Valuing the Earth: A Theology of Enough

This is a continuation of a series I started exploring some of the themes found in the book Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics.

The last couple posts already touched on the theme of the last part of the book concerning the interaction of ends and means. It’s enough to say that the means must be consistent with the ends and that economics itself does not have an Ultimate end or telos. In a previous post I listed what I thought were some biblical principles for the way things should be:

•Equality of economic opportunity
•Dignity of all human beings as created by God
•Care and stewardship for the natural resources and systems that sustain life within God’s creation
•Possessions and property should be held loosely and ideally shared between those have and those who lack
•The model for our relationships with each other and the earth is the servant leadership exemplified in Jesus’ life and death

I think that this vision of what life should be like requires limits. This is the part with which modern economics seems so uncomfortable. Limits are seen as something that constrains growth, stifles innovation and leads to economic decline. In extreme cases I’m sure that’s true, but here we are talking about limits that are reasonable given the vision of the way we want the world to be. The Christian tradition certainly has ample support for limits on human life and activity for the common good.

The conclusion of our long (and ongoing) discussion about the nature of property in Scripture seemed to be that property rights are upheld by the Bible in numerous places as a curb on sinful behavior, excess greed and accumulation, not to mention the damage it causes to relationships. The 600+ laws in the Old Testament are limits on what is acceptable or what works and doesn’t for the Israelites. Even the laws that were cultural and no longer apply today were intended to set limits for the community in some way.

Can I Supersize This Manna?

I think two examples are instructive, one from the Hebrew Bible and one from the New Testament. The first is the account during the Exodus of God’s provision of manna and quail for the Israelites in the wilderness. This story is often read primarily in terms of trusting God. The content of the story is not really all that important. We could substitute God commanding them to do something utterly ridiculous, like stand on their heads naked just as the sun goes down every day, and the point of the story would be the same. But the content does matter and it should affect what we glean from the account.

The Israelites are complaining about their hunger (and rightfully so) and wishing they were back in Egypt where they had it easy (memory is a funny thing isn’t it?). God replies, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day” (Ex 16:4). After Moses gives the people these instructions this is the description of them putting it into practice,

The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed. (Ex 16:17-18)

The passage does not say that everyone gathered the exact same amount, though there was the recommendation of “an omer for each person in your tent” (Ex 16:16). There is an upper and lower limit set based on the daily needs of the people. There is a spectrum of having or accumulation that constitutes enough. Enough is not a rigidly defined boundary that allots everyone an equal portion. Enough does mean that there is not a great disparity between those who gathered much and those who gathered a little.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Anxiety

There’s also an emphasis on considering only what is necessary for the day, which we find in Matthew 6. This is the middle chapter of the Sermon on the Mount and contains both Jesus’ words on prayer and worry. In what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer Jesus says we should pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11). We are not told to pray, “Give us enough for a nice retirement” or “Give me enough so I don’t have to worry about tomorrow.” In fact Jesus words later in the chapter on worry emphasize again the focus on the needs of today.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. (Mt 6:25-26,33-34)

Too often verse 33 is quoted apart from the rest of the passage. Taken in context, Matthew is suggesting that putting the kingdom first means not worrying about tomorrow, not concerning ourselves with what we will eat, drink or wear. In an economy of enough there is no need to worry about these things. The only reason scarcity matters in our current context is because some people have so much that it is not possible for others to have. We worry that if we do not have more than we need today then there might not be any tomorrow. What if the manna doesn’t come tomorrow morning? In an economy of enough it would be possible for everyone to have, because no one person’s possessing would mean the limitation of others. This is where the idea of an upper limit comes in.

Injustice, Not the Sky, is the Limit

In the book there was a quote from John Ruskin that got me thinking about what an economy of enough might really look like.

the law of life is that a man should fix the sum he desires to make annually, as the food he desires to eat daily; and stay when he has reached the limit, refusing increase of business and leaving it to others, so obtaining due freedom of time for better thoughts. (Ruskin 193)

We are used to having a lower limit, but uncomfortable with the idea of an upper limit. However, we choose to limit all kinds of things. We have anti-trust laws against monopolies. There are media consolidation rules about one person or company owning all the media in a given area. While modern economics tries not to set an upper limit for wealth accumulation, there is still the sense that we don’t want one person running the world, controlling too much of the world’s resources or power. So, we have rules that limit that.

The growth economy’s vision of the world is based on never-ending consumption and the enshrinement of the individual’s desires as the highest good. That system is getting exactly the results that its vision of the world is set up to get, but that is not the biblical vision of the way the world should be. It seems to me that the vision that everyone should have equality of economic opportunity and that we have been entrusted with the care of natural systems and resources on which we depend requires some sort of upper limit as Ruskin suggests. He suggests that people set their own limits based on their understanding of “the law of life”, by which, I think, he means the laws that govern our physical world and bear on our continued existence within our given ecosystem on this planet.

It seems pretty risky to allow the CEOs on Wall Street and Mother Teresa to both be making their own definition of how much is enough. That seems to be what causes the current inequality to continue year after year. I would dare suggest that the United Nations, or perhaps just individual countries, set some sort of upper limit on the possibility of accumulation. I think a flat percentage tax on income would be a good start, the more you make the more you pay into the common good. There would still be lots of loopholes and problems to be worked out, but I think this is what is required by the biblical vision for what the world should be and the implications for our global economic life together.

