A Biblical/theological Case for Basic Sustenance for All

By Van Til, Kent | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

A Biblical/theological Case for Basic Sustenance for All


Van Til, Kent, Journal of Markets & Morality


This article defends the proposition that all human persons merit basic sustenance on biblical grounds. The nature of humankind, God's design for creation, the distribution of the land of Canaan, covenant law, an option for the poor, and Jesus' teaching all serve to support this proposition. The article does not propose specific political-economic means to effectuate this biblical mandate. Rather it seeks to show that the mandate requiring basic sustenance for all is a matter of justice that can be carried out in contemporary societies through a variety of political-economic strategies.

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"The Bible says...." This three-word preface can be a fear-inspiring beginning for sermons, political debates, and scholarly inquiry. Nevertheless, Christians throughout the centuries have attempted to guide their lives and their societies on just such grounds. The article that follows will attempt to do so as well, specifically relating what the Bible says to contemporary economic practice. Using the Bible as our primary resource, we will attempt to show that providing basic sustenance (1) for all human persons is a responsibility that is mandated within Christian Scripture. We will support this claim by examining biblical themes such as Creation, the Exodus and the distribution of the land, covenant law, the poor, and equality.

The contemporary social context that makes this type of study crucial is overwhelming world poverty. The World Development Indicators report, "Each year 10 million children die before their fifth birthday. More than 100 million do not attend primary school. And more than a billion people lack access to a safe source of water." (2) The same report shows that in 1999, more than 23 percent of the world's population or 1,169,000,000 people live on less than $1.00 per day. (3) Clearly, investigations regarding the Bible's teachings on human poverty and misery are apropos today.

While it seems easy to cite biblical texts that show society's responsibilities toward the poor, or laws on how to distribute the goods of creation, we must be conscious of the hermeneutical questions that arise when seeking moral guidance from Scripture. (4) Of necessity, all readers of Scripture approach the texts with their personal and cultural assumptions as to its meaning and implications. Recognizing this, we will attempt to be conscious of those assumptions and avoid an approach to Scripture that simply uses a few texts to support a particular agenda.

The respected contemporary Protestant ethicist James Gustafson suggests that ethicists typically approach Scripture with the expectation of finding three things: norms, analogues, and virtues. (5) In addition to these expectations mentioned by Gustafson, liberation theologians and feminists also take a self-conscious stance of advocacy on behalf of the poor or of women when approaching Scripture. Attempting to unseat dominant views, these interpreters highlight scriptural themes that show a preference for the poor and the marginalized that have often been ignored in traditional theology. In the section that follows, we will focus on the norms for economic justice in Scripture, while at the same time giving ear to various voices and traditions. The norms we examine will for the most part be derived from biblical cosmology, anthropology, and law. Though we acknowledge the virtue of virtues and advocate advocacy, we will focus on the norms, principles, and duties that direct our thinking about distributive justice.

As biblical cosmology and anthropology set the framework for any assertions based on a Christian worldview, tracing the nature of humankind, as well as the place of humanity within the cosmos will be necessary if we are to make judgments about what these texts have to say about how the goods of this world ought to be distributed.

Creation

In Jewish and Christian Scriptures, (6) creation is seen as a gift of God, which is intended to provide for the sustenance of his creatures, especially human persons.

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