Thursday, September 20, 2012

Two Visions: Redistribution or Accumulation


We have all by now heard the video of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressing his contempt for the 47% who, he says, are dependent on government  and who believe they are “victims” and that they are entitled to government provided food, housing, etc. The Romney campaign has responded with a video of then Senator Obama in 1998 stating that he believes in some form of redistribution of resources because everyone should “have a shot” at making it in a country like ours.

Both candidates will inevitably downplay these statements, but in my estimation they reflect two fundamentally different visions based on diametrically opposed values and priorities.

My contention is that President Obama’s statement is completely congruent with the heart and core of Judeo-Christian faith, while Romney’s is antithetical.

In the wisdom and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, God is often pictured as the champion of the poor (e.g., Ps. 12:5; 14:6, etc.), and the prophets frequently rail against Israel’s religious and political leaders for their oppression of the poor (e.g., Isa. 3:14–15; Isa. 58:3; Amos 2:6–7; etc.). In this literature, the accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of the poor often go hand-in-hand. Also, it was written into Israel’s legislature to take care of the needs of the poor. The Torah made clear that it was the responsibility of the nonpoor to provide for the poor (Deut. 15:7–11; 24:10–15; 24:19–22).

One of the most striking provisions aimed at the just and equitable distribution of resources was the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10). Every fiftieth year the land reverted back to its original owner. If people had lost their land through bankruptcy, it was restored to them. This provision was designed to reduce poverty and circumvent the ever-widening gap that occurs in most economic systems between the wealthy and the poor. These people of faith believed that benevolence could not be left to the personal whims and wishes of the rich. Jubilee integrated the spiritual, social, and economic dimensions of life into one piece.

Luke’s Gospel captures the spirit and trajectory of the Jubilee legislation in a statement of Jesus’ mission, where Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth and applies the reading to himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19, NRSV).

Most interpreters agree that Jesus was not calling for a specific program of social and economic reform, but without question, he was casting a social vision based on the ethics of distributive justice within the Hebrew tradition. His announcement of God’s reign was permeated by the spirit of Jubilee and the equitable principles of justice incorporated into Israel’s covenant with God.

Jesus spoke frequently of the dangers of wealth (e.g., Matt. 6:19–21, 24; Mark 10:17–25, etc.) even pronouncing blessing on the poor and woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20–26). At least on one occasion, according to Luke’s portrait, Jesus told his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33, NIV). Jesus taught that to whom much is given, much is required.

The spirit of giving and redistribution pervaded the first community of Jesus’ disciples as depicted in the book of Acts:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45, NRSV).

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 2:32, NRSV).

When the Apostle Paul revisited the churches he had established in the Mediterranean world, a major component of his mission was to collect money for the poor disciples in Jerusalem. He put enormous pressure on the church at Corinth to contribute to this work (see 2 Cor. 8–9). He encouraged them: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (9:12). Paul was encouraging some redistribution of resources to meet the needs of God’s impoverished people in Jerusalem.

It is inconceivable that followers of Jesus would not believe in or practice some form and degree of redistribution. This is true because disciples of Christ are to be driven by compassion and love for all God’s children, especially the most vulnerable.

Any government that cares about its citizens, no matter what its economic and political system, will practice some form of redistribution. It is inconceivable that a democratic government grounded in “we the people” and pervaded by Judeo-Christian ethical principles would not practice some form of redistribution.

America has always had some fondness for the idea. Under the title “Robin Hood-themed films and TV series” ranging from the 1900’s to the present, Wikipedia lists sixty-three entries. In August, President Obama drew on this image to critique  Romney’s economic policies, which gut programs and curtail resources that assist the poor while giving tax breaks to the extremely wealthy. He said, “It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. It’s Romney Hood.” The popularity of this mythological character captures some of our nation’s hopes and dreams for a more just, fair, equitable society.

This election sets before us two visions that will, in some measure, determine who we as a people want to be. Will we decide to be a greedy people, focused on our own little nest egg, driven to accumulate more and more for our personal benefit? Or will we be a generous people, focused on the needs of others, driven to redistribute some of our resources for the common good of all God’s children?

In the video that is circulating now, President Obama (at the time, Senator Obama) says that he believes in some redistribution so that all persons “have a shot” at a flourishing life. I do too. I don’t see how a follower of Christ cannot.


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