In a speech at Georgetown University on April 14, President Obama spoke in defense of his administration’s massive expenditures. He cited the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where he refers to the importance of building one’s house on the rock instead of sand. The president took these words as a parable for America’s economic woes and his own expensive solutions:
“We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.”
Like most presidents, Barack Obama is fond of weaving biblical language into his rhetoric, obliquely suggesting that the Bible endorses his policies. His supporters – and Christian religious leaders – are often more direct in urging statist interpretations of the Bible.
Jim Wallis is a prominent Christian speaker and activist. He is the editor of the magazine Sojourners and author of the 2005 bestseller “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” This book, enormously influential among Christian leaders, argues for confiscatory taxation in order to fund wealth redistribution programs. Basing his argument on Isaiah 65, Wallis writes:
“The government’s budgets are a disaster for the poor, a windfall for the wealthiest, and thus directly conflict with biblical priorities. Budgets are moral documents. It may be controversial, but it is not inappropriate to name the federal budgets being passed as ‘unbiblical.’ And it is time for religious people to clearly and prophetically respond. We need a ‘faith-based initiative’ against budget priorities that neglect poor people.”
Leaving aside the highly dubious proposition that one’s personal religious beliefs should be directly translated into public policy – including laws governing citizens who do not share those beliefs – the notion that the Bible supports government redistribution of wealth should be firmly challenged.
The fundamental question for those who consider the Bible authoritative is not whether it advocates charity or helping the poor. Obama, Wallis, and other statist Christians are not arguing for charity. They are arguing for government appropriation of property. The issue isn’t charity, but property rights. If the Bible rejects the notion of a right to property, then these people may have a basis for their perspective. But if the Bible supports a right to own property, safe from government redistribution to others, then their policy proposals are unbiblical.
What follows is an analysis of what the Bible says, in both the New and the Old Testaments, on the subject of property rights. Whether the Bible, or parts thereof, should be considered authoritative or useful for Christians I will leave to theologians. My concern is with the text itself. I would like to be able to report that the Bible argues firmly for an absolutist view of property rights.
I would like to be able to write that the Bible is a strictly libertarian document. It is not. Yet in the balance and taken as a whole, the Bible support the individual’s right to own property and hold onto it. Briefly summarized, the Bible’s teachings are that humans are stewards of God’s property in a rental relationship and are accountable to him, not to the state, for the disposition of that property. The Bible advocates charity for the poor and condemns the parsimonious, but it does not grant authority to the state to act on God’s behalf to redistribute wealth. It is mostly a laissez-faire system of ideas, which libertarians should not forfeit to statist misinterpretations.
The Bible suggests three central principles regarding property rights. One is the prohibition against theft, enshrined in Exodus 20:15 “You shall not steal.” The second is the idea that the world ultimately belongs to God (not to the state), as exemplified by Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.” The third is a corollary: humans are temporary tenants upon God’s property, as King David said in 1 Chronicles 29:15: “For we are but sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were.”
Let’s examine these principles. The first, that theft is morally wrong, is stated in the Old Testament and repeated in the New, as in Matthew 19:17-19 and Romans 13:9-10. One particular form of theft that the Bible addresses specifically and at length is withholding wages from workers who have earned them. Leviticus 19:13 establishes that doing so constitutes robbery. Deuteronomy 24:15 and James 5:4 describe this act as one that infuriates God.
Of all the passages ofthe Mosaic Law, Exodus 22:1-15 most directly addresses propertarian relationships. It describes violations of property rights and the legal remedies for them. For example, if a person steals an ox or a sheep and kills it, he must make restitution in the amount of four to five times the value of the stolen and destroyed property. If the thief is caught with the property alive, the compensation is only double. If a person holds the property of another in safekeeping, and it has been stolen from him, then he must make restitution; but if a court determines that the trustee has actually stolen the property, he must provide double the value. If the property was destroyed through natural causes, no restitution is necessary. The two variables determining penalties are the degree of criminal intent and the amount of harm absorbed by the victim.
