Justice! Part 2

inheritance    We did not create the world.  God did.  But he created it for us - for all of us. Genesis says he gave us “dominion” over it.  But can the fact that the earth (or the creation) is our common inheritance reconcile itself with a modern economy?  A modern farmer needs a great deal of land in order to be productive.  A high-rise office building is normally situated on a small, but extremely valuable site in the middle of a bustling downtown.  Conversely, a person may choose to be an apartment renter rather than a homeowner, thereby forgoing any legal land ownership at all.  Do these situations offend justice?  Does the principle of our common inheritance in the creation square with the requirements of today’s economy?

Well if God created all this, he probably gave us some rules that can answer the question.  After all, as the creator, he has the right to set the rules.  And usually, rules that God sets are not to be ignored, both for moral and for practical reasons.  God does know what he’s doing.

Bible

The Rules

As found in The Tithe (sources) and The Tithe (uses) God set the terms for our use of his land.  He said we must pay a tithe of the land’s productive value every year.  Only ten percent of that tithe was to go to the religious establishment.  The other ninety percent of it went to fund what we now call civil government.  So a rent on land value is to be at least one source of the government’s revenue.  At the same time, levies against labor (income tax, etc.) were forbidden.  So were levies against people’s capital.  Such levies by a powerful government were considered theft, regardless of whatever civil law made them “legal.”

People create their own labor.  Labor is owned by the laborer.  No one has the right to take labor from the laborer.  Remember, we found slavery to be immoral.  So wages (salaries, etc.), being the economic return on our labor, are sacrosanct, under God’s rules.

If a person saves some of his wages, that savings is called wealth.  If wealth is put to use to create more wealth, we call it capital.  Capital comes from wages and is owned by the laborer or by the person to whom the laborer freely gives it.  Taking a person’s capital by force is also forbidden in God’s Law for the same reason that taking labor is forbidden.

So, under God’s rules, we should tax land value and untax labor and capital.  Some would say that there would not be enough money to run the a modern government if we did enact such a system.  However, God said the tithe would suffice.

And now we get back to justice.  Justice does not demand that I take part of your wage or your possessions and hand it over to folks who have little.  In fact, Justice is offended at such a thing – it’s just theft.  On the other hand, the whole community created land value – and God created the land.  So paying rent for using something I didn’t make but have exclusive use of and using it to benefit the common good – this does seem just.  We have established governments to provide common societal benefits like roads, police, contract enforcement, etc.  This land rent would be the natural and just source of revenue to provide these goods for the benefit of all.

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God is pretty smart.

Justice!

selfieJustice is a trait that our society is supposed to exhibit.  So what does Justice require of us?  How do we know if we have a just society?

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Justice can be defined as a condition that exists when everyone, regardless of position or circumstance, receives what they are entitled to receive.  Justice does not demand that outcomes are equal – because one person goes to jail, it does not follow that everyone must go.  Or if I become a best-selling author (how sweet that would be!) it does not follow that everyone must be a best-selling author.  Justice demands that all must begin with the same endowments.  If those endowments are supplemented by parental, societal, physical or political endowments (children born in the U.S. have a better shot at prosperity than do children born in Cambodia), justice is not insulted.

Our Declaration of Independence states that all of us are created as equal beings and that God endowed each of us, again, equally, with human rights.  The clear message is that God is the source of this equality.  And it is his positive will that we are equal.  A corollary to this idea is that to compromise anyone’s God-given equality without “just” cause is an offense against justice.  And people can “feel” it.  So slavery or crony capitalism, no matter their rationale, cause people to be uneasy at least, and more often offended.  And rightly so.

If Governments were the source of our rights, then there would be no moral problem with special grants of privilege to recipients whom the goverment happens to favor.  Whether the recipient is a titled aristocrat or a company like Solyndra, if government determines morality, then such grants, being legal, would be fine.  But we don’t feel that they’re fine, do we?  When the laws of the Third Reich required the Jews to be sent to concentration camps, the action was clearly legal, but any reasonable person could discern its fundamental immorality.

