This month, The Banner published a response to an article I wrote last year about income inequality, Abundance in a Covenant Economy. I thought about sending a rebuttal to The Banner, but given that it took them a year to publish this response, I thought mine might not appear until next September, and the whole conversation might not wrap up for another ten years.

The response by Joel Penner was an exercise in missing the point, although I’ll give Penner the benefit of the doubt, since after a year even I had to go back to the magazine to remember what I’d written. But while he fails to refute any of my arguments, he makes a number of problematic assertions himself in arguing that God is actually opposed to economic equality. That is what I want to address here.

As I understand him (and I appreciate the challenges of making a cogent argument in 600 words!), Penner’s arguments are as follows:

  • Pursuing greater equality is the pursuit of materialism;
  • Jubilee and Sabbath as they were practiced in Israel did not lead to greater equality; and
  • Income equality=outcome equality=procedural equality and thereby treats people unfairly by failing to distinguish special needs.

Let me deal with each of these in turn.

Pursuing equality=materialism

Penner starts his rebuttal by stating “The problem with worshiping at the altar of equality is that materialism makes a poor idol.” It’s interesting that he immediately equates advocating for greater equality with worshiping equality, but let’s set that aside for the moment to focus on the more glaring problem.

In linking equality with materialism, Penner has constructed a false equivalency. The real concern about income inequality is not that people at the bottom lack “stuff,” but its impact on a wide range of social issues. As I wrote in my original Banner article, “[Richard] Wilkinson’s and [Kate] Pickett’s research shows that unequal societies suffer from more health problems, higher mortality rates, more crime, more drug abuse, more teen pregnancies, and worse educational outcomes at every income level when compared with a more equal society. So even those with plenty of money are worse off when they live in an unequal society.”

This is because while there are very concrete negative consequences associated with being poor (such as being unable to access nutritious food or pay for medications), most of the impact of income inequality happens at a psychosocial  level. People fare worse when they feel unfavourably compared to others, no matter how good their own situation is. This is how we end up with billionaires suing Forbes for allegedly understating their net worth on the list of the world’s richest people. It doesn’t matter that they’re in the top 0.00001%; they still feel diminished compared to others who are wealthier.*

In fact, reducing income inequality might mean less materialism, not more. People embrace consumerism and materialism for a variety of reasons, but one of them is certainly status competition in a hierarchical society. When everyone is judging you for not wearing trendy clothes, driving a new car, having a big house, and acquiring all of the latest technology, it takes enormous strength of character to resist the pressure to consume, and few people manage it. Toning down the social competition and focusing on caring relationships would allow everyone to consume less and still feel good about themselves.

This is one of several false equivalences Penner makes throughout the article. One, which we’ll deal with below, is that talking about income inequality is the same as “outcome equality.” Another is that reducing income inequality is “Marxist-style wealth redistribution with its attendant class warfare.” Never mind the fact that nearly all developed countries in the world today practice income redistribution through progressive income tax systems, nor that the Nordic countries, which practice the highest degree of redistribution, are among the most happiest countries in the world, according to self-reported indicators of well-being. It’s easier to argue against a straw man than to tackle the issue head on.

Jubilee and Sabbath didn’t create greater equality

Next, Penner argues that as they were practiced, Jubilee and Sabbath did not create greater equality because knowing that an end date was coming, land sales actually represented leases and slavery was really indentured servitude**  and because women and illegitimate children were excluded from inheriting land.

However, I think this line of reasoning overlooks several crucial factors. First of all, it is true that in Israel, as opposed to other ancient states where occasional debt remission occurred, there were clear end dates set for any debt, indentured servitude, or land transaction. Thus, anyone offering a loan to someone else and accepting indentured servitude or land in exchange knew that the transaction was temporary, and could price it according to the amount of time they would benefit. However, to argue that Jubilee and Sabbath therefore played no role in periodically resetting social hierarchies is ignoring the evidence of what happened when Sabbath and Jubilee were not practiced. (I should note that scholars are quite divided on the extent to which they were ever practiced.) During the lifetime of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Micah, the rich accumulated wealth without limits while oppressing the poor, leading to multiple denouncements from the prophets and this warning from Isaiah:  “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.” (Isaiah 5: 8, NIV)

(It’s also interesting to note that the Bible offers strict guidelines for pricing sales, depending on the length of time to the next Jubilee. This suggests an economic principle more concerned with fairness than with supply and demand.)

Second, this argument utterly ignores the context for Jubilee and Sabbath, which is plainly laid out in the Torah. With regard to Jubilee, God reminds Israel that the Promised Land belongs to him and he is offering it to them as a gift:  “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”  (Leviticus 25:23) Land, which in an agrarian society like Israel represented not only wealth but livelihood, was not something to be hoarded by the powerful, but a gift from God to be shared equally by all of God’s chosen people.

