It seems that some Christian leaders think that commandment number eight in the Big Ten was written to protect the rich. They also seem to be convinced that this commandment has a whole lot to do with taxes. In fact the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), virtually never gets mentioned by those of the Religious Right except to defend the rich from relinquishing wealth for the sake of the less advantaged.
The Bible doesn’t share this focus on preserving the holdings of the rich. No doubt some will immediately protest, “But the prohibition against theft applies equally to everyone!” And that is true. Nevertheless, when the Bible gets specific about who is most in danger of being robbed, the rich are not the ones who receive attention. Rather those on the opposite end of the economic scale are the ones for whom most concern is expressed in the scriptures (Psalm 10:2-3, 5, 8b-12, 12:5-6; Proverbs 13:23, 22:16; Isaiah 3:13-15; James 5:1-5). But when it comes to that particular concern leaders of the Religious Right are missing in action.
There are some who insist that the first principle of biblical economics is private ownership. R.J. Rushdoony claimed, “The right to property is a God-given right. Ownership is evidence of work and character. Every attempt to limit ownership is a form of theft, and the Bible says clearly, ‘Thou shall not steal.’” So according to him –and many others- all limits to private ownership offend against the will of God. “Man’s (sic.) basic security the Biblical law saw as resting in the private possession of property without the possibility of confiscation.” And that would include most forms of taxation.
In fact private property is not the first principle of biblical economics. Rather it is found in the words God spoke to Job, “Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11) and in the declaration of the Psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2). Everything else scripture teaches about ownership follows from this claim. Unqualified, unlimited private ownership finds no support in the Bible. It is subject to divine constraints and purposes.
A failure to understand the nature of ownership in scripture leads to a failure to understand the eighth commandment. Humans are stewards rather than full owners of the property they hold. Rather than standing against “the possibility of confiscation,” it is unconstrained ownership that is condemned in scripture as theft. While Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association claims, “Taxing the rich to give to the poor is nothing more than theft,” the Bible fails to support his view. Likewise, the assertion of Tommy Newberry that the scriptures contain “no mention of…redistributing of any sort” (The War on Success, p. 121) can be made only by one who ignores a considerable number of pages of holy writ.
Obviously taxes and resources for an orderly and caring society were derived in much different ways in ancient times than in our time and place. Nevertheless, laws were established to insure that the needs of the poor were not neglected by those who were more affluent. And where there are laws, there is some expression of government at work, regardless of whether we know the details of its working. Caring for the less fortunate was not left entirely in the hands of the generous and willing. Means of redistributing of wealth were put in place and described in scripture. While the relinquishing of property for the needs of the poor and weak was not for the most part voluntary, neither was it regarded as theft.
Historian of economics, Tomas Sedacek, observed, “Among Israelites we can find not only the roots of the modern widespread redistribution of wealth for the benefit of the poorest but also the well-substantiated concept of economic regulation, which closely relates to social policy” (Economics of Good and Evil, p. 79). This claim can be supported by a number of practices presented in scripture.
(1) Debt forgiveness on Sabbath years was mandated for Israel. “Every seven years you must grant a release. This is the manner of the release: everyone who holds a debt claim against a neighbor must release it” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). This was not presented as an option reserved for the generous people who were sensitive to the hardships of their debtors. It was a legal obligation. This amounts to a loss for the rich and a gain for the poor who had to take subsistence loans. The commercial trade loans to foreigners were not forgiven in the same way.
(2) Another seven-year law that benefited the poor at the expense of the more affluent had to do with land usage. “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard” (Exodus 23:10-11). Though the land was not owned or cared for by the poor, they benefited from it. The owner could not claim the produce that grew during the seventh year. By divine mandate it was redistributed to the poor.
(3) Similarly the rights of ownership were limited by the gleaning law. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10, also Deuteronomy 24:19-22).). The do not own the land or plant the crops or cultivate and care for the plants and trees. Yet the poor and immigrants who put in minimal effort are allowed to take home food. It was their need, not their ownership of the property that justified this redistribution.
(4) A more far-reaching policy of wealth redistribution is found in the the jubilee restoration of ancestral lands to households every fifty years (Leviticus 25:10, 25-28). This practice would put a check on both multi-generational poverty and on the hyper-wealth of the few most successful families. This periodical reallocation of property would limit gross economic inequality. Whether jubilee was ever actually practiced in a thoroughgoing way or was primarily an expression of an ideal is uncertain. But it displays a social value completely at odds with those who are less concerned with the needs of the poor than with making sure we don’t “punish success.”
The complaint that when government begin “taxing some of its citizens for the benefit of others that amounts to theft” shows an utter failure to grasp a biblical notion of ownership. To declare, “Taxation is theft…and we should completely defund every welfare program at every level of civil government in this country,” neglects the practices that benefited the poor and marginalized that are described in the Bible. While scripture acknowledges a limited right to private property – “everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree” (Micah 4:4) – this does not disallow mandated sharing of resources to meet the needs of the less advantaged.
Ambrose the ancient bishop of Milan (340 AD – 397 AD), reflected the biblical vision when he chastised the rich who sought to cling to their possessions despite the needs of the poor, saying to them, “The earth belongs to all, not to the rich…Therefore you are paying a debt; you are not bestowing what is not due.” This is a lesson many Christians need to learn.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”