Written By: Philip Rosenthal
On 1 June 2017, speaking in parliament, Jacob Zuma said “Christians can’t argue against the notion of radical economic transformation. It’s the gospel truth and I love talking about it like a pastor likes talking about the bible on Sundays. We want a kind of economy that all South Africans can benefit from. Not others more, others less, or others not at all. Especially the poor. “What a gospel truth!” Zuma exclaimed. “I know as a Christian you won’t disagree with this truth.”
Zuma explained that ‘Radical economic transformation’ policy was adopted by the ANC at its Mangaung conference in 2012. We must thank him for re-opening the debate on the Bible and economics. Is this economic policy un-debatable ‘gospel truth’?
‘Gospel truth’ in scripture refers to the core message which a person must believe and say to be a Christian and go to heaven. Essentially, that Jesus, the Son of God became a man, died on a cross, taking the punishment in our place that we deserve for disobeying God, and he rose again to become Lord of everything including us. By asking forgiveness for our wrongs, believing and saying “Jesus is Lord”, Christians believe they are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, thus saved from eternal punishment (Romans 3:23,6:23,10:9).
How does this compare with the resolutions of the ANC Manguang Conference? The belief that Jesus is Lord of everything includes our wealth and thus has economic implications. That principle is ‘gospel truth’. Nevertheless, state economic policy is a complex matter that must consider multiple Bible teachings written thousands of years ago in a different geographical and technological context. For two thousand years, governments and economists have considered how best to apply those principles to their own current context. No specific state economic policy can be taken as ‘gospel truth’.
Let us then compare the Manugang resolutions with Bible economic teachings: In applying ancient economic law to our modern context, one must first ‘abstract’ the underlying principle from the command and then apply it specifically to our situation.
Expanding the Role of the State and the Role of State Owned Enterprises
The state created under the Law of Moses had probably the smallest central state government of any country before or since. It had no state owned enterprises. Just about all decisions were devolved to the lowest possible level – families and local municipal councils. There was no centralized state army or police force, with these functions being handled by voluntary citizen militias. This in contrast to neighbouring states of for example, Egypt with a massive centralised government. Contrary to the Manguang policy, the lesson of history is that the state tends to consume more wealth than it creates – jobs lost in the private sector are more than those created by the large state.
Duty Bound to Protect the Livelihoods of the Poor:
The Bible defines concentric circles of responsibility to help the poor. Firstly those who can must work to earn money. No benefits for those who can but refuse to work (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Secondly, all must provide for their immediate family and then relatives (1 Timothy 5:8). Then charitable institutions such as churches provide for those who can’t and don’t have family (1Timothy 5:16). Then the commands to set aside a portion of income to give to the poor and for employers to try create work opportunities for the poorrather than only for their own employees and profit. In the agricultural economy, this meant allowing the poor to gather what was left behind in the harvest. Comparative modern applications include making available goods for the poor to recycle or allowing space for informal trading. Only after these multiple safety nets fail, does the state get involved. Nevertheless, the Manugang policies do not consider the importance of strengthening the family as the primary safety net and redistributor of wealth.
Multiple state policies undermine the family. The government can consider ways to encourage creation of informal work opportunities, and charitable giving. On the positive side, the policy does encourage small business SMME “development of entrepreneurs providing productive inputs into the real economy.”
The policy blames “The global crisis of capitalism asserted itself with vengeance from 2008” for loss of jobs.
While blaming capitalism, it fails to apply lessons from the world economic crisis of 2008. Essentially, large institutions getting into too much debt, by being forced to lend money to the poor at high interest rates which they could not repay – lead to a ripple effect of bankruptcy. The Bible includes multiple warnings against the dangers of debt and usury, which if listened to could have avoided this economic crisis. Usury to the poor is forbidden. At the time of the Reformation, Switzerland relaxed its lending prohibitions and became the banking capital of the world. Nevertheless, in the Twentieth Century, lending policies relaxed further into uncontrolled government and institutional debt, which inevitably leads to bankruptcy. The Manguang policy while blaming ‘capitalist crisis’ will push South Africa deeper into debt, leading to exactly the same type of crisis requiring bailout.
Replace willing buyer willing seller with the “Just and equitable principle in the Constitution immediately where the state is acquiring land for land reform purposes. Expropriation without compensation.” The question of land can be looked at in terms of two separate Biblical principles: ‘private property rights’ and ‘redistribution of capital’. The first is that of private property rights. One of the Ten commandments is “You shall not steal”. That can be applied to both historic theft of land, where it can be proven and to proposed future theft of land by expropriation without compensation. Land claims investigations have attempted to rectify some historic injustice.
Nevertheless, there are complications. Land has often been traded many times, original ownership is often unknown, people have moved, intermarried and the question of what date to set back to. Ancient Israel’s Biblical law distributed land equally after the Canaanite conquest and required all land to be returned to its original family owners every 50years. That meant every family had access to agricultural capital. But firstly, our modern economy is no longer based on small scale family agriculture and secondly we have no original date to fairly redistribute land back to. The principle is thus better abstracted and applied to be giving each generation a chance of employment i.e. educational opportunities. Such a policy would thus ‘steal’ from those who have invested capital in land, while a policy with compensation places an even burden on all taxpayers.
Giving Expression to this Urgency:
A radical and rapid break from the past without significantly disrupting agricultural production and food security.” Historically, most countries, peoples and families and businesses that have moved from poverty to prosperity have done so over a few generations, rather than a through a radical state economic shift. Such rapid interventions have generally created more poverty. For example, South Korea devastated by civil war in the 1950s is now a wealthy technology hub. One can see for example the old centre of Khayelitsha in Cape Town has risen from a tent town to well built brick houses and businesses, while the new outskirts are shacks. For example millions of Jews arrived in New York penniless and only in the third generation become professionals with property.
The Bible, starting with the example of Abraham, teaches in multiple places the need for long-term inter-generational vision for a family, investing in education and saving capital for the next generation. A long term plan may be frustrating in the short term, but it actually works.
Jacob Zuma must be thanked for raising the comparison of Bible teaching and economics, but needs to consider the principles of economics taught in the Bible further.
Philip Rosenthal is the director of ChristianView Network.