by Elias Blum
‘Common Wealth’: A Biblically Rooted Alternative to Capitalism
The following is an extract from a statement issued by ‘Common Wealth: Christians for Economic and Social Justice’.
I’m re-posting it here so that it can be more widely publicised, gather more signatures, and inspire more action.
The Bible is not a simplistic set of facts or rules. We can find in its pages a variety of viewpoints about the value placed on wealth, and how people should organise their life together. The Bible needs to be interpreted, to speak to the context of our questions, dilemmas and passions today. Nevertheless, the Bible can still speak a word of judgement, a word of crisis, which calls our values, our economy and our politics to account.
We believe this is possible because there is guiding thread running through the scriptural story: the earth is created by God and belongs to God. It is a gift. And no amount of human power-grabbing can change that reality.
We therefore claim that there is a trajectory running through the Bible: from the created gift of the world to the laws which challenged debt enslavement and dispossession; from the wisdom tradition which looked sceptically on wealth and thankless labour, to the prophets who directly challenged the oppression of the poorest members of society, and the injustice handed out to paid workers; from the early Christian community, holding all in common, to the vision of a ‘New Jerusalem’, a world freed from exploitation.
For Christians, at the centre of this lies the person and story of Jesus. In his teachings, he reversed people’s assumptions about wealth, value, forgiveness and purity. In the way that took him to the cross, he confronted an imperial system keen to preserve its ideological and idolatrous status as the salvation and peace of the world. In the light of the resurrection, he offers a real peace, a shalom which embraces earth, body and spirit in community.
The law, the prophets and the gospels are complex texts. But they continually lead us to the point of scandal, where the sheer otherness of God and the sheer gratuity of God’s love pass judgement upon our worship of what is limited, and upon the ideologies and systems which keep the powerful in place at the expense of all others.
It is this point of scandal that we take as the interpretative clue to reading the scriptures in our day. In each particular context, communities will work out what that means for them, guided by the Spirit. What follows is simply suggestive of how we in the UK today might release the scriptures from their bondage to religious individualism and political conservatism.
It is clear that much of the Biblical tradition is very sceptical about the value of accumulated wealth, the basis upon which our contemporary system is built. Indeed, rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures is the notion that no one should have too much and no one should have too little.
Leviticus 25 makes clear that the primary resource for existence – land – is God’s. In verse 23 it says ‘the land shall not be sold in perpetuity because the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants’. No one should own too much and no one should be without for long. The earth’s resources should not be exploited excessively and should be managed to maintain an ecological balance (25:4).
Equally, accumulation of wealth and exploitation of labour is frowned upon: the year of Jubilee is proclaimed as a time for redistribution of wealth, the cancellation of debts, liberation from bonded labour and an acknowledgement that God hears the cry of the poor (Leviticus 25:39-43 and Deuteronomy 15:1-15).
The prophet Amos is clear about the need to be aware of how our standard of living may be built upon the back of exploitation and oppression (2:7) and Ezekiel 34 warns of the dangers of false leadership that seeks to ensure the maintenance of the property and profits of the rich at the expense of the poor. Isaiah is scathing about the hypocrisy of his society, in which economic injustice sat side by side with a false piety: ‘you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers . . . Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the things of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’ (58.3,6)
Jesus picks up on this tradition. We see in the synoptic gospels particularly, his radical appropriation of this concept of economic justice rooted in the Hebrew Bible. In Luke, drawing upon Isaiah 61, he proclaims himself at his opening sermon in Nazareth as bringing in Jubilee (4:16-21) and throughout his ministry and teachings he articulates what this means in living reality.
Pivotal examples include the story of the rich fool (12:13-21) where Jesus critiques accumulation; the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), where Jesus radically overturns assumptions about the rich when the poor man is named and the rich man goes unnamed. The judgment on the rich man in this story is not because he failed to offer charity to the man at his gate, but because of his role in building up his own wealth at the expense of pushing the likes of Lazarus into poverty and total destitution.
In this story Jesus raises the question: why did the rich man become so rich that he ate sumptuously every day and wore purple (an incredibly expensive dye at the time) and why did the poor man become so poor? The people listening to Jesus would have known the answer: the rich man accumulated land at the expense of impoverished peasants who then had to hire their labour and when work was scarce in the country moved to the city to find further work, often failing to do so and falling into increasing destitution. It is a story that is still lived out today throughout the world. The implication is that charity alone is an insufficient response, and may even mask the distorted relationships which are at the heart of inequality.
