The Faith & Redistribution

Michael O. Emerson wrote an article about redistribution on the Urban Faith website and Ed Gilbreath put up a post asking for comments on the merits of redistribution. From the responses, and the anecdotal rejections I often hear about redistribution, it seems that many equate our current system of American capitalism with a Biblical precedent.

Emerson and those like myself who see vast inequities and how we distribute money suggest that everyone should make a flat rate. I am in Graduate school and plan to pursue a Ph.D., and I expect to make more than some of my friends who decided not to go to high school, but not several times as much. I don’t deserve 100,000 if my friend who is a garbage man, with his family of four is only making 25,000. Why should I be able to purchase luxuries – even if modest – when my fellow citizen can barley make all of his payments, transfers healthcare from family member to family member (I had to do that growing up, it is stressful not being able to go to the dentist or doctor and praying no one gets hurt or sick), etc. The issue isn’t that people are paid differently it is that the scale is so inexplicably wide.

Personally, I don’t understand how one can claim that our system is sufficient when most of those who make minimum wage can’t even make enough to stay out of poverty. I also don’t understand how the dramatic economic disparity in the US (more than any other industrialized country) can be looked upon so flippantly. In order to support that view one must be willing to say that all of those in or close to the federal poverty level (which is a several thousand dollars lower than what it should be) are lazy, irresponsible, and undeserving.

The Faith and Redistribution

Theologically the Bible gives a good argument for redistribution (sabbatical year, year of jubilee, tithing, gleaning etc.) and says a lot about lopsided systems (Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea and the other prophets). The Bible doesn’t speak so much about us being charitable, but about us being just. If we are in a system that is unjust – which I believe we are – we don’t fix that by have unbalanced pay scales and then allowing those that can afford it to simple give their money away. What God commands is that we have a government and society which is justice focused and beyond mere charity. *

There is also a role for a joint effort of Government and Church in redistribution and further in areas of social justice. Let me establish a fictitious example to prove this point. If in 1810 White Baptist churches in America said that American slavery was unbiblical and Baptist Christians decided to free all their slaves that would have been a significant and proper response. But, if White Baptist Christians really believed that Blacks were as important and truly equal to Whites they would additionally pursue creating a government that treated Blacks as humans and afforded them their civil rights. The White Baptist church shouldn’t wait for the government. The Church should influence – by example and legislation – the government to be just. I think the same can be said was far redistribution goes. Christians (especially evangelical) have no problem advocating abstinence or a pro-life position in the public square, why can’t we advocate for a financially just society?

Financial Benefits

There are also certain financial benefits that come from redistribution. Although we often think of economics as linear, in reality they are dynamic and complex. We all are socially and financially connected. Let me give two quick examples.

Poor communities often have higher crime rates. More money is put into enforcement of those areas and even if the money is not put in there, police officers are taken away from other responsibilities to be in the neighborhood. If the neighborhood has more financial stability it would probably have less crime and then the police could spend additional time policing other areas of the city and being more effective in the entire city. Additionally, criminals from these neighborhoods go to jail and prison, are put though the legal system, and never make it out to put money back into the economy. Imagine even half of the criminals that are in jail making money, spending money and being POSITIVE, influences in the world.

Poor communities have low high school graduation rates. This leads to young adults who don’t contribute as much as they could to the economy and are overall not working at their highest potential (this doesn’t mean every student needs to go to college to have a good life, I think that is a great American misperception).

Redistribution may be a departure from the norm, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong. We need to further examine which ways our economy represents Christianity and which ways it represents Americanism. We are wrapped up in a system and systems can be as unjust and unbiblical as individuals. When system becomes unjust we must work both on the system and the individual so that God might be glorified.

    • colleen
    • January 22nd, 2009

    I have been thinking alot about this lately and what it means as a Christian I don’t quite know where I stand anymore. However, I read this example somewhere and would like to know what you think

    Say you have a normal classroom of students. Some get ‘A’s by working hard or it just comes easier, some get ‘F’s by not caring or not being able, the rest are just average ‘C’s also for the same reasons. The teacher decides to redistribute the grades; those with ‘A’s give those to the ‘F’ students in exchange of ‘C’s for everyone. Where is the incentive for the ‘A’ student to keep studying or the ‘F’ student to even start?

    Now my thought is that this redistribution works in a society where all the ‘A’s come from kids where it is just easy and all the ‘F’s are from the inability to learn, etc. But in a society where a majority comes from hard work versus not caring how do you not end up with apathy on both ends.

    I also came from a very poor childhood; mainly because that is how my father LIKED it. Least amount of work for the bare minimum of what made him happy.

    P.S. LOVE your blog, found it through Holly at Indian Corn.

    P.P.S. I also think there are some scriptural aspects to reconsider such as the Year of Jubilee was ever 50 years and gave back to a poor person what was once theirs not of your own wealth, and tithing went only to the Levites not to the poor.

    • Thanks for the response :). I love conversation and thought – that is code for keep commenting. I am glad you enjoy the blog, I actually get a little nervous about it.