This innate knowledge, which all human beings share, is called the natural law.  This is why, in the Declaration, the writer used the term, “self-evident,” to legitimize his short list of rights.

So, to what are we all entitled?  What are God’s endowments?  Starting at the beginning, God created us.  None of us is able to create another person.  Only God appears to have that ability.  So we do not have unqualified ownership of another person.  Trusteeship, perhaps, as in parenting a child.  But not ownership.  Therefore we cannot, in justice, take another’s life, or part of another’s life.

Conversely, we do own ourselves.  Employing the rights of a creator, one might metaphysically assume that God owns us.  But God handed each of us over to our own person.  In order to excercise this self-ownership, God gave us intelligence and free will in order to be fundamentally independent beings.  We can hand over part of our “selves” to another, as in marriage or employment, but it is our choice – and we can change our mind and take that part handed over back to ourselves.  We can also pledge part of ourselves to the rest of society and agree to follow law, even law we don’t agree with.

 

God also created the earth, the physical world.  He created it for all of us. In Genesis, he gave us “dominion” over it.  But we know that he did not give more of it to the strong, the ruthless, the better-born, or the first arrivals inheritancethan he did to the weak, the scrupulous, the average, or the late-comers.  He gave it to all of us, and, at root, harkening back to the natural law, we believe we are all equal inheritors of God’s endowment.

This point, being equal inheritors of God’s creation, is a sticking point for us in our recognition and application of justice.  We will discuss it in the next post.

 

Love versus Entitlement

In today’s gospel, Jesus fed the five thousand.  The story is set up with the quote, “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them …”  They had no food and they were apparently off the beaten path enough that practicality dictated that they be sent away to buy food in distant villages and towns.  Jesus didn’t want them to have to do that, so he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the five thousand were fed.

Jesus feeds the 5000

Many today equate such actions with the actions of government on behalf of those who are hungry (or ill- clothed or housed).  But these actions are truly different from one another, both for the giver and the receiver.  And they are also different in their respective effects.

When the government creates such a program, its creators feel that there is a need in the community for some help, but not enough of a need to try to help meet it with their own money or time, or goods.  Nor do they feel it is worthy of their leadership to call on many givers to meet the need.  Rather they take other people’s money to fund the need.  This is not compassion, it is passing the buck.  The new law entitles its beneficiaries to certain, specified values, whether those values are goods, like healthcare and housing, or cash, like food stamps and welfare.  The ultimate dispensors of the benefits are not allowed to make judgements as to who should receive the benefits.  Instead they try to ascertain who is eligible under the rules of the program.  The ultimate recipients feel that they are owed the benefits, because they are entitled under the program.  All the actors in this drama are cold, playing their parts without any need for compassion on the one hand, or gratitude on the other.  The law says thus and so, and therefore it is done.

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Now consider what happens when  you give to a charity that pursues these same ends.  The need pulls on your heartstrings.  The charity has organized itself to meet the need.  The charity workers are generally not paid well, or at all.  They serve because they have com-passion (meaning: to suffer with) for those in need.  The recipients are aware of all this and are usually both grateful for the help, and resolved not to continue to be as dependent in the future, if they can help it.  Many will also resolve to give to this charity when they are able to.   All the actors in this drama are motivated by or demonstrate love.

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Which of these systems do you think will be better for society?  Which will be more successful at meeting the need?

Did Jesus ever point out the obligation of the Roman or Herodian government to take care of the poor?  He did not.  Instead he moved to serve the poor, and others, directly, out of love.  When we write a check to a charity, love is inspiring us.  When we serve in a charity, or help another person directly, love is moving us.  When we receive from another or from a charity, we give love back.

Equal Rights and the Rule of Law

The recent changes to Obamacare can’t help but bring me to revisit the obsession Moses’ Law has with Equal Rights.  The president, on his own, faced with parts of the ACA that either couldn’t be properly implemented or that, if implemented, would cause him political harm, changed the law to accommodate it to these problems.  While these changes might have seemed expedient, they nevertheless altered part of a law that was properly passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by the president himself.  The alterations were made to unambiguous parts of the law.  In our republic, the president does not have this power.