What was shocking to Jesus’ contemporaries in this story, and is equally shocking to our own wealth-obsessed culture, is that for Jesus it is not the rich who are spiritually blessed but the poor. This theme is continued in Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who asks him how to inherit eternal life (Luke 18:18-30). Jesus’ challenge to the rich questioner is to give all he has to the poor, again with the assumption that his wealth has been built on the exploitation of others. This ends in the rich man leaving with a heavy heart.
But the telling part of the engagement is what happens afterwards in the conversation with the disciples in which Peter, astounded when Jesus declares his pun about rich men, camels and needles, asks ‘ Who then can be saved?!’ Peter’s exclamation reveals a commonsense belief that the rich are blessed by God and the poor cursed. Jesus challenges this notion throughout his ministry by declaring the exact opposite, that is at the heart of the Biblical tradition: it is the poor who have favour with God and the rich who stand under God’s judgment. The early Christian song attributed to Mary celebrates this reversal: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1.52-53).
This is not simply about rich and poor exchanging places, but the transformation of the world to reflect God’s created gift. For example, Peter, who is so shocked by Jesus’ radical economics of salvation, becomes the leader of the early church communities in Acts (2:43-47), who live out Jubilee amongst themselves having been transformed through a living encounter with the risen Christ and filled with the power of His Holy Spirit. The ‘new creation’ of which Paul speaks is not just a collection of individuals who are saved, but a community which breaks bread together in justice and hope for liberation.
On the cross, Jesus stands in solidarity with those who have nothing but their own bodies: bodies upon which the forces of empire inscribe the wounds of servitude, suppression and fear. But he does not let these things have the final word. In utter helplessness, he reveals the other power that is God’s loving justice, the free gift of grace.
We believe this is God’s way, the ‘foolishness’ of God measured by the world’s standards, the weakness of God measured by the world’s strength. It has always been there, calling for a reversal of values, be it with the chosen people of Israel struggling to free themselves from slavery and build a new society, the Biblical Prophets calling that same people back to the economic justice of God or the early disciples of Jesus, those ‘people of the Way’ attempting to live the radical economics that he taught. The disciples knew through their experience of the resurrection that the commonwealth of God was actually on its way and sought to live it.
And this is the relevance we should seek today. For we are people of the resurrection who have been resurrected from the fatalism and lies of the false gods of death and destruction whose claim is that capitalism is the only way. We are people of hope who believe that God’s commonwealth will come. We seek to live it now in our faith communities. We join with others of goodwill beyond the church in supporting movements where people become agents of change for a world where no one has too much and no one has too little, a world on its way to the Common Wealth of God.
We draw our inspiration from deep wells. From the Hebrew Bible, from Jesus, from the early church, and from the radical traditions of Christianity represented by such movements as the Levellers. From the contemporary voices of liberation and ecofeminist theology which have named the forces which desecrate God’s earth and God’s people. Rumours that this tradition has died in the triumph of liberal capitalism are refuted each and every day by countless acts of resistance and solidarity across the globe. As people of resurrection, we affirm that God’s ‘Yes’ to creation can never be silenced.
This is why we make this call – as Theologians, Activists, Ministers, Contemplatives united in our faith in Christ – to our sisters and brothers in the faith to resist the lure of the Big Society and to work instead with those who resist the cuts to jobs and services and seek with others to build a movement for a radical social alternative.
We encourage Christians to:
• Sign this Statement and become part of the Common Wealth Network.
• Read and learn about arguments against the cuts and dominating myths about the need for debt reduction, e.g. http://www.redpepper.org.uk/Countering-the-cuts-myths
• Explore study material arguing for a radical Christian vision for economic justice, based on recovery of Biblical tradition. Check out the resources page on Common Wealth website [and see below].
• Support and work with local anti–cuts alliances and the national co-ordinating bodies facilitating resistance to the cuts for instance The Coalition of Resistance (http://www.coalitionofresistance.org.uk/)
• Support workers to struggle for ways to more fully participate in their own economic wellbeing and that of their co-workers.
• Oppose the waste that spends billions on weapons of mass destruction like the Trident missile system
• Seek ways to share our wealth from rich churches to ones based in poorer communities in funding projects to alleviate the worst excesses of the cuts and to assist organizing grassroots community organized resistance
• Support initiatives like Church Action on Poverty (http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/) and its community organising arm ChangeMakers, empowering local communities often at the brunt of the cuts in public services and welfare benefits to speak and act for themselves.
• Find creative ways to resist the cuts and witness to God’s Common Wealth of Economic & Social Justice
The full statement is downloadable on the Common Wealth site as a Word document.
If you would like to be a signatory to the statement and become a supporter of the Common Wealth network, email your details to: email@example.com