      I don’t want people to lose motivation, but I think there is something different between striving to do you best in school and choosing an occupation that simply isn’t as prestigious. I have friends who are HARD workers, but they don’t want to Ph.D, they aren’t lazy they just have different desires.

      I think it is a disservice to say that those who have higher degrees with higher paying jobs work harder or have higher initiative. I don’t think you are saying that, but I think that is what is suggested when many talk about someone working hard. I know maintenance people and secretaries that LOVE their job – like your father did – and work hard doing things that I don’t want to and can’t do. Just because I may have a higher degree with a more prestigious job doesn’t mean I should make more. Does that make sense?

      For me, I see redistribution as a method towards justice rather than an end itself. And when I am suggesting Redistribution, in this instance, it is more of a changing of who we create wages. Redistribution for its own sake is socialism and I don’t think that is what God wants either.

      I have heard and read various thoughts/views on both the Year of Jubilee and Tithing. Although some contend the the Levites only received the tithe some suggest that they were also given to the poor, also some suggest that there was a three year tithe in which a tenth of land was given away. The year of Jubilee freed slaves, returned land, and forgave debts – imagine if the banks did that . I would argue that much of what we have is at the cost of another and was at one time the property of another. Its more complex than taking over land, it is destroying local markets, international “slave labor” etc.

      I don’t think that we need to necessarily adhere to the Old Testament techniques, the cultural and societal context is completely different and trying emulate the OT may create some issues. What I do think is that he Bible sets a precedent and way of thinking about what we have and how we give.

      Sorry for the long response.

    • Bethany
    • January 22nd, 2009

    I watched a 20/20 special about a year ago that talked about which countries were the happiest. Denmark came out on top, and one of the things they said contributed to the happiness was that people received equal pay for their jobs. If you wanted to be a garbage man, you could work hard at that and get paid the same as a doctor. On the other hand, people who don’t contribute at all, don’t get freebies.

    I, personally, like that system a lot. The “A” workers don’t get pulled down to a “C” and the “F” workers don’t get a raise for nothing. The government just recognizes that not everyone is called to be a CEO.

    • colleen
    • January 23rd, 2009

    I truly agree to a point but there is certain things that doctors do and have done that a garbage man didn’t do. Delayed gratification of wages and fun and extra expenditures involved with schooling are the first that come to mind. Unless being a doctor was an obsession why spend an extra 8-12 years without pay and incure hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt if you could get a GED and make as much as a garbage collector at 17. My uncle started his own business as such he makes pretty good money, more than my sister who works for him and she does work VERY hard. However, he got a 2nd college degree and went 5 years without income until the business started to succeed. Why would he do that if their was now back end incentive?

    How do we as a society and as Christians keep sinful, selfish human beings motivated to achieve and succeed beyond instant gratification that is necessary to a flourishing society? I know people who have lived in socialized countries (Germany, England and Finland) it isn’t as great as we like to think. In Finland jeans cost so much the whole middle class family was in on the purchase. On the other hand the American lifestyle of accumulating “stuff” such as 30 pairs of jeans for each family member drives me crazy. I do sometimes think that socialization would force Christians in America to focus on the right things again.

    • colleen
    • January 23rd, 2009

    You also said that the US has the largest disparity of income of westernized nations. Does this number account for or ignore illegal immigrant wages? This would be an unatural number that most other countries do not contend with.

    • Colleen,

      I think that illegal immigrants play a part, but illegal immigrants aren’t usually factored in those stats. Especially those that are receiving inordinately low pay because those transactions are usually under the table. Also, I don’t think there are enough illegal immigrants to really skew the stats considerable.

      I agree with your comments from the previous post. I do think there should be some difference and incentive. Although some would simply work for the love of he work, not everyone will and we have to be real about that. My issue is the degree of difference rather than the difference itself. I should make more money when I earn a Ph. D but I don’t think I need to make 100,000 while my garbage man makes 25,000 (I am just making up a scale). I would like to see something more like 80,000 and 35,000. That doesn’t take away the difference, but lessens the difference.

  1. I am glad someone is talking about this.

    I grew up poor in North Phila. and was blessed to get two degrees because a local church believed in me and helped me.

    When I think about redistribution, I also think about service (although I know you are talking about financally).

    Whether we can fit the exact Old Testament principles into our modern day system isnt the point. The point is throughout the Scriptures, God tells us to helped the oppressed, the fatherless, the widows, etc. Redistribution offends some American Christians for the same reason that American racism isn’t taken seriously: people walk around really believing that the ground is level through and through.

    Ron Sider wrote a book talking about tithing among evangelicals and Christians and shows that (through his studies) that we spend much of our money on programs that benefit ourselves. That alone points to part of the problem: we will sacrifice out of our abundance but not out of our poverty. As long as this exists, I wonder if we can ever have a meaningful conversation about redistribution.

    One other point. I wonder if redistrbution does not seem sexy enough for mission minded Christians. If it is about justice, it is about equality. Dont we prefer to give to people who have no chance of catching up with us financially (such as giving that goes toward mission work)?

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