Sunday, August 27, 2006

Social Justice

It's striking that in different parts of the world, Christianity is seen as strongly associated with different political ideologies. In the US, it's usually seen as associated with right-wing republicanism. In South America, it's usually seen as associated with left-wing liberationism. In the UK, at least since WW2, it's often seen as associated with moderate socialism. Part of that of course, is to do with what the issues of the day are in those countries and what the traditions of Christianity that are dominant in those countries say on those issues.

So, in the US for example, the dominant issue often seems to be the Culture Wars – one group trying to liberalise culture in issues of homosexual rights, teaching of evolution, etc and the other side trying to make it more conservative on issues of abortion, etc. I do have things I think about that (and it is not the classic US Christian Right view), but they can with for another time. Instead, I'd like to give a quick outline on what I read the Bible as saying about social justice.

A large proportion of the Bible's teaching on this is aimed specifically at the context of Ancient Israel, which was an overwhelmingly subsistence-level agricultural Iron-Age society. But there are some good general principles.

For a start, all Israelites had land, which was seen as belonging to that family, in some sense, for ever. So they could sell the land, but it reverted back to them after a period. In essence, they had an inalienable and unsellable freehold on the land. If they went completely into debt, they could sell their land and even sell themselves into servitude, but in both cases they became free automatically (unless they ask not to!) and their land went back to their possession automatically. This meant that everyone who could work was able to work to produce their own food. It's not state handouts – it can't create a culture of dependency.

Because land was usually, but not always, held by the (male) heads of family, it was possible for people to “fall out” of the system – the widows, the fatherless, etc. There were therefore specific laws forbidding farmers from harvesting their own crops too thoroughly and giving the dispossessed the right to “clean up” after them. So even the least in society get provided with food, but need to work for it.

The whole idea of land being tied to families also means that the idea of the family is very important. So if there were elderly people who could not work, or young children, or disabled people, etc, they were cared for primarily by their family – who they're less likely to take advantage of. There wasn't any concept of “state handouts”, but there was a lot of legal support and protection for the family, to the extent that crimes “against the family” were punished very severely.

It's interesting thinking about how this applies to modern systems of social security, for example. It puts a great ideal forwards – that everyone should be supported by their own work or by that of their family. All too often, left-wing systems emphasise that “everyone should be supported” and create a culture of sponging dependency, whereas right-wing systems emphasise that it should be “by their own work” and allow people to fall through the gaps. The system in ancient Israel (about 3000 years ago) seems to avoid both dangers.


Anonymous said...

You're showing genuine radical tendencies here, Custard and I congratulate you for it! Yes, there's lots of scare stories about the big-bad-boogeyman American Christian Right, who's major 'sin' appears to be that they are anti-homosexuality. I am in favour of people sleeping with whomsoever they choose and homosexual Rights in general, even to the point of supporting some form of gay marriage. What sickens me about critics of the American Christian Right is their refusal to apply the same standards universally, hiding behind a load of multicultural tosh. However, what is of more interest to me is that the sermons delivered during the few times I have attended churches, of various denominations, over the last few years is that the message has been one of bashing Western culture. Not always directly, but the message is clear all the same. This is why I cheer every statistic I read about the decline in numbers attending Christian churches in the UK.


John said...

My views on sex are probably different to yours!

Having said that, I see no reason why non-Christians shouldn't sleep with whoever they want to sleep with, as long as it's consensual and doesn't mess up other people's marriages.

John said...

It's also worth saying that I think the point of preaching is far more to explain the Bible passage and challenge the people who are listening rather than just attacking soft targets in a way that doesn't do any good.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a left-winger, I do not advocate a culture of sponging dependency. However, there are times when people need support and they do not necessarily have family who can provide it. To let these people founder seems wrong not to mention profoundly unChristian. In the US, the gap between the top wage earners and the bottom rung has risen to an atrocious level. Big executives here earn multi-million dollar salaries while those at the bottom earn about $6-7 an hour. That is not even subsistence living. So if anything goes wrong - their old rattletrap car breaks down, their job gets axed because the corporation is cutting costs, someone in the family gets sick, or what have you, those people are completely screwed.

I mean, I guess it would be Darwinian and so forth to just let them work it out as best as they could. And Calvin (was that Calvin?) might approve since if God liked them they wouldn't be poor to begin with.

Jesus never said anything against homosexuality. So why is that part of the OT important while the rest of Leviticus and so on is tossed out?

John said...

And so we get to the nub of the problem when applying it to today.

We'd agree that people shouldn't sponge off the state, and we'd agree that people shouldn't be able to "fall through gaps". The question is how we can manage both of those, and that is a very difficult question.

I was simply pointing out that the laws of ancient Israel, c 1000BC, seem aware of this problem and seem to have solved it. How could we apply that to the contemporary US or UK? Don't know.

Anonymous said...

May I recommend the following book on which the website link below is based which discusses the problem you outline in detail:

I was raised on a council estate, where some of the parents of the children I knew hardly ever worked. Some of these children also have never worked, other than sporadically and many of the girls took the 'get preganant, get a council house of their own, never work' career path. Over this same time period we have witnessed a massive dissolution of 'traditional' families. Why did this happen and why does it continue? The Law of Unintended Consequences certainly plays a part owing to the economic incentives welfare created. But the discussion has many other factors to it. As with all such issues I recommend studying the available evidence in this country, and looking at comparable situations in other countries. The American author Thomas Sowell's books 'the Vision of the Annointed' and Basic Economics'are a good starting point. You are welcome to borrow my copies!
A previous comment highlighted the gap between rich and poor in the USA. It is worth bearing in mind whenever this issue is raised that the bottom 10% in the USA are wealthier than the bottom 10% in Sweden (in real terms, and that's before the tax is taken into account) despite Sweden's propensity for redistributative taxation. For many the relative gap between poor and rich is more important than the alleviation of poverty in absolute terms.