Economic Justice in America

Economic Justice in America


Current economic policies in the U.S., as in many other countries, are fueling a rapidly growing disparity between America's extremely wealthy families and everyone else. This disparity is exemplified by Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. whose 1997 earnings (mostly from appreciated stocks) are about $20 billion--roughly the same income as two million full-time American workers who earn minimum wage, or perhaps 20 million third-world peasants. Today the world has more than adequate resources to end hunger, and yet we have chosen not to do so.

Most faith communities in America fail to make the connection between Biblical economics and contemporary practice. The more economically comfortable we become, the more difficult it becomes for us to hear the Biblical message. We are like the rich young man who came to Jesus for advice, but went away sorrowful [Mark 10:17-31]. Collected here are some of the resources we find helpful in addressing economic justice in America. We begin with a brief commentary on Biblical economics; the resource links which follow lead to an abundance of statistical and annecdotal information about the contemporary situation in America.

Biblical Economics

In Biblical times, the cultural, social, and political situation was quite different from today's world; there were no space explorers, computers, or global corporations. Yet there are some basic economic principles that appear consistently in both the Old and New Testaments and which can give us insight for contemporary situations.

The Biblical story begins with creation -- God's creation; God is the sole Creator and creation belongs to God: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein." [Ps. 24:1]. Also, God often reminds the Hebrew people, "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves." [Lev. 26:13]. Here we see already an example of concern for economic justice--liberation from slavery. "I will walk among you and will be your God and you shall be my people."

Just as God liberated the Hebrews from slavery and provided for their needs, it is expected that they in turn will care for the earth and its inhabitants and especially to those who are needy or oppressed. Widows, orphans, and strangers--the most vulnerable people in ancient Hebrew society-- are often commended to the care of the prosperous.

The Law of Moses includes prescriptions for the observance of Sabbatical and Jubilee years to restore economic justice in the land from time to time. It's not clear whether the Sabbatical and Jubilee were ever observed as described, but they were clearly important to Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus. One clue to this is Jesus condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees for the loopholes they invented to get around the original intent of the Sabbatical and Jubilee. Some of the specific requirements of Sabbatical and Jubilee changed during Israel's history [see, e.g., Ex. 23, 25; Lev. 25; Deut. 15:1-15], but three primary requirements for the Sabbatical Year (every 7th year) were:

  1. Leaving the soil fallow, allowing the poor to eat what grows there; what remains is to be left, for the wild animals.
  2. Cancellation of debts--but one must be generous and lend to the poor, even when the year of debt cancellation is near.
  3. Liberation of slaves, after six years of service; and one must provide generously to the slave: sheep, grain, wine... when he is released.
  4. The Jubilee (every 50th year) repeats these and adds one more: restoring all property to the family of the original owner.

Jesus began his public ministry, according to Matthew and Mark [Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:15], by announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand. If you think about it, the word "kingdom" is clearly a political term. Here's a clue that Jesus didn't come simply to establish a spiritual community. He was very forthright in dealing with the political, economic, and social issues of the day.

According to Luke's account, Jesus was even more explicit about his intent to bring economic and social change. In the temple at Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah [Isa. 61:1-2] "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." [Luke 4:18-22]

In Jesus' day, " ...the acceptable year of the Lord" was clearly understood to mean the Jubilee. If we pay attention to these words at the outset of Jesus' ministry, it's easier to make sense of the teachings and actions that follow. As Luke tells it, Jesus again speaks to economic and social justice in his sermon on the plain--a litany of blessings and curses after the fashion of ancient Israel's covenant ceremonies--blessed are the poor... blessed are the hungry... woe to you who are rich now. The kingdom of God which is at hand is characterized by a new social order. Even the Lord's prayer--forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors--addresses an important economic issue of first century Palestine. Many people unable to pay their debts ended up in prison or as slaves. "Debts" and "debtors" should be understood literally as well as figuratively in the Lord's prayer.

