As noted in the introduction to this series, I’m blogging on two short works on Poverty, the first is Ched Myers The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics and the second is the 14th oration by St. Gregory of Nazianzus entitled “On Love for the Poor” (note I misquoted the title in the prior essay as well as Mr Myers first name). In this short essay, I’m going to attempt to precis the basic thrust of the two works. The current plan is follow this short summary with some critical assessments of the two works. The introduction was here, and the overview essay here.
Reading Mr Myers pamphlet is a little disconcerting. For that which he argues, that concern for the poor, charity, and turnings one heart and aspirations to God instead of the material transient world are all well known and established virtues in Christian living. This where he concludes, where he is driving and this conclusion is not wrong. But it must be admitted, that it is very rare to use the validity of a conclusion to justify an argument … and alas Mr Myers reasons and arguments are very very bad. Mr Myers, as noted in the introduction, follows a unusual hermeneutic for extracting meaning from Scripture. That is he views Scripture via a lens of economics … with a caveat on that description that one must note that his views of economics themselves are also somewhat unusual.
This is a hard thing to do, to criticizet this work, for the conclusions are correct, yet almost every statement made is incorrectly argued and based on faulty premises. A few examples to give a flavor will have to do, for an exhaustive treatment would be, well, exhaustive and an exercise to what end? At any rate here is a taste,
- He notes that the biblical tradition of “Sabbath economics” can be summarized by three axioms (which are not mentioned again). Of these axioms, only one is supportable in Scripture. The first (which is suported), likely derived from Genesis 1 is that the world is created, and is abundant (if we are good stewards). The second (not), that disparities in our gifts are not natural is a result of sin (and therefore must be “mitigated within the community of faith through the regular practice of redistribution”). However, singling out and separation between people and creatures based on different abilities, talents and inheritance is a basic feature of the created world. Third that the prophetic message calls people to practice this redistribution which is the Gospel for the poor. Uhm. No. The gospel is for everyone and it the Gospel is not “the prophetic message to practice redistribution”
- In his first chapter, and I’ll admit this is not an important point but it is demonstrative of the thorough nature of the sloppy scholarship. He starts chapter one talking about Sabbath and creation. He then goes on to note that “there is no “Monday” in the Creation narrative. Uhm, that’s just wrong. The Sabbath is Saturday in our calendar. Sunday is the Christian holy day marking not the rest day of the Creator and Genesis but instead marking the first day of the New Creation, i.e., the day of the Resurrection! The reason I dwell on this seemingly insignificant point is that if your going to present yourself as a Biblical scholar and speak about larger (new) methods of interpreting Scripture, it behooves you to get the easy stuff right.
- He then goes to economically deconstruct and explain the Exodus especially the Manna and other parts of the peoples wanderings in the Desert after being liberated from slavery. He contrasts the manna plenty with the want in the Egyptian slavery, without noting the centralization and nature of the economy in Egyptian which he decries was (according to Scripture) instituted and set up by Joseph acting on visions from God many generations earlier.
- He offers that the “two main axioms of classical economics are:
- The natural condition of scarcity, and
- unlimited human appitite.
!!!??? What? Is that from Malthus? Who says that? What economist? Hayek? Friedman? Mises? Who? Ah, apparently the “economist” who he quotes on this writes this is one Biblical scholar Richard Lowery … not an economist.
- He recounts three (economic basis) for the Order of St. Benedict noting its connection to Marxism. Compare to this summary of that order (or read it yourself). I think it should quickly become obvious that economics are not the overriding concern of the monastic life for St. Benedict (which is as it should be).
This is a repeated problem. If you assume a economic hermeneutic and read everything through a lens of economics (with a definite axe to grind against the market and Marxist leanings) and then discover when reading Scripture find economics is a primary message (and collective/redistribution is also good), that is not a conclusion it is your assumption. Because he draws conclusions beyond the simple message, which is right, that I noted above. I think however, two main fallacies need to be addressed before anything like this might be reasonably looked at.
First, as noted above, the use of the economic hermeneutic needs to be justified outside of its application. Second, the descriptions of what a market economy is should be drawn not from the caricatures of its opponents (such as Marx) and instead by those who study it from within, like those economists noted above, e.g., Mises, Hayek, Friedman and others.
It should be noted in passing that one of the conclusions, that self limitation of consumption and the Christian tradition are essential for the future of the Western world is a theme stressed by Solzhenitsyn, a writer whom I find far more convincing and effective at spreading this message. This theme I hope to return to later in futher essays exploring the prophetic (?) political messages of Solzhenitsyn’s.