The Old Testament Law was a means by which ancient Israel could create a just society. The Law provided measures to ensure that the environment was taken care of, that people were treated as fairly as possible, that the Israelite economy was an economy of righteousness and not exploitation, and that the most vulnerable in society were cared for. Although the Law was given specifically to a certain group of people in a certain cultural, political, and historical context, we can still study it to understand and apply what a truly equitable society looks like.
Unfortunately, many Christians today neglect the Law, largely because we don’t understand it. But this is to our detriment. The church and society would be better off if the church studied, discussed, and taught on the Law. I’m not suggesting that Christians need to strictly follow the Law. But, again, if we studied it, we’d find all sorts of wisdom for how Christians should engage politically, what kind of laws we should advocate for, and the way we should treat others. Perhaps more than anything, a diligent study of the Law would push back against many of our entrenched political and economic beliefs—especially the libertarian economic principles that the free market should be left alone, almost at all costs.
Pushback against our economic system is desperately needed for numerous reasons, and there are numerous ways the Old Testament Law challenges our contemporary practices. One of the most pressing issues in today’s economy is that of monopoly and oligopoly (when a small number of sellers dominate a market). The past few decades have seen power and wealth concentrate in the hands of a few businesses in various sectors of the economy. While big business is not necessarily bad, it can easily become a problem if it’s mismanaged. And that’s what we see in our economy: large corporations tilting the political process in their favor, chains suffocating local small businesses across the U.S., and companies (such as Amazon) doing everything in their power to prevent workers from unionizing. In the U.S., some companies that control a large part of the market are engaging in unjust behaviors, thus stripping power and consumer choice away from individuals, communities, and smaller businesses.
In Leviticus 25, we see the Law’s provision against the natural tendency for people and economies to gradually concentrate power in the hands of a few: “Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan” (Leviticus 25:8-10). In the year of Jubilee, those who were enslaved in Israel would be released and would return to their family land. This acted as a natural deterrent to built-up concentrated power.
Those who owned debt slaves would naturally be wealthier. For the debt slaves, the reasons for being removed from their land and becoming indebted varied. Some reasons, such as location of their land, weather, and success of crops, were largely beyond their control. The natural tendency of such a system was for the successful and wealthy to continue to accrue wealth and resources, while the unsuccessful would lose out and might have to work for the wealthy. But the year of Jubilee would reset society and the economy every half century. Those who had concentrated wealth would lose some of it, and the unsuccessful people got a chance to start over. In this system, the unlucky, the little guy, is looked out for. They are given another chance. There is no unchecked, perpetual concentration for certain families/clans. They are prevented from gaining so much power that they control the rules and the economy.
Israel was not a perfect people, and they didn’t carry out this system perfectly. But when the Israelites didn’t care for the vulnerable, God sent prophets to call them to repentance. God has a keen eye for those who get the short end of the stick.
Our current economic ideology, which is prevalent in American churches, is almost the opposite of the economic ideology that the Law presents. No, we are not biblical Israel, but we should consider studying the Law to discern God’s heart for economic systems. And it’s clear that God desires the vulnerable to be cared for. But in our economic thought, we believe more in freedom than caring for the oppressed (and that freedom is almost exclusively applied to businesses; we assume that freedom from regulation for businesses will mean freedom and prosperity for workers, which then fails to consider that some of the workers caught in this system really aren’t that free). Instead, we should consider how we can advocate for laws and systems that establish proper boundaries for businesses. That is, if a business is starting to engage in monopolistic behavior, there should be more effort put into preventing a harmful choke-hold on the market. There should be rules within our economic system that promote a more fair and actually free market (because, do we have a free market if a vast majority of it—at least in certain sectors—is controlled by only a few companies?).
For instance, our government needs to be more active in preventing mergers that, if they went through, would drastically decrease the amount of competition in a given market. They need to make sure laws do not serve oligopolies and that they instead create a fair playing field as much as possible. This includes making sure that oligopolies don’t create onerous barriers to entry in markets (thus keeping potential new competition out). They need to enforce antitrust. And harmful monopolies need to be broken up. These are just a few actions our government can take—and policies we can advocate for—that would help America’s monopoly/oligopoly problem.
As for individual consumers, we would do well to spend more money at small, local businesses. These types of businesses aren’t a panacea; however, there are several advantages they provide that the big monopolistic businesses don’t. For one, when we spend money at local businesses, the money is much more likely to stay and circulate in the community rather than going off to a company headquarters. More money circulating in smaller communities will create healthier communities across America (thus helping reverse the deaths of small towns). Secondly, local, small businesses contribute to vibrant and beautiful diversity and uniqueness in cities and towns (as opposed to the uniform chain restaurants and big box stores that we see across America). McDonald’s never made a place worth living in; local small businesses have. Lastly, spending at these smaller options means the big businesses engaging in monopolistic practices make less money. In general, Christians should be mindful about where we spend money. If all Christians spent money mindfully (supporting, as much as possible, businesses with good practices instead of businesses with oppressive practices), then the world would be a more equitable place.
Consider advocating for a system that actually does something to provide better options for low-income, low-wage workers instead of allowing chains to control the market and thus essentially force workers to accept the meager wages they pay. We need to advocate for a system that provides barriers preventing businesses from gaining so much wealth and power that they suffocate everyone else in the market. We need a system that gives the poor a way to reset and that provides ways out of generational poverty. America’s economy needs to look more like the Year of Jubilee.