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If the president views parts of a law to be faulty, he must ask the Congress to change it or, some would say, to ask the Congress to allow him to change it.  He cannot just amend it according to his judgement, even if it is his best judgement.  Nor can he change it if he feels or knows that the Congress would agree with the changes.  This principle is one of those that separates a constitutional republic, such as ours, from an arbitrary dictatorship.  Given the changes the president has decided to make in Obamacare – a law that he favored – what changes in which laws might we next expect?  Or do we have a right to expect law to be unchanging unless or until it is altered or repealed within a constitutionally-prescribed manner?

Yet, arbitrary rule setting is as old as civilization.  Strongmen, kings and emperors made up law as they went along, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But on Sinai, Moses received Law that did not allow for arbitrary change, whether from a king, or priest, or another person of power.  This Law was quite different from the laws that had evolved in nearby civilizations.  It was a great break from history

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    The Law given to Moses applied to all the people of Israel equally.  Equal Rights were born on Sinai.  Everyone from powerful kings to the lowest herder was subject to the Law.  Judges in ancient Israel decided cases using this Law, even before there were any kings.  One of the warnings Samuel gave the people concerning their wish to have a king was that the holder of such an office would trample God’s Law, which had protected the people against the powerful.  Of course, he was right.

While the Israelites vacillated between compliance and non-compliance through their history, the Law remained.  It was abused and ignored at times, but it was, nevertheless immutable and relevant.

The lesson was learned in the West, and there were many great thinkers who pondered and advanced its wisdom.  Our Constitution was an attempt to put the principle into practice.  It worked so well that John Adams said that ours was a “government of laws, not of men.”

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Today, the idea of Equal Rights is not strange to us – we are used to it.  Hopefully, we value it as well.  Especially as some of our leaders begin to venture into the ancient, bloody territory of being a government of men, not of laws.

The Den of Thieves

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus drives the vendors, most notably the money changers, out of the Temple.  Actually, he drove them out of the great plaza in front of the Temple building itself.  Why did he do this and what does it mean for us?

The Jewish laws and rules were specific on the sacrificial requirements the people had to observe.  Only the finest animals and other offerings, as defined in the law, were deemed acceptable for the altar. Furthermore, money offerings were restricted to Temple sheklels, archaic coinage no longer in general circulation.

Each of these items was available only within the Temple precincts.  Those who sold them to pilgrims had been granted monopolies by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.  Privileged families were designated as the exclusive sellers of specific items for proper sacrifice.  So one vendor had the dove concession, another supplied all the lambs, and so forth.  This was hugely profitable.  The monopoly markups were scandalous.

Most representative of this cozy “crony capitalism” setup were the moneychangers, the family of Hannan.  Their system exchanged common coinage for Temple shekels.  It was easy to see the abuse because coins of the same weight and metallic makeup were considered by the populace to be of equal value.  But the Temple shekel, based on its weight and metallic content was of far less value than the common coins the Hannan family demanded for its purchase.  Everyone knew and could see and feel the injustice in this arrangement, but they could do nothing about it because the Sanhedrin had declared that only through the Hannan family could worthy coinage be obtained.

Jesus strode into this cozy setup and tried to break it up.   He made a whip and drove the sheep, oxen, and their vendors out.  He told the dove vendors to get out. He went to the moneychangers’ tables and upended them, scattering the coins across the pavement.  He declared, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it ‘a den of thieves.’”  The power structure vowed to get rid of this troublemaker.

Often, this incident is used to condemn commerce, but that is not what Jesus is doing here.  He is condemning governmental privilege and the theft that always results from it.  His people are being ripped off and they have no recourse.  And this abomination is happening within the holy precincts of the Temple itself.  Is it any wonder that he was upset?

If we really pay attention to what Jesus said and did, instead of reinterpreting  his life to suit our own prejudices, we can find great wisdom.

