregations and individuals might celebrate seasons of Jubilee:

1. Create a congregational Jubilee Fund to support an urgent local or international need, and invite members to sell something of significant value to them--or to draw substantially from their savings or investment accounts--to invest generously in such a fund.

2. Freeze or reduce congregational and conference staff salaries and benefits for a chosen year and contribute the savings to a Jubilee Fund, and urge each member to make similar investments.

3. Place a moratorium on church building or remodeling projects for a year (or longer), focusing instead on meeting direct people needs in the community and abroad.

4. Adopt a third world, inner city, or other needy congregation or community with whom to exchange information and/or work and study teams.

5. Promote members making gifts of some of their current IRA holdings and other investments and/or to transfer them to interest-free or low interest micro-loan funds.

6. Engage in serious Bible study and worship on the theme of redistribution stewardship.

7. Match our spending for Christmas and other gift giving each year with equal investments in missions, relief and other means of outreach, and on every seventh year, dispense with Christmas and other gift giving to the non-needy altogether, then double what we redistribute to the poor.

8. Invite members of third world congregations to become honorary members of the governing boards of our congregations and church institutions, regularly consulting with them by phone or e-mail about our spending and investment decisions.

9. Rewrite our wills so that they represent a more just form of Jubilee redistribution of our accumulated assets.

In order to be faithful to Jesus, we need to think and act in the spirit of Christmas rather than of capitalism, investing less in our own comfort and security and more in what delights the heart of God.

In this way we will joyfully trumpet liberty throughout the earth.

(this was first published in the December, 2009, issue of The Mennonite)
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