Licensed Economic Inefficiency – some thoughts on God and Social Justice

Lev 19:9 “When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the heads of grain that were left.
Lev 19:10 Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people and foreigners. I am the LORD your God.”

This commandment, illustrated in practice in the story of Ruth, demonstrates an attitude to economics that contrasts sharply with our modern capitalist emphasis on efficiency. We are so used to the ideal of picking up every single grain, every single grape, that it still comes as a bit of a shock.
Our economics are built on a theory of scarcity, which at once leads us to be grasping and ungenerous. After all, if resources are so limited, we have to look after Number One, don’t we?
But there is another ethic, built on a theory of abundance. When there are resources, it’s silly (and wrong) to hold them to ourselves, so let’s share them.
Why silly? – because resources of food especially are perishable. When a villager killed a pig, everyone in the village could expect to benefit – otherwise the meat would go bad. And the same applied to many other foodstuffs.
Why wrong? – because people in villages belonged together. If Mrs Jones was left out of the pork sharing, she was being left out of the village community.
Now, I have lapsed into the past tense and a village setting, because I can’t imagine this happening in an urban context in the present day. But two or three generations ago, it happened in poor urban communities: here are two quotes from one of my parishioners in Leeds, whom I interviewed in 1992 for my M.Phil thesis.

“If anybody saw you were in difficulties in the old days, they would knock on your door and say, “What can I do?” …In the street where I lived – in those days the electric bill was about £2 or £3 at the most, and this particular woman was threatened – her electricity was going to be disconnected. And one of the neighbours, she went round knocking on doors, saying, “Well, look, can you lend us a shilling, and you will be paid back the shilling in two or three weeks.” So she went to enough houses to borrow a shilling, so that the woman, her electricity bill was paid, and then the woman paid somebody back each week. If she could afford three shillings she would pay three people. The better off – even in the back-to-back houses you still have the better off. And sometimes they’d say, “Well, forget it”; it was only the really desperately poor people that would say, “Oh thanks, that will come in handy this week, it’s been a God-send, it’s been like someone’s been saving it for me.”

“But they are so busy and so frustrated with getting on with what they’ve got to do [preparing for Christmas], that it would be lovely if we could show peace and goodwill to each other every day … It’s a shame that it has to be something like that [a sponsored marathon or other event] and not the fact that the next door neighbour says, ”Would you like – I’ve made quite a large meal – would you like to…” But you see, you used to do that in the olden days, used to say, “I’ve made a big, ginormous pan of stew, there’s loads, do you fancy it?” But you see, people today can actually be offended if you do that…”

Such generous inefficiency was commanded in the Torah, and practised in the time of the Judges. It was even practised in rural and urban contexts a couple of generations ago – “in the old days”, but still more or less within living memory. With those more recent examples in our minds, is it easier for us to imagine how the commands in Leviticus might have worked in ancient Israel? Now that society has moved even further away from the ethics and economics of abundance, is it possible that a more intentional community could rediscover not just the theory but the practice, and model it to the rest of society? How important was it that early Israelite society was a theocracy?

Written for a theological table-talk supper as part of Leicester Diocese’s Social Responsibility Group, 26 September 2016

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