I’ve been thinking lately about the debates in Christian circles (especially in the US) about “socialism.” By “socialism” I mean the basic idea that some justice can be preserved in a community if our government redistributes wealth — takes money or property from the wealthy and gives it to the poor. This socialist model has been put into practice, to varying degrees, by pretty well all industrialized countries, Canada and the US included. Here above the 49th parallel socialism can be seen in the welfare system, our medical system, and more generally in our practice of taxing the wealthy at a higher rate than the poor. Whether we know it as socialism or not, this is a political and economic strategy that we have lived with now for several decades.
Quite a few Evangelical voices have suggested, though, that there is something wrong with socialism at its core. Often the suggestion is made that socialism gets the idea of justice wrong, that the biblical language of justice gets hi-jacked and injected with foreign notions. Biblical justice, it is argued, was retributive not redistributive. Justice, in the Bible, is about preventing acts of violence and harm, and about punishing those who do wrong. It is not about spreading wealth around. So the argument goes.
Yet at least one requirement of the Old Testament law provides a clear example of redistributing wealth. In an agrarian society, produce is the equivalent of money and the harvest is the farmer’s pay-day. When Israelite farmers bring in each crop, though, they are told not to gather all of their grain or grapes:
“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of the fields and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop–do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines and do not pick up the bunches of grapes that fall on the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD” (Lev 19:9-10).
In case the audience of Leviticus might miss it the first time, the same law is repeated in Leviticus 23:22. We see this law in action in the book of Ruth, when Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem. The two women, both widows, have no way of supporting themselves. Instead of starving, though, Ruth is able to go into the fields belonging to Boaz and gather up some of the wheat left behind by his workers after the harvest. The fact that Ruth goes to “join” others doing the same thing suggests that obedient farmers like Boaz are providing food for many of the poorest in Bethlehem. Since there are two grain harvests each year in the Holy Land, and since grain and grapes make up most of the ancient diet, this one practice could provide what people like Ruth and Naomi needed to avoid starvation. With the Levitical law God has created a simple welfare state in which the poor can depend on their right to a portion of any farmer’s harvest.
Some might argue that this is different from modern socialism because it is an act of individual charity. If by charity, though, we mean a free gift offered voluntarily to the poor, then this is not merely charity. According to Leviticus 19 farmers do not have the option of gathering up the grain from the corners of their fields. This is a commandment. Just below this passage in Lev 19 we find God’s reminder: “You must obey all my decrees” (Lev 19:19). And to the extent that Israel’s later kings are charged with making sure God’s law is followed, it is a command that can be enforced by Israel’s government. In other words, God commands Israel to practice a form of socialism–redistributing wealth from landowners to the poor. Neither is Ruth depending on an act of personal charity when she goes to Boaz’ field. Yes, he has a reputation as a man who is good to the “gleaners” who follow the harvesters with their sickles. But what the poor pick up their is still theirs by law, not a gift.
Of course, Israel was a theocracy in which the law of God was (in theory) also the law of the land. We live “in between the times,” recognizing that the full political and economic vision of justice in the Kingdom of God cannot be realized this side of Christ’s return. Likewise, if we follow Paul’s logic, the Levitical code is no longer binding on us in the new age inaugurated by Christ. So I am not saying that Leviticus 19:9-10 should be woodenly applied to the contemporary world. Aside from anything else, the grain and grapes that were the main currency in an ancient agrarian economy have been replaced by paper money and electronic bank records.
My point is simply that redistributive justice is not foreign to the Bible. The idea of requiring the “haves” to give to the “have nots” whenever they earn a bit more wealth is built right into biblical law itself. There is nothing inherently un-Christian, then, about the idea of social welfare or the core principle of socialism. Much more can be said about how we can best put redistributive justice into practice, and the best role for the contemporary state in promoting that justice. But as we Christians try to give living witness to God’s kingdom by serving the poor, we can hardly ignore the socialist model of redistribution that we find in Scripture itself.