Guest blog by Dr. Christopher Hrynkow, PhD, ThD
Walter J. Houston’s book Justice—The Biblical Challenge (2010) traces the support for notions of social justice in the biblical witness. When summarising the depiction of social justice in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus drew upon, Houston proposes that God’s vision for the people of Israel is that they will actively work to establish a community of equals on Earth.
Part of that vision includes the redistribution of wealth, as called for by the both the biblical prophets and Jesus. That vision is perhaps most intensely expressed in the practice of Jubilee debt forgiveness whereby, according to Moses’ instructions given by God on Mt. Sinai, every fiftieth year in connection with the release from sin associated with the Day of Atonement, the people are to sound a trumpet to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all inhabitants” (Lev. 25: 10). Both people living on the margins of society and the land are to be given a chance at rejuvenation in that year. Part of God’s instructions for the Jubilee year include a redistribution of wealth, through which people had their debts erased and their historic property returned to them (Lev. 25: 11-18). Perpetual inequalities are minimized under such a system.
Right now in Canada there is a debate about taxes. The specific context of the debate has to do with the Liberal Government’s movement toward fulfilling a campaign promise to tax small businesses and wealthy Canadians in a different way. As part of the current debate some problematic ideas are resurfacing. For example, the notion that people who work hard and achieve excellence in business should not have to support social spending by subsidizing the unproductive lifestyles of those who are lazy or unmotivated.
Today, as a means to challenge that notion, I want to invoke similar theological and ethical sentiments as those raised by the ethics of Jubilee debt forgiveness. Specifically here, a point of reflection for wealthy Christians and other economically successful believers in God is to consider is whether they have singlehandedly earned everything they have, or whether their wealth is a result of advantages that have been afforded to them. A related imperative, which emerges from reflection upon cosmic order of justice as depicted in the Bible, is to think about the possibility of God as the ultimate owner of all things. Via either path of reflection, the cosmic order willed by God may be characterized as calling people of faith towards doing their utmost to incarnate the principles of social justice and the common good in order to foster a community of equals.
In this light, it may be fruitful to reflect upon how redistributive taxation, in a world that is still journeying towards wholeness, may be among the best ways to bring forward the spirit of Jubilee in the contemporary context. It would, of course, be ideal if everyone could nourish everyone else’s flourishing of their own volition. However, until we reach that state, governments are justified, according to the biblical perspective traced in broad strokes above, in enacting redistributive taxation policies in support of building up communities of equals. This conclusion resonates with the duties that the prophets named for the ancient Israelite Kings so that they would govern in the spirit of a cosmically infused justice, which supported fair relationships among their people. If Jesus did anything in relation to that prophetic vision, he enlarged its scope. Jesus did so by repeatedly teaching in a way that encourages people who purport to love God to see a horizontal dimension to that love, which ought to be expressed by treating all neighbours with not only respect but also fairness.
From this perspective, governments also need to employ tax dollars in that same spirit in order to foster social justice and the common good. Certainly, the government of Canada has not always lived up to that biblical imperative. However, Christians and Jews asserting that achievement should not be “punished” (read: taxed) in support of a community of equals ignores one of the key moral insights underlying the challenging memory of the practice of Jubilee. In doing so, they ignore an integral aspect of the Bible’s vision of what the world could and should be.
Christopher Hrynkow, PhD, ThD
Department of Religion and Culture
St. Thomas More College
University of Saskatchewan