Of particular note are the laws governing the right to defend one’s property. One may kill an intruding thief in the confusion of the night, but to kill a thief in the clarity of the day is an act of murder; a thief has not necessarily forfeited his life as a result of his crime. The right to defend one’s property is not absolute, but it is quite strong, much stronger than many contemporary Christians understand or desire.
If theft is a crime, then by logical necessity there must be a right to property. Where there is no property, there can be no theft. Before Christians endorse confiscatory economic policies, thinking that the Bible mandates them, they should consider what limitations the Bible places and does not place, on property rights.
The primary limitation comes from the idea that the whole world belongs to God. Although a secular libertarian view of property rights begins with self-ownership and personal ownership of both physical and intellectual property, a biblical view begins with God’s ownership of the world. It is interesting that John Locke, the ultimate source for much libertarian property theory, began at the same place: see Locke’s “Second Treatise,” section 25. The idea is repeatedly established in Scripture. Psalm 24:1 and Exodus 19:5 quote God directly as making this assertion. In 1 Corinthians 10:26, Paul quotes the Psalms and argues that Christians shouldn’t worry about whether or not the meat they purchase in the marketplace has been used to make idolatrous sacrifices because the whole world belongs to God, including the meat presented to idols. But the divine ownership premise cannot be taken as grounds for government seizure of property.
The preface to my argument is the third principle: humans are tenants on God’s land or stewards of his property. But how can there be thievery against other people if God owns all the property? The answer is simultaneous ownership. The idea of tenancy establishes that there are two levels of property ownership: God at the higher level and humans at the lower, but both can possess the same property at the same time.
It is important to examine the nuances of this view of property rights, lest Christian statists misuse the notion of divine ownership of the world to justify their notion that there is no individual right to property. That interpretation assumes that human and divine ownership cannot coexist – yet it would be totally inconsistent with the Bible’s many injunctions against theft and requirements for compensation for lost and stolen property. If there were no right to private property, these provisions would be pointless.
The Biblical view of property is something akin to leasing. All property is leased from God, the ultimate possessor, but the human lessees are the immediate owners. God may step in and lay claim to his property, but no humans besides the lessees have any such rights. Third parties have no legitimate
I would like to be able to write that the Bible is a strictly libertarian document. It is not.
claim of authority. A practical example: a person rents an apartment from someone else. The rental owner may reserve the right to enter it, as the ultimate holder of the property – but no one else has any right to do so, without the consent of the renter. This tenant relationship is a close parallel to God’s claim on property and the lessee’s simultaneous but noncontradictory claim.
To apply this idea to today’s political scene, one might say that God may intervene in the property ownership of individuals, but other people may not. To seize the property of other people is to usurp the authority of God.
Christian statists are fond of justifying the state’s usurpation of property rights on a complex sacred and legal event known as the Year of Jubilee, outlined in Leviticus 25. Wallis accurately refers to it as “a periodic economic redistribution in which slaves are set free, land is returned, and debts are forgiven.” This would seem to give some grounds for a looser view of property rights than libertarians would countenance.
But a candid assessment of the biblical portrait of property rights should address the subject directly. At the end of 50 years, certain property transactions had to be reversed, but the reversal had to include compensation for the temporary owners of the land. It was like the modem practice of subletting real estate. Should complete compensation not be provided to the current resident within one year, then the property was permanently deeded to him. In the Year of Jubilee, the tenants switched roles, but God remained the ultimate property owner (Leviticus 25:23). A person could not sell real property permanently, any more than a person renting an apartment can sell it outright to a third party. Further, with the Jubilee cycle embedded in law, people who made loans or purchased property would have the opportunity to reduce any losses they feared at the end of the cycle, by charging a higher price up front. There was no capricious action by government.
