Jubilee and Christian Economics

Jubilee was a multi-layered practice often rejected, ignored or manipulated in ancient Egypt.  It instructed that all debts be canceled every seven years, and all and return to its original owners ever fifty years.  This left room for considerable consequences for your actions – an entire generation could be dispossessed of land – but provided a basic equality of opportunity for Israelite families.  In economic terms, the means of wealth production was partially equalized.

But the theological idea behind Jubilee is this: Yahweh owns the land.  “The land shall not be sold on perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23 ESV).

Ron Sider, in his book The Scandal of Evangelical Politics lays out what this theological point would mean for a Christian account of economics:

Interestingly, the principles of Jubilee challenge modern extremes of the political left and right. Only God is an absolute owner.  No one else has absolute property rights. The right of each family to have the means to earn a living takes priority over a purchaser’s “property rights.”  At the same time, Jubilee affirms not only the right but the importance of private property managed by families (normally extended families) who understand that they are steward responsible to God. This text does not point us in the direction of the communist model where the state owns all the land. God wants each family to own the resources to produce their own livelihood. Why? To strengthen the family (this is a very important “pro-family” text!), to give people the freedom to participate in shaping history, and to prevent the centralization of power and the oppression and totalitarianism that almost always  accompanies centralized ownership of land or capital by either the state or small elites.

From all this, Sider makes the conclusion that the Biblical concept of justice demands that “every person (or family) has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn [a living] and be dignified participating members in their community.”

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5 responses to “Jubilee and Christian Economics

  1. Check out the “Southern Agrarians”. The books “I’ll Take My Stand” (L.S.U. Press) and “Who Owns America?” (Herb Agar, Editor – ISIbooks). The Roman Catholic teaching of “Distributism” (G.K. Chesterton , H. Belloc) is similar. Both emphasise the widespread distribution of property to people, instead of State ownership and control of it. Thomas Jefferson was of this mind – small independent business owners and farmers. See also “Crunchy Cons” book by Rod Dhrer (last name spelling?) – link on http://www.amconmag.com Just my 2 “cents”, for what it’s worth.

    • I’ve read a lot of Chesterton and some Belloc, and I think distributism seems like an ideal “third way” economic system. I’ve often thought that Jefferson’s ideas would fit in well with the “3 Acres and a Cow” ideal, but I’ve never come across a serious writing that paired them together. I’ll definitely look into the other authors you mention.

      One of the most helpful books I’ve found on the theology of economics is Divine Economy by D. Stephen Long. He lists as his “third way” thinkers Alisdair MacIntyre, John Milbank and Thomas Aquinas.

  2. Rod Dreher is correct spelling.

  3. Fogleman Forerunner

    Interesting… but… how much & where? 3 acres in some places wouldn’t grow a decent garden, much less feed a cow. In other places, it might be an overwhelming responsibility… People have been fighting over land practically since the Tower of Babel. I don’t think we’ll get to try this solution until His return, but there are still some great concepts to glean & apply.

  4. Hey Nick,
    This is a really interesting entry.

    I have always wondered what would happen if the Jubilee principle was enacted out in the West today. One thing is for sure I guess is that our whole credit based economy would crash every 50 years and Canada would no longer have a monarch I guess.

    Although maybe that would be worth it to remove “the centralization of power and the oppression and totalitarianism that almost always accompanies centralized ownership of land or capital by either the state or small elites.” Perhaps the West needs some time to “considerable consequences [its] your actions.”

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