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David J. Dunn, PhD

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Dave Ramsey's Deism and the Economics of Jubilee

Posted: 12/01/11 11:20 AM ET

Even though the Christian financial "guru" Dave Ramsey claims not to understand Occupy Wall Street, he does know why protesters (and by extension most Americans) want to raise taxes on the wealthy: We are sinners. "At the core of this demand [to raise taxes]," he says, "is envy."

This judgment is not just offensive and wrong (see my last post) but sadly ironic: Dave Ramsey tells people to bring the Bible to their personal finances, so he should know that God's economy is all about (what he scornfully calls) "wealth redistribution."

Being a theologian, I could talk about how sharing in the life of the Trinity obligates us to share our lives with others, but another excuse to "spiritualize" our wallets is the last thing we need. I am also tempted to "tear apart" Ramsey's caricature of the "Occupy" movement (it may truly be one of the finest examples of a "straw man fallacy" I have ever seen). But I respect Dave Ramsey as a fellow Christian and a person who has helped free thousands of families from crushing debt. (He does "God's work.") Therefore I will focus on the practical, theological root of his economic "heresy."

Ramsey says, "When someone takes my money and gives me no say in the matter, that's called theft -- whether they're using a gun or the government." Though this statement begs the question and shows a desperate need to Google "social contract," it is most troublesome because of its exclusionary theology of property. Or as toddlers say, "Mine!" This doctrine does not come from Ramsey's Christian faith.

Exclusionary property rights require Deism. Deists in the 17th and 18th centuries compared God to a watchmaker: God designed the universe, wound it up, then went on vacation until the end of infinity. They said divine hands never dirtied themselves with human affairs.

Prior to Deism, "The earth ... and all its fullness" belonged to God (Psalms 24:1), and people had inherent worth because they bore the divine image (naturally, I am simplifying the history quite a bit). That changed when this mechanistic metaphor took over. British policymakers "privatized" common land that had sustained families for generations, and they used the threat of starvation (allegedly God's way of discouraging laziness) to grow the modern labor market.

When everything is a "gear" or "cog" in a large machine, nature can become a private commodity and a person's value can be judged by her productive capacity.

The biblical God -- the God with dirty hands -- does not tolerate such policies.

If we are truly the possessions of a loving God (Leviticus 25:23), then rights must be regulated by needs. In contrast to the deistic view Leviticus 25 (the closest thing the Bible offers to a clear economic "policy") presents a more "open" theology of people and property. That is why this chapter gives more rights to the poor than the rich, saying that a person who falls into poverty, and sells his property to survive, has the right to buy it back at any time (with some exceptions). Or a relative may but it back for him.

This "policy" does not exactly qualify as what Ramsey calls "theft" (yet) but it does not support his deistic concept of exclusionary property, either. If Ramsey says nobody has a right to take his "stuff," then I assume he believes nobody has a right to make him sell it, either. Though he agrees that everything we have comes from God, which is why he rightly stresses private giving, he sadly fails to let that belief get in the way of his laissez faire economics. Otherwise he might not be so quick to condemn progressive tax reform.

What Ramsey calls "wealth redistribution" the Bible calls "Jubilee." That same chapter goes on to prescribe an economic "Sabbath" to take place every 50 years. The most prominent feature of this Jubilee year is the requirement that all property be returned to its original owners. Thus, twice a century God would "level the playing field" between the rich (who had accumulated property) and the poor (who had lost it). This kept the poor from ever becoming too poor, and the rich too rich, over multiple generations.

Ramsey might say the Jubilee is impractical or that Christians are not obligated to follow the Old Testament. But he misses the point. Christians believe all Scripture offers insight into the mind of God, and the Jubilee suggests that God and Dave Ramsey are of two minds about "wealth redistribution."

Besides, the economics of Jubilee do appear in the New Testament as the "kingdom of God." Those three little words make us modern people think of "heaven" (with puffy white clouds and possibly harps), but it was a technical, theological term for Jesus and his fellow Jews. The kingdom of God meant social and especially economic justice.

Prophets like Amos (4-5) and Isaiah (59-66) proclaimed a day of judgment on those who oppressed the poor, which would also be a day of feasting for their victims. Or as Jesus' mother sang (Luke 1:52-53),

"[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty."

Jesus' audience "marveled" when he proclaimed "good news" for the poor (Luke 4:18, 22) and (some scholars think) maybe even a new Jubilee (v. 19), words he later elaborated on, saying, "Blessed are you poor, For yours is the kingdom of God ... But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation" (6:20, 24). It takes some spry intellectual gymnastics to make those words not mean "wealth redistribution."

The kingdom has not come, but Mary did not praise a God who "will put down," nor did Jesus say, "Tomorrow, this Scripture will be fulfilled..." (see Luke 4:21). The Bible assumes that God's kingdom has begun in Christ Jesus. Thus, the social and economic reordering he proclaimed should already be happening.

It also indicates that what our word "heaven" means -- the kingdom of God -- looks a lot like Dave Ramsey's economic hell.

Someone who truly believes God's kingdom is a place where the "first will be last, and the last first" (Matt 19:30) should think twice before implying people who do not agree with him are sinners. Some of us are his sisters and brothers. Many Christians want to see higher taxes for the rich because the mission of the church is not "private." We must "lean" into our future hope -- the hope of social justice and wealth redistribution far more radical than anything Occupy Wall Street has demanded -- working toward the economics Jubilee as if the kingdom of God were already among us (Luke 17:21). Because it is.

 

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