We are still left with the question, “When is enough enough?” I’d like to explore this question next in terms of the concept of “simple living”.

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5 thoughts on “Valuing the Earth: A Theology of Enough

  1. JTapp

    “I think a flat percentage tax on income would be a good start, the more you make the more you pay into the common good.”
    Wow, you just endorsed a flat tax as opposed to a progressive one. Welcome to the Republican party! But I’m not sure I’m aware of any countries that don’t either already have a flat percentage tax on income or a progressive one like the U.S (where the more you earn the higher your marginal tax rate is). But then you have to define what “common good” is. Do you take from one person and do a cash transfer to another? Or do you also use the money to build things for “the common good,” and if so, who defines that? It’d mean a government entity directing capital as opposed to a free market and prices…
    In Sweden, for example, they have really high marginal tax rates but it gets redistributed via cash pretty heavily. The guy at the very top doesn’t have a whole lot of incentive to earn an additional dollar since the government will take most of it. But those at the bottom are relatively well off. But at the same time, Sweden has left much of their goods/services market much more free than in the U.S. Even things like fire fighting are quasi-privatized, social security is privatized, you have real school voucher system with competition, etc. Gov’t doesn’t get as heavily involved in deciding what gets built. That’s attractive to me.

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  2. JTapp

    I also take issue with this: “and stay when he has reached the limit, refusing increase of business and leaving it to others, so obtaining due freedom of time for better thoughts.”

    By “better thoughts” it sounds like Ruskin looks down on employment. Work existed before sin. It is not some necessary evil, it is something we were created to do. It’s his business, he can refuse to increase it if he wants. But his business makes things that society values, and he employs people in his business. By refusing its increase, does he not also necessarily refuse jobs and wages for his employees? Is he choosing not to serve the world by producing something it values at greater than his cost? Is he choosing not to serve God with the talents He gave him? Could we not make an argument that he’s being selfish here? His statement reminds me of the guy who decided to tear down his barns and build new ones and live the high life (to which Jesus said “you fool…”). Ruskin must look down on work to make a statement like this, I find that problematic. It’s a Western idea that there is some dichotomy of sacred and secular. In Scripture (and outside the West, in Muslim culture for example) faith and the marketplace are deeply intertwined. Work isn’t some necessary evil we weren’t created to do.

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  3. Maria Kirby

    @JTapp

    True, “Work isn’t some necessary evil we weren’t created to do.” But we need to keep in mind that we need a Sabbath. If we don’t take a rest, then we aren’t really trusting God to provide.

    The Quaker John Woolman is an example of a man who limited his business to what he needed to survive and spent the rest of his time going from community to community trying to convince other Quakers not to own slaves. He was largely successful too. I would conclude that what he did in his non-business hours was more important than earning more and employing a few more more people.

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  4. Dan Sullivan

    Classical liberalism was based on the idea that, while the fruits of one’s labor is private property, the earth is a commons. Everyone who held land to the extent that there was not “enough and as good left to others” (Locke), had exceeded his rights and was subject to limits by the community. Tom Paine argued that, while agriculture was a blessing, the unlimited property in land that accompanied agriculture was a curse that impoverished the masses of Europe (Agrarian Justice). Paine advocated that every proprietor of land owes a ground rent to the landless. William Penn called Pennsylvania a “Commonwealth” to emphasize that the right to access land is a common right. He declared that collecting the rent for public purposes would leave “not a beggar,” and provide “the greatest bank” for trade with other countries. Philaldephia was founded on land value tax.

    The French Physiocrats (particularly Quesnay and Turgot) who gave us the term “laissez faire,” also advocated a single tax on the value of land. Adam Smith argued that ground rents were a uniquely suitable subject of taxation. (Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 11, “The Rent of Land.”) Jefferson deduced that the abject poverty that pervaded Europe existed because the land was all grabbed up, and advocated a progressively increasing tax on real estate.

    Land monopoly and slavery go hand in hand. The Free Soil Party, which was the largest of the parties that coalesced into the Republican Party, was founded on the right of homesteading as well as abolition of slavery. To many Free Soilers, tenantry was another form of slavery. Indeed, homestead laws were blocked by the slave states, and the first U.S. homestead law was passed in 1862, after the slave states had seceded.

    The progressive movement grew out of the abolitionist movement, and its three major economic planks were homesteading, coupled with a tax on the unimproved value of land, direct issue of currency coupled with the abolition of banking privilege, and government ownership of right-of-way monopolies (water, sewer, electric, gas, railroad and streetcar lines, etc.)

    All of the great “population explosions” have occured, not among landed farmers, but among the landless poor. Indeed, they were all preceded by dispossession of the people from the land, often following imperial occupation by a foreign power (Ireland, India, etc., but sometimes following internal dynastic oppression (China). This is largely attributed to parents realizing that a large number of poor children might grow up able to eke out enough to keep them alive, while a small number of children are likely to be overwhelmed by the prospect and abandon their elderly parents.

    The system of private property in land that began with agriculture not only put people at war with nature, but at war with each other. Farmers were particularly vulnerable to predation, as they were tied to one location from planting to harvest time. Usually that location was the least defensible location. Herdsmen were able to swoop down from the mountains and dominate them. Franz Oppenheimer (Der Staat) made the case, citing Ratzel, that the first oppressive states were created by a ruling class of herdsmen over a subject class of farmers. The story of Cain, then, was an example of how “the winners write history.”

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