Economic Justice: A Theological Reflection by Dr.Jonathan Ingleby

Israelite slaves make bricks without straw

A warm thank you to Dr. Jonathan Ingleby for contributing the following article to our discussions on the importance of thinking and acting justly in every sphere of our lives. His book,  Beyond Empire is recommended reading on the Redcliffe MA program.

As far as economic injustice is concerned I believe that the enemy remains capitalism, and the human exploitation that inevitably goes with it. Because of the bad press that the communism of the twentieth century (not the genuine article!) has given to socialism, people have got out of the habit of identifying capitalism as the enemy, but the events of the past few years, especially since the financial collapse of 2008, have helped us to see this again more clearly. Yet, as Slavoj Žižek pointed out in a recent Guardian article (27.10.2011), it is one thing to blame the system, much more difficult to say what we want instead. Let me try, however.

Justice thrives when we love one another (1 John 3:17).  As a rule, we do not exploit those whom we truly love, rather we defend and support them.

Do not listen to those who claim that we can only have prosperity through competition, and that cooperation based on mutually agreed just arrangements (one definition of ‘love’ perhaps) stifles initiative. The Biblical witness (among others) is that justice and prosperity go together: fair arrangements are ultimately productive (Psalms 67, 72:1-7, Acts 4:32-25, 2 Corinthians 8:12-15). For every person who is spurred on by competition or fear of failure, a multitude fall by the wayside because they lack the opportunity to exercise their talents or because they fail to receive support and encouragement when they try to do so.

We do not like the idea of rules and ‘regulation’ is a dirty word among bankers and business people in general. Nevertheless we all live by rules – we agree to drive on the same side of the road in order to be free to proceed – and this applies to economics as much as anything else. For Christians this means willingly and gladly submitting to God’s economic rules (‘your kingdom come’). For society at large it ought to mean the rules we agree together as a community – rules intended to promote justice by preventing exploitation. An example would be the Jubilee legislation in the Old Testament, but John Maynard Keynes, for example, suggests that some sort of equalising arrangements are necessary in every society.

For nothing can preserve the integrity of contract between individuals except a discretionary authority in the State to revise what has become intolerable. The powers of uninterrupted usury are too great. If the accretions of vested interest were allowed to grow without mitigation for many generations, half the population would be no better than slaves to the other half. (Quote taken from  Robert Skidelsky’ s John Maynard Keynes, The Economist as Saviour 1920-37)

Rules need to be enforced, of course. In nineteenth century Britain the rules about working hours and child labour only began to be effective when there was a paid inspectorate that had ‘teeth’. This raises the vexed question of the nature of government. Governments tend to rule by force and fear, and this quickly leads to abuse. Once again we need a politics of love, and if this sounds impossibly utopian then it ought not to. Substituting small communities for big government might be a start.

In any case the purpose of government of whatever size or sort ought to be ‘justice making’ and ‘justice keeping’, with an emphasis on economic justice. Good government means supporting those who are being disadvantaged by the system. (See Keynes quote above.) It should be consistently ‘good news to the poor’. Notice how Jesus in his Nazareth manifesto (Luke 4:18,19) sees his mission as advocacy: ‘speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves’. Also his definition of the victims of society is entirely to do with economics. The captives are those who are debtors and too poor to pay their way out of prison; the blind and others with disabilities have no means of earning a living; ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ is a reference to the Jubilee, a notable re-balancing of economic fortunes in favour of the poor.

Finally, justice is always context specific. I have quoted freely from the Bible but only in an attempt to extract the principles of economic justice that we can apply to our own situation. Let me quote one more Biblical example. The Hebrews are slaves in Egypt and that is bad enough, but the crowning injustice is that they are required to make bricks without straw (Exodus chapter 5). In other words they are being asked to be productive without the means of being so. Just look around. How many of our contemporaries are being asked to contribute to our economic growth but are not being offered a living wage or a healthy environment or indeed a decent human existence?

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