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The Trouble with Economic Equality

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Editor’s note: Joel Penner offers an alternate perspective to the column “Abundance in a Covenant Economy” (September 2012) by Chandra Pasma.

The problem with worshiping at the altar of equality is that materialism makes a poor idol.

Let’s take a closer look at the Old Testament concept of Israel’s years of restoration and Jubilee. That slaves and debts were freed and forgiven every seventh year signified an amortization limit of seven years for any loan. Knowing that restoration would occur every seventh year, those who offered themselves as collateral against a loan were actually being sold into a form of indentured labor. They knew the date they would be freed.

In the year of Jubilee, land—and it was the land with its attendant improvements only, not the sheep, goats, or anything portable—was to be restored to its previous owner. This meant that all transactions involving land were only long-term leases. The fact that a long-term lease was considered a “sale” indicates a single monetary transaction. Any amount of money owing that was greater than someone’s ability to pay would have to be paid back before restoration—meaning that the land could be leased for 50 years for a loan having a seven-year amortization, leaving 43 years of production for profit.

Such arrangements would have prevented credit-fueled speculative bubbles, but they also placed a much greater emphasis on portable wealth. Although credit was limited, down payments with accumulated portable wealth on speculative profits could be fantastic, so speculative bubbles could still occur. Back then, banking would not have been a protected industry. The lowly would not have been expected to bail out anyone stupid enough to loan out past the seventh year.

But some categories of people born into the covenant community were actively excluded from inheriting land: women and the fatherless. Any child born out of wedlock, even to Jewish parents, would not have been considered legitimate, and therefore would never receive a portion of land. This created a huge underclass of poor and needy people without recourse. As well, the laws of primogeniture ensured that eldest sons got a double portion, leaving later-born sons with little in comparison.

So I cannot believe the Old Testament could be a model of outcome equality. Outcome equality only occurs when we actively punish inequality through wealth redistribution. This is not mandated by God, nor does it lead to a just society.

We all know of people who, through no fault of their own, are experiencing the ravages of original sin. Clearly people who suffer grievous injury or disease should not be treated the same as someone never having to face those challenges. Sometimes a person just needs a second chance. People have different needs: so, for example, expecting a pregnant woman to lift heavy objects repeatedly just because that’s what her coworkers are expected to do is simply not acceptable. That kind of “procedural equality” simply does not grasp the essence of a godly and just society.

Far from being a template of Marxist-style wealth redistribution with its attendant class warfare, the Old Testament portrays God instituting the concepts of forgiveness, restoration, and understanding. Forgiveness of sins that lead to enslavement. Restoration back into the covenant community. Understanding our own fallibility and need of grace within the law.

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