Contrast the redistributionist plans of Obama and other statist Christians, who are intent on taking property from some people and giving it to others, who never owned it or invested in it, without a hint of compensation. This is not a return of lost property but a seizure of property that is legally owned. The Bible never authorizes such brazen theft.
In “God’s Politics,” Wallis argues for a Christian effort “to bring the Word of God to bear on the moral issues of the American economy.” He asserts that the Bible advocates charity for the poor and offers condemnation to the ungenerous. That is correct. It is, however, an enormous leap of logic to assert that it is task of government to take the place of Christians in giving to the poor, or to assume that Christians can use the force of government to compel others to “give” to the poor. This, really, is the central issue, the central area in which statist Christians have mistaken injunctions about what they should do for others for injunctions about what they should do to others.
One would think, listening to President Obama or reading statist Christians, that the Bible authorized a government regime of constant forced sharing. There is one passage in the Bible, Acts 4:32-35, that apparently depicts a communal sharing of property, in aid of the poor. The passage describes one particular episode of voluntary sharing in the life of the early Christian church – not a program of coercive taxation, set in stone by the Roman government. It should be read in the noncoercive context in which it was written. Jesus preached about living a holy, virtuous life, and unhesitatingly rebuked sinners. But at no point did he suggest that it was acceptable to use force to compel virtue. Christ commanded the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:22). But he did not rob the rich man’s house and redistribute his goods. Although he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13), Christians may conclude that this was the act of the Son of God, disposing of his own property. For statists to do likewise, with other people’s property, would be to usurp the power of God. And the teachings of Christ themselves provide no endorsement whatsoever for state redistribution. The earliest Christians understood this. The Apostolic-era church never forced people to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and nothing in the New Testament suggests that the church used force to take property from those unwilling to give. Certainly it did not suggest that the Roman state, its savage enemy, had the right to do so.
To the contrary,Jesusimplicitly endorsed the right to property in his parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), which symbolically represents God telling workers to “take what belongs to you” (verse 14). The parable would
To accept Romans 13:1-7 at face value requires that Paul contradict himself at every other point in his writings where he mentions persecution by local officials.
make no sense if there were no property rights. In another parable, Jesus used two investors of property as exemplars of morality, rather than thieves or reactionaries (Matthew 25:14- 30). Jesus had plenty of opportunities to condemn property ownership, but he never did.
One response to calls for a more minimal state, one that cannot appropriate property at will for the “common good,” is to cite Romans 13:1-7, perhaps the most statist passage in all of Scripture: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” Here Paul asserts that governments derive their authority from God and resistance to government authority is rebellion against God, fo! “whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God.” This is because government “is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” This would seem to bum a path for statists to begin government redistribution of wealth as a divinely-delegated authority. Wallis uses it for precisely that purpose, writing that “it suggests a clear role for the government in ensuring the common good.”
I gladly invite statists to make this argument, once they explain how the most oppressive regimes in world history can also claim divine authority, using exactly the same reasoning. Romans 13 is a far too complex passage to unpack in this article. I think the best explanation is that Paul was attempting to avoid accusations of sedition by the Roman government. He himself was persecuted by the Romans and other governments. He knew that government wasn’t empowered by God to do anything it pleased. To accept Romans 13:1-7 at face value requires that Paul contradict himself at every other point in his writings where he mentions persecution by local officials. To use the passage as justification for any government activity whatever induces so many logical problems that Christian statists will never get through explaining themselves before proceeding with redistributionist plans.
The truth is that there is no biblical warrant for redistributionist economic policies. It simply is not there. The closest the Bible comes to supporting such policies is the Year of Jubilee, which proposes something entirely different from the programs advocated by Christian economic statists. A careful, rather than cursory, examination of the biblical text shows that confiscatory taxation and redistribution have no traction.
Quite the opposite: there are solid biblical grounds for the right to property – far stronger grounds than for President Obama’s call to “spread the wealth around.” Until Christian statists can persuasively argue to the contrary, their redistributionist plans must be pronounced unbiblical.