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Memo to Presidential Candidates: Redistribution of Wealth Is a Divine Commandment

A growing number of scholars, preachers and laypeople are exploring what has been a largely marginalized part of the biblical tradition. Some have labeled this tradition "Sabbath economics."
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Once again, the U.S. presidential election process is marked by the peculiar American interplay of religion and politics. As in the past several campaigns, conservative Christians are a prize voting bloc: Since the beginning of the campaign, we have witnessed the various Republican candidates vigorously vying for their votes, plying their respective pieties and accentuating their evangelical credentials.

Interestingly, the religious vote is highly prized despite the fact that the usual social issues that are the evangelicals' bread and butter -- abortion, traditional marriage -- are taking a decidedly backseat to urgent economic issues during these trying times of prolonged recession. (Though the current bizarre controversy over birth control may be shifting the terrain a bit.) That hardly means that those on the religious right aren't raising their voices. A subtext in much of the political discourse seems to be a kind of "biblical economics." Conservative Christians are among the most fervent defenders of the free market, which they see as divinely mandated; they are likewise among the most vituperative opponents of any socialist redistribute-the-wealth schemes, which, one might infer from their criticisms, are nothing short of satanic.

President Obama himself stoked the flames of controversy a few weeks back at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he underscored a biblical basis for his policies, including his suggestion that raising taxes on the most affluent Americans "coincides with Jesus's teaching that 'for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'" Not surprisingly, his words raised the theological and political ire of many Christian leaders. Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition called the President's connection of his tax policy to Jesus's teachings "theologically threadbare and straining credulity." Columnist Cal Thomas suggested it was Marxist, not biblical. "Abuse and mangling of Scripture" were common critiques from Obama's religiously minded antagonists.

In fact, the Bible has plenty to say about economics, but it is more radical than what either conservatives or liberals usually assert.

In recent years, a growing number of scholars, preachers and laypeople -- both Jewish and Christian -- have been exploring what has been a largely marginalized part of the biblical tradition, namely the economic vision articulated in the covenant code of the ancient Israelites. Some have labeled this tradition for shorthand "Sabbath economics."

The Torah recounts how the ragtag group of liberated slaves was gifted by the liberating God Yahweh at Mt. Sinai with a blueprint for being a holy community -- the covenant. We are all familiar with the Ten Commandments, what we might call the "preamble" to the broader constitution. Christians especially tend to disregard much of the 350-plus laws that follow (spelled out a bit loosely through Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Included among the seemingly arcane regulations on such matters as liturgy, diet, hygiene, relationships and conflict resolution is a remarkable set of coherent teachings laying out the economic practices for biblical Israel.

The teachings explicitly build on the pre-Sinai episode of manna (Exodus 16), in which the wandering Israelites are instructed to take as much of the divinely given foodstuff as they need, neither too much nor too little, and are at the same time given the command to observe the Sabbath day of rest. Both commands -- "Take what you need, no more," and "Balance work with rest" -- are the beginning of subversive unraveling of the world of empire under which the Israelites had been enslaved and oppressed. They point to the new, holy social order that is being birthed.

The economic teachings of the covenant, then, begin by expanding the seven-day cycle of Sabbath to the seventh year -- the Sabbatical Year -- when the entire community is to let the land lie fallow, forgive all debts, and free all slaves or bondservants (Lev. 25:1-7, Deut. 15). The land was to be given a periodic rest, and any tendencies toward creeping oppression or bondage were to be released. Then, every seventh of seven years was the Jubilee Year, in which, in addition to the sabbatical provisions, the land was to be redistributed back to the original tribes and families (Lev. 25:8-54). The covenant included this systemic hedge against excessive inequities in the community. All these practices were rooted in a fundamental principle: The earth is the Lord's -- not Pharoah's -- and is given graciously and abundantly to the people. (Other critical obligations of the covenantal community were the practice of gleaning -- leaving the edges of fields unplowed so that those who were poor or sojourning through the land could take of the harvest for their sustenance -- and the care of widows, orphans and sojourners.)

Wait, did it really say that? Redistribute the land, which in that agricultural community was essentially the wealth? Are God's people commanded to -- gasp! -- redistribute wealth? Could that possibly be in the Bible, along with not committing adultery and not worshipping idols?

"Redistribute the wealth" -- few words are more noxious or notorious to American sensibilities. No notion is more blasphemous to our free market ideology. And yet, God said it, and, the believer must assume, God means it.

Skeptical scholars have sought to diminish the import of these teachings by arguing that Israel never "fully practiced" this Sabbath economics vision. Of course, neither have God's people ever "fully practiced" the Ten Commandments, but we don't question their authority as divine mandates. And of course, it is argued, contemporary society is fundamentally different than the ancient tribal kinship system of the Israelites. So one can question whether these teachings have any relevance for us today.

Or, for religious Americans who claim to take seriously the Bible as a revelation of God's will (and conservative U.S. Christians are hardly shy in making such an assertion), perhaps we need to do some serious wrestling here. God's holy people are clearly and undeniably commanded to redistribute their holdings, to ensure that inequities of wealth and poverty do not corrode their community, to make sure that none of God's precious children have less than they need or more than they need.

In fact, thousands of faithful persons in our society are hungering for deeper meaning in the thralls of materialism and the economic imperative to get ahead. Many are asking tough questions about fundamental injustices in our global economic system (including the resonance of many people of faith with the message of the Occupy Movement -- the obscenity of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent). Even many conservative Christians have begun to question the moral and spiritual challenge of consumerism. Wrestling to free themselves from the bondage of debt, stress and overwork, many in our society, church folk included, are seeking to simplify their lives -- to live "more with less." More and more people, seeking liberation from our own structural Egypt, are experimenting in such economic alternatives as food co-ops, credit unions, community reinvestment funds, co-housing and intentional communities. Numerous Christians and others are "going green," finding ways to live and consume within ecologically responsible limits.

But beyond personal and communal practice, what could Sabbath economics mean in our political witness? Maybe we need to risk a little "class warfare" rhetoric and question whether the gaping economic inequities in America are not in fact both social and spiritual crises. (Jesus' own momma wasn't above a little class warfare in Luke 1: "You have filled the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.") Maybe we need to engage in a more radical critique of the assumptions of the free market and the American dream.

Maybe we can liven up the next debate by asking the presidential candidates, all wearing their religion on their sleeves, about how they would work to implement God's command to redistribute the wealth and make sure all citizens have enough, not too little, not too much, in oh-so-biblical America.

All right, maybe not this campaign. But the ancient vision beckons -- sacred and wise. May we immerse ourselves in this story and, with God's grace, learn how to bear witness in our modern-day Egypt.