Many of Jesus' other teachings and parables also contain economic themes [for example, the rich man Dives and the poor man Lazarus, the rich young ruler, ...]. The parables, of course, generally have multiple levels of meaning, but certainly one of the important themes is basic economics.

And at least some early church communities practiced Jubilee economics [Acts 2:44-47, 4:32- 37], selling their possessions and distributing to all as anyone had need, so there was not a needy person among them.

Biblical/Theological Foundations

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Erdmans, 1972).

Cry Justice, Ronald J. Sider, ed., (Paulist Press 1980). [An annotated collection of Bible passages on hunger and poverty.]

Stephen Charles Mott, "Passing the Abundant Gift of God on the Poor", Christian Social Action, Feb. 1996, p. 35. [Commentary on Deut. 15] This issue of CSA also has several other articles that address economic justice in the United States. CSA: (202) 488-5617.

Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Good News to the Poor: John Wesley"s Evangelical Economics, (Abingdon: 1990), Paperback: $17.95.

Economics and Lifestyle

Who is My Neighbor: Economics as if Values Matter, (Sojourners: 1994). 180-page collection of essays organized as a systematic study of economic values. $10 + $1 shipping; discounts for multiple copies; other group study resources are also available from Sojourners, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. (800) 714-7474. E-mail: WWW:

Ministry of Money (a project of Church of the Saviour, Washington, D.C.) offers weekend workshops throughout the U.S. on holistic stewardship and other topics such as "Women, Money and Spirituality", "Simplicity and Non-Violence", "Economic Equality and Justice." Ministry of Money also sponsors "reverse mission pilgrimages" to Haiti, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and India.
Ministry of Money, 2 Professional Drive, Suite 220, Gaithersburg, MD 20879-3420. (301) 670-9606. FAX: (301) 670-0131. [ Information about MM seminars].

Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, (Harper: 1981). This book and others by Foster provide models for integrating spiritual discipline with daily life.

Economic Disparity in America

Share the Wealth: United for A Fair Economy (UFE) is a (secular) grass-roots (mostly volunteer) organization based in Boston which has developed an effective workshop and other techniques for teaching basic economics to people concerned about economic justice and those who are most vulnerable to the growing economic disparity in America. UFE also monitors a few legislative issues. United for a Fair Economy, 37 Temple Place, Second Floor, Boston, MA 02111. (617) 423- 2148. FAX: (617) 423-0191. Email: WWW:

Citizens for Tax Justice (Washington, D.C.) monitors national legislative issues related to U.S. tax policy. It is a useful resource for people who are leading "Share the Wealth" workshops, or who are ready to move into legislative advocacy. Citizens for Tax Justice, 1311 L Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. Email: WWW:

Meeting the Political Challenges of the 1990's: A Rank & File Economics and Political Action Training Program. (Communication Workers of America: Sept. 1996). A 150-page, seven session workshop training manual with dozens of charts on the U.S. budget, welfare, free trade, and corporation/worker issues. Free--if copies are still available--from Ken Peres or Bob Master, CWA District One, 80 Pine Street, 37th Floor, New York, NY 10005. (212) 344-2515.

Bread for the World (BFW), an ecumenical Christian advocacy organization which addresses the political roots of hunger in American and throughout the world. BFW provides a variety of resources on effective political advocacy and hunger-related legislation.
Bread for the World , 1100 Wayne Avenue, Suite 1000, Silver Spring, MD 20910. (301) 608-2400. Email: WWW:

Economic Justice: Putting it Together

Putting economic justice into practice is evidently more difficult than one is inclined to suspect. One who is poor might suppose that there is some level of wealth (say, $100,000 or $1,000,000 or $1,000,000,000) with which one could be satisfied, and neither desire nor accumulate any further wealth. To the contrary, America and the world have many examples of families who have accumulated in excess of a billion dollars, and yet continue to accumulate more and more. Wealth, it seems, kindles an insatiable appetite for accumulation of more wealth. To break the cycle of economic injustice requires work at many levels, beginning with one's personal relationship with money.
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Last Updated: 12/28/98

Created: 11/28/97