Blessed Are The Meek

In today’s Gospel, we are presented with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives us the Beatitudes.  I am always struck by the third one, (Matthew 5:5) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”  Other translations end the passage with “… they shall inherit the earth” (RSV) and “… they shall have the earth as their inheritance” (NJB).  What is Jesus referring to here?

Our homilist suggested that the “land” or “earth” are metaphors for our place in the heavenly, spiritual, and therefore, non-physical existence to come.  If that’s so, Jesus may have been being a bit overly clever with his hearers.

You see, the Law of Moses, which, later in the Sermon, Jesus says is still in effect, apportioned all the land in Israel to to the individual families of the nation.  This legal possession (not ownership – God was the owner) of the land was one of the means by which the Law guaranteed prosperity for all the Jews.  That part of the Law had only recently been crushed by the Herods and the Romans.  Except for those with government privilege, the Jews had been reduced to poverty, now being tenant farmers and sharecroppers on the land that their fathers or grandfathers had possessed.

The Lost Land

This memory, and the injustice it represented, was certainly in the minds of his listeners as Jesus gave his famous sermon.  What do you think was triggered when Jesus said “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”?  I believe it was the promise of the Law, that the land should be restored, that everyone was an equal inheritor of the land God made.  That the “rent” God charged for his land was the tithe, which took care of all religious and civil government needs.

If the people to whom Jesus was talking thought he was speaking metaphorically, I think they would have found the statement a cruel joke, so soon after they had lost their inheritance, and with it, their freedom and prosperity.

I think Jesus was harkening to the Law.  However, he could not restore the Law.  That is up to us.

Ruth Proof

The first part of the story of Ruth was today’s Old Testament reading. It detailed how a Bethlehem couple, Elimilech and Naomi left their land because of a famine and went to nearby Moab where, presumably, prospects seemed better. Eventually, their two sons married Moabite women. Then, one by one, the three men, Elimilech and the two sons, died, leaving their three widows in perilous economic straits. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem where her land and family still were. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, insisted on accompanying her with her famous pledge, “Wherever you go, I shall go, … Your people shall be my people and your God will be my God.” Ruth_asks_Naomi_C-206[1]The reading ended with the two women arriving at the time of the barley harvest.
In his homily, our celebrant told us that the reading is the only one in the Catholic Lectionary from the Book of Ruth. From my perspecive, that’s too bad. The story of Ruth and Naomi make clear that the Land Law was being observed during this time – first half of the tenth century, BC.
Elimilech’s ancestral land had been leased out until the next Jubilee. Naomi could not afford to “redeem” it. So she and Ruth were destitute, dependent on the generosity of their neighbors. However, they did have the right to glean the fields after the harvesters had passed through. 2-rooke-ruth-bows-to-boaz[1]
Ruth was gleaning the field of Boaz, who seemed a bit taken with her. He told her she could have all the water she wanted and supplied her with a more than ample lunch. He told his harvesters not to be too careful so that this girl could gather enough to keep hunger at bay. That evening, Ruth told Naomi about all that had happened and Naomi asked the name of this man. When Ruth told her it was Boaz, Naomi was excited. “This man is our redeemer!” She meant that Boaz had the right and the obligation to redeem Elimilech’s land and marry Ruth. The story goes on. The land is redeemed and Boaz and Ruth marry. They had a son, Obed, who was the grandfather of King David.
The story assumes that the Land Law was in effect and was understood by the Israelites. Otherwise, the story makes no sense.
So, despite many scholars’ opinions to the contrary, the Land Law was being observed through the time of the Judges and at least up until the time of the Kings.

Pay Caesar!

The Gospel reading at mass this morning was the story of the tribute coin.  In his homily, our priest used the standard interpretation of this story: Jesus endorses paying to Caesar all the taxes that Caesar says are due, and, by extension, Jesus instructs us to pay our taxes as good Christians.  In Matthew 22, Scripture says the Pharisees (with Herodian witnesses) wanted to trap Jesus with the question, “Master … is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Where is the trap?

