With his State of the Union address, President Obama is aiming to set the stage for what may become the pivotal domestic question of the upcoming 2016 election: What do we do to fix income inequality?
And our slant on this question is that of the master of two millennia past, in short: What would Jesus do?
To answer this we need to address: a) the nature of the U.S. economic disparity today; b) the socioeconomic context of the Galilean and Judean economy of Jesus’ day; and c) Jesus’ views as to the nature of both the problem and the solution.
U.S. Economic Disparity
We begin with a simple premise, followed by a question and then a suggested framework for response.
The premise: U.S. economic inequality – the spread between the haves and the have nots – has increased every decade since the mid-1970s. Most noticeably, wages have declined in terms of consumer purchasing power, with no clear recovery yet in view.
Bottom line, the haves are taking more with the have nots getting even less. Even those formerly considered as middle class are having trouble staying in the game.
The question: Does this matter?
Framing a response: We suggest consideration of a Christian approach – framed by yet another question: WWJD – What would Jesus do?
Framing the answer begins with consideration of what reasonably can be gleaned about the Galilean economy of Jesus day – followed by a brief presentation of Jesus views and then translation to the U.S. socioeconomic landscape of 2015.
The Economy of Jesus’ Day
There is considerable debate about whether the Galilee of Jesus’ day was impoverished, prosperous, or somewhere in-between. Was there a big gap between the wealthy elites (Roman or Jewish) and the workers? Or was there a semblance of what we today would call middle class? The evidence:
- After being essentially depopulated after the Assyrian conquest in 722 BC, the Galileee was subsequently repopulated largely by transplanted Judeans under the Maccabees starting about the 1st century BC – essentially a forerunner of modern era Israeli kibbutzim.
- Under Herod Antipas (the provincial ruler through most of Jesus’ life), the economy of the Galilee grew rapidly after years of neglect in the reign of Herod the Great.
- The economy of the Galilee flourished around such industries as fishing, olive oil and wine production, and also livestock grazing – all involving producers, merchants and traders as the “middle class” of the day.
- Unlike Judea and Jerusalem, the Galilee also benefited economically by location on major trade routes between the Mediterranean and inland via Damascus.
- And while the Jewish historian Josephus perhaps exaggerates, the Galilee of Jesus’ day had over 200 villages with a total population reportedly of up to 3 million.
- Jewish settlers tended to locate in the more isolated agricultural and small village communities; the larger cities (including Galilean capitols at Sepphoris and then Tiberias) had a greater representation of Herodian, Roman and other Gentile presence.
In short, while the experience of the 1st century AD clearly suggests social and cultural stratification, there is also evidence of general economic prosperity, filtering down to include the less than politically well-connected. This view is further reinforced by the interactions of Jesus with all economic strata – from wealthy landowners to entrepreneurial types to laborers and the dispossessed.
We now turn from historical context to more explicit consideration of Jesus views regarding matters of business, money, and economic inequality. Some quick hits:
- The master clearly understood and empathized with the plight of those of limited or no means – attested perhaps best by his advice to a rich young man that the path to heaven involved sale of all he had, with distribution of the proceeds to the poor.
- At the same time, Jesus is a realist – acknowledging that there will always be poverty and poor people in this earthly realm.
- He urges individual responsibility – whether in telling the cripple to pick up his mat and walk, the physician to heal himself, or the note that the “workman is worthy of his meat.”
- Despite popular rhetoric, he is a friend to rich as well as poor – think Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, unseemly rich tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus, and the coterie of well-to-do women who fund his ministry travels.
- He is known to counsel fiscal restraint, with advice to “count the cost” before engaging in such endeavors as building a tower or going to war
- And Jesus believes in paying everyone from the tax collector to the temple to himself evidenced by the statement to: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, give to God the things that are God’s, and give me what’s mine” (with italicized add-on from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas).
Fast Forward to 2015
So, looking at today’s issue of a smaller group of haves controlling more and the have nots (including those who once were middle class) controlling ever fewer resources, we come back to the question: What would Jesus do?
Unfortunately, Jesus is no policy wonk – whether on matters of doctrine or economics. There is no detailed campaign platform or legislative proposal to reference.
Instead, Jesus paints a big picture in bold but broad strokes. If he were here in earthly form again today, I suspect he would understand but critique the positions of both political parties:
- Republicans would be chastized for ignoring or downplaying the sins of wealthy elites prospering on the backs of everyone else – for portraying reduced incomes as indicative solely of individual failure (essentially social Darwinism).
- Democrats would be mocked for their ineffectiveness – even for offering cures that may be worse than the disease (including failure to reward individual initiative).
The Bottom Line
For Jesus, the bottom line is not a detailed policy prescription – that’s the job of us humans. Rather its about a set of principles to guide human action. Principles for framing policies that incent:
- Work and wealth
- Living wage jobs for those who can work and an effective safety net for those who can’t
- Fair share requiring all to have skin in the game but with those able to bear more paying more
- Seamless,efficient and customer-friendly administration
As always, the devil is in the details; God’s interest is in successful outcomes.
Jesus was known to refer to Antipas, the political ruler of his day, as “that fox.” Right now, there is a clear sense of the President and his Republican adversaries in the House and Senate slyly eyeing each other – waiting for their moment to pounce. Rather than slinking about, let’s hope (and pray) for some real business to get done between now and 2016.
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