Wealth, power, and influence in the ancient Hebrew ideal

One of the themes widely recognized and strongly presented across the pages of the Old Testament is God’s anger at how the poor, widowed, and orphaned have been mis-treated, or not looked-after. Not only in the commands of the Mosaic Law Code (in terms of care for the above mentioned and foreigners living among the Israelite tribes; for example: Leviticus 19: 9-10, 13-15, 33-34 or Deuteronomy 15: 7-11), but also long rants in the books of the Prophets that Judah and Israel are under God’s judgment because they had failed to look out for the unempowered (for example: Isaiah 1: 16-17; 2: 14-15; Micah 2: 1-2, 8-9; Amos 5: 7, 11-12; Zechariah 7: 9-10; or Malachi 3: 5).

The flip side of this, but less often noted, are the descriptions of how a morally upright person uses their power, influence, and wealth. The book of Job contains some representative examples of this. I think, in our current cultural context, where the place of wealth and influence are subjects of heightened interest, these ancient words of Job could serve as loci of discussion and consideration.

‘For I assisted the poor in their need

And the orphans who required help.

I helped those without hope…

I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.

Everything I did was honest… I wore justice like a turban.

I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.

I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.

I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth.

They drank my words like a refreshing spring…. I comforted those who mourned.

Let God weigh me on the scales of justice, for He knows my integrity.

If I have been unfair to my male or female servants when they brought their complaints to me, how could I face God?

For He created both me and my servants. He created us both in the womb.

Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows?

No, from childhood I have cared for orphans like a father…

whenever I saw the homeless without clothes and the needy with nothing to wear,

did they not praise me for providing wool clothing to keep them warm?’ (Job 29, 31)

It seems to me that in today’s public conversation, power, wealth, or influence, in and of themselves, are often labeled as wrong or bad. But in the Hebrew Scriptures these things are not seen as bad or evil or unjust (neither is strength, nor ancient ideals of courage). Power, wealth, influence, strength, and courage, in the OT scriptures, are seen as good, effective, redemptive tools of fairness and justice that a godly person uses to increase the well-being of the common good, and especially of the weak, suffering, and unempowered. See too the picture of the empowered, well-to-do woman in Proverbs 31, and what she does with her wealth, strength, courage and influence. I have only brushed the surface of the images the Hebrews scriptures provide us on this subject, and I suspect that, in our current time and place in Western civilization, most of these images of personal and civic ideals are no longer commonly known. That leaves us with Hollywood personalities, professional athletes, and a handful of billionaires as societal role models regarding the use of wealth. Perhaps a rediscovery of some ancient biblical images could serve as fruitful templates in our conversation about society, stratification, influence, and lack.


Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

Why Enlightened Self-Interest Doesn’t Rescue the Environment

You would think that enlightened self-interest would cause corporations, like individuals, to avoid doing things that would be unsustainable in the future, since that would nix their ability to continue in that line of business. So, for example, you would think a corporation would avoid over-cutting a particular forest, and manage it for the long-term, so that they could continue to cut it and make profits from it in the future. However, avoiding environmental damage (as any enlightened farmer would do for his fields) is not a guiding star for corporations, who often don’t own the environments they wreck, but even when they do! Socio-political thinker and novelist Kim Stanley Robinson explains it succinctly in his novel Antarctica (1998):

“Say a company owned a forest that it had harvested selectively for generations, delivering its shareholders a consistent ten percent return. Meanwhile the world financial markets were offering bonds with a fifteen percent return. Lumber prices dropped, and the company’s returns dropped, so the traders dropped it and its shares plummeted, so the shareholders were angry. The management, on the edge of collapse, decided to clear-cut the forest and invest the profits from that lumber sale immediately into bonds that yielded a higher return than the forest had. In effect the money that the forest represented was more valuable than the forest itself, because long-term value had collapsed to net present value; and so the forest was liquidated, and more money entered the great money balloon. And so the inexorable logic of Gotterdammerung capitalism demolished the world to increase the net present values of companies in trouble… simply the logic of the system.”

Add to this scenario the fact that it’s not a self-owned lumber company. That company is among thousands of companies some transnational mega-corporation owns, and they are into everything: lumber, cement, films, cars, oil, wind energy, toys, music, insurance, housing, aerospace technology and munitions. If some of their companies aren’t returning good quarterly profits, they take a tax write-off and liquidate the company at a loss. Thus, cutting the forest to the ground and not re-planting, and then walking away from lumber altogether is simply a decision made at a desk in a cubicle at a Manhattan (or Toronto or Tokyo or Berlin) skyscraper, and the man whose office looks out across the city with the windows never even knows the decision was made, besides some numbers on a spreadsheet.

So, thinking that the common sense of wanting-to-have-a-planet-to-live-on-in-the-future-that-isn’t-a-wasteland would naturally cause companies and corporations to make sensible, long-term, sustainable, healthful decisions… is simply not how our world system is set up to work. Those mega-corporations are not looking out for your interests. So how do you fix that? U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, (president from 1901-1909), whom the United States can thank for the vast majority of the National Forests and wildlife sanctuaries that exist, did not believe the timber barons and mining barons of his day could be trusted with American’s forests and lands. He believed vociferously in the free market and personal freedom and property, but he also believed capitalism had to be reined in by the government on behalf of the people, or the logic-of-the-system (and those who became powerful within it) would wreck the world around us. He did not allow the giant corporations to do whatever they wanted nor to take over the world. Maybe we should go look at and think about his insights again in our day. Because current events have demonstrated for quite some time now that just hoping common sense will cause smart decisions ISN’T protecting the Earth’s environments for the future.