We have a strong hint in tradition.  If Jesus said it was permissible to pay the taxes, he would risk alienating his followers.  If he said it was not permissible, then he would be guilty of sedition, with the Herodians as reliable witnesses.  This choice implies some sort of problem in paying the taxes.  Some translations even say “… Is it legal …”  Well it was certainly legal under Roman and Herodian law.  The trap was that it was illegal under Jewish, or Mosaic Law.  Taxes in general were illegal, and paying a tribute or a tax to a foreign potentate an even more flagrant illegality under Mosaic Law.

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Under Mosaic Law, the tithe took care of all community needs, both sacred and secular.  The tithe provided for the religious needs of the nation as well as those we would today call civil.  And the tithe was owed to God as rent for the bountiful land that he made and still legally owned.  So the tithe, properly set up, was not a choice, it was a legal tenant/landlord obligation.

So when Jesus said (paraphrasing now) “Pay Caesar what you owe him and  also pay God what God is owed,” He slipped through the trap.  The Pharisees and Jesus’ followers all knew what he meant: You owe Caesar – nothing!  And you owe God the tithe, the rent of his land, which takes care of, among other things, all the civil needs that Caesar purports to provide.

Render to Caesar

The ending of the story puts a neat bow on the package: the Pharisees “were unable to catch him out in anything he had to say in public; they were amazed at his answer and silenced.” (Luke 20:26)

Certainly this would not have been their reaction if Jesus had just endorsed the Roman tax system.  Jesus did not instruct us to pay our taxes.  If we want to pay them, fine.  If we feel coerced to pay them, fine.  But Jesus did not endorse paying them.

God did set up a system that works very well, if we would only pay attention to it and let it guide us.

The Tithe – a Different “Take” – Uses

What were the uses to which the tithe was put?  Our standard answer is that the tithe supported the religious establishment.  I don’t think that’s right. In Numbers 18:25-29 it says,

Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, “Speak to the Levites and say: ‘When from the Israelites you receive the tithe which I have given you as your heritage, you will set a portion of this aside for Yahweh: a tithe of the tithe.  … You will give what you have set aside for Yahweh to the priest Aaron.  … You will set aside the best, the sacred portion.’”

So, according to the quote above, only a tenth of the tithe was dedicated to the needs of the priests and Levites and the other requirements at the site of the Ark.  The rest, the remaining nine tenths, stayed in the Levite hometowns.  It did not go to the site of religious worship.  What was done with the other ninety percent?

Once again, convention may be wrong.  It usually answered this question by saying that the other ninety percent went to the rest of the Levites, for their support.  But as The Levites demonstrates, they did not need support.  They had the town occupations which made them an adequate living.  So, since the other Levites did not need support, we must find another destination or use for that residual ninety percent of the tithe.  (Post not finished)

The Levites

There was an exception to the general land distribution of the Israelites: the tribe of Levi was not given any land.  Instead, they were given 48 “walled towns,” or about four per tribal area.  These towns served an essential function in this agricultural/pastoral economy.  The towns contained the skilled workers that supported the farming and herding surrounding them.  So here were found the carpenters, metal smiths, harness makers, wheelwrights, etc. that were needed to make the economy more efficient.  Here were found the experts in such public works as roads, bridges, and irrigation systems.  Here also were found writers, traders, and perhaps weavers of cloth beyond the abilities of the people of the land.  The Levites filled these jobs.

Furthermore a Levite man only worked in his religious capacity, which was to preside or assist at the site of the Ark of the Covenant, once every twenty-four weeks.  For the other twenty-three weeks, he was back in his hometown, one of those forty-eight “walled towns.”  So for over ninety percent of the time, he was pursuing his profession or selling his skills, back home.  This goes against the conventional wisdom, which seems to put forward the notions that (1) all the Levites were priests, and (2) their full time job was at the site of the Ark, performing priestly duties.

So the Levites had the urban jobs in the economy of ancient Israel.  They had an income.  Some of them did well, while a few did not.  It’s important to keep this in mind, especially when one discusses the Tithe.