A new piece on another shibboleth between the religious left and the religious right: Leviticus 25:23 and ‘the land is mine’. It is over at Political Theology.
28 March, 2013
22 February, 2013
Verse 7 of Psalm 124 reads:
Our life force (nefesh) has escaped as a bird from the snare of the bird-catchers;
the snare is broken, and we are free!
A radical glimpse? These are precisely the types of texts that radicals have treasured, along with famous texts such as Matthew 16:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Back to the Psalm. I am intrigued by Calvin’s comments:
Of the same import is the third similitude, That they were on all sides entrapped and entangled in the snares of their enemies, even as little birds caught in the net lie stretched under the hand of the fowler; and that when they were delivered, it was just as if one should set at liberty birds which had been taken. The amount is, that the people of God, feeble, without counsel, and destitute of aid, had not only to deal with bloodthirsty and furious beasts, but were also ensnared by bird-nets and stratagems, so that being greatly inferior to their enemies as well in policy as in open force, they were besieged by many deaths. From this it may be gathered that they were miraculously preserved (Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 5. pp. 87-88).
Uncannily reminds me of Lenin, who observes that a revolution is like a miracle. More pointedly, after the victory of the ‘civil’ war, he points out that his was indeed ‘a miracle without parallel, in that a starving, weak and half-ruined country has defeated its enemies—the mighty capitalist countries’.
30 December, 2012
I have just signed a contract with Fortress Press for a book called Idols of Nations: The Bible and the Development of Classical Theories of Capitalism. It is the follow-up to The Sacred Economy and is due with the press by 1 September, 2013.
The title comes from Jer 14:22 (and Ps 135:15). Since Adam Smith drew the title of Wealth of Nations from Isa 61:6, 12 (and 60:5) and since my book is critical of the way classical economists used the Bible, Idols of Nations it is.
The book critiques the rise of early theories of capitalism in light of their engagement with biblical texts. It traces the way significant theorists dealt with the Bible in order to develop their positions. Why and how did these theorists use the Bible, is that use legitimate, and what are the implications for the influential theories they developed? How did those engagements change over time as those theories developed a life of their own? This study focuses on material often relegated to the margins of analysis. Thus, while Hobbes and Locke found it necessary to build their theories from biblical analysis, Grotius was an accomplished (and ecumenical) theologian and Malthus an evangelical minister, both seeking to reconcile their positions with their theological approaches. The study also traces the way biblical themes are subsumed at a less explicit but deeper level with the later moral emphasis of Smith, Mill and Ricardo.
In more detail: of late a recovery of the looser connection between Christian theology and neoclassical economics has been pursued by some economists and theologians. However, these studies really do not address crucial issues in relation to theology and the Bible. In this light, we find a disjunction: if the Bible is mentioned, it relates to the political or theological thought of the critic in question; where economics is discussed, the Bible does not appear. For example, while secondary literature mentions the Bible in relation to Locke’s political thought, the crucial role of Genesis in the opening section of Locke’s treatment of private property in Two Treatises on Government is ignored or even excised from printed editions. With Grotius, theology in general may be mentioned in his discussion of property, natural law, freedom of the seas and agonism in ethics and commerce, but the Bible is nowhere to be seen. In regard to Hobbes, the central role of religion in Leviathan is noted in relation to politics and ethics but the Bible’s role in his economic thought on property, money and interest is neglected. As for Rev. Malthus, his theory concerning the relation between population and long-term economic stability is recognised as having a general theological basis in theodicy: overpopulation and its problems be divine moral lessons, but ultimate responsibility lies with human sin. Yet the fact that Malthus grounds his moral arguments on the Bible (eg. Gen 1:28) is rarely, if ever, explored in detail.
1. Introduction: Concerning the Bible and Economic Theory
The book begins by emphasising the importance of the Bible for early theorists of capitalism and the simultaneous neglect of precisely that feature of their work. Rather than peripheral scaffolding that may conveniently be ignored once the theories have been erected, the Bible and their modes of engaging with it are crucial for understanding the development of those theories. The work focuses on four key economists who used the Bible extensively: Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632–1704) and Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).
2. Grotius and the Biblical Seas
Concerning Grotius, an analogy may be identified between his Arminian theology and his doctrine of the ‘free