Deuteronomy makes it plain that Sabbath is primarily about addressing the needs of the poor: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) Not only were indentured servants to be released, they were to be given generous gifts to allow them to re-establish themselves in the community: “And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed.  Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you.” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14) In addition to releasing people from their debts, the passage calls for people to not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted with those who are in need, but to be open-handed and lend freely.  (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

So it’s a bit rich to pretend that Sabbath and Jubilee were merely rules about collateral for loans and had nothing to do with wealth and poverty. They were primarily about wealth and poverty. As Dr. Gary Hauch notes, “If the commandments in Deuteronomy 15 are carefully followed, together with the other commandments that God has given, then as part of God’s blessing announced in verse 4, “there will be no one in need among you.” Astonishing! Equally astonishing is when the early believers in Acts 4 responded to the Spirit’s prompting and shared their possessions with each other (an act that mirrors the compassionate generosity Deuteronomy 15 calls for), “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.” (see Acts 4:32-35). But new needs arose in the early church as they did in ancient Israel. And because of this, the practice of radical generosity that informs the commands in Deuteronomy 15 and the Spirit’s leading in Acts 4 must be enacted again and again.”

However, as Penner accurately notes, two groups of people born into the covenant community of Israel were excluded from inheriting land, leaving them on the margins: women and the fatherless. The Bible also specifically excludes foreigners from the remission of debts and liberation from slavery. This is a difficult part of the passage for us today. God did provide specific measures to allow those excluded from the economic system to put food on their table – the practice of gleaning, for instance – and the Old Testament prophets frequently admonished people to defend the rights of and provide justice to widows and orphans. But if God was so concerned about the poor and the powerless, then why allow Israel to have a patriarchal, xenophobic economic system that emphasized being male, being Israelite, and being born in the right circumstances?

This isn’t a question that there are easy or flippant answers to, but I think that it helps to think of redemption (or sanctification) in ever-expanding circles, rather than as one moment in time. Out of a patriarchal society that still practices slavery comes the promise “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28) In a nation where only men are allowed to inherit land, five daughters petition Moses to be able to receive their father’s land and God rules in their favour, changing the laws to allow daughters to inherit. (Numbers 27:1-11) This might make us stop and think about who we are excluding today, no matter what legal justification we might be using, that should also be included in God’s covenant circle.

Income equality=outcome equality=procedural equality

Finally, Penner concludes that “I cannot believe that the Old Testament could be a model of outcome equality.” I totally agree with him, one hundred percent. One small problem though: who said anything about outcome equality? This is a common trope of those opposed to greater equality – you want to make everyone the same. This then usually leads to histrionics about hard work going unrewarded while laziness spreads like cancer. But I don’t know of anyone who actually advocates for outcome equality. Even communist countries, which often get accused of this sin, didn’t really pursue outcome equality – they had (have) hierarchies that divided party members and politicians from everyone else. I’m not sure outcome equality is even strictly possible on this side of Eden. It’s in human nature to create hierarchies, just as it’s in our nature to want to hoard possessions and opportunities that benefit us, even if it’s at the expense of others.

What advocates of greater equality want is less inequality. Between the rampant inequality that exists in North America today and strict outcome equality, there is a wide swath of territory. All the best evidence suggests that moving away from the extreme end of the spectrum where we are now will benefit everyone, rich, and poor, and everyone in between.

And while Penner goes one step further and equates outcome equality with procedural equality,*** what we actually need to reduce income inequality is to treat people differently according to their circumstances. Obviously, this requires some moderation and it’s not always easy to get the balance right, but democratic countries that actively engage this debate usually do a pretty good job of muddling through. Countries that don’t engage this debate risk ending up with a system that favours those who are already wealthy and powerful over those who are poor and powerless.

An alternative economy

Penner concludes by arguing that the Old Testament highlights forgiveness, restoration, and understanding, contrasting these with Marxist-style wealth redistribution with class warfare. I would note that there are multiple ways to reduce income inequality (government redistribution through progressive income taxation, social or cultural ethics that diminish market income inequality, fair wage laws, investments in training and education, anti-poverty programs, etc.) some of which fit better than others with these three concepts. None of the proposals to address income inequality today go so far as to advocate wiping out all debts or liberating those who labour for poverty wages. As I noted in my original article, “Our modern economy is very different from that of ancient Israel, but that doesn’t mean that an economy of care is out of our reach.”

What are the principles that we can draw from Sabbath and Jubilee as we think about how to create an economy of care for today? I’d start with forgiveness, restoration and understanding. Prioritizing the poor and the powerless, and putting their needs front and centre. Radical generosity. Remembering that the land is God’s and we are but aliens and tenants. None of these principles are compatible with policies and practices that promote and encourage rampant income inequality.

Penner can’t believe the God of the Old Testament would have us pursue economic equality. I can’t believe the God of the Old Testament would support unbridled capitalism that favours the rich and powerful and tramples the poor and the powerless.


*As an aside, there were comments on the web version of my article last year saying that the problem isn’t inequality per se, it’s the attitude of the rich towards the rest of us. So all we need is a kinder, gentler elite, and there’s no more problem with inequality. The trouble with this approach is that it ignores emerging evidence that being wealthier than others tends to generate attitudes of superiority and a freedom from the rules that constrain others.  There are always exceptions of course, but we need more than a few kindly billionaires to avoid the social problems that accompany high income inequality.

** Michael Harbin makes this argument a lot more clearly, although to be fair, he had a lot more than 600 words to do it.

***Out of all of Penner’s false equivalencies, this one is the most head-spinning, since by definition, treating everyone the same regardless of circumstances will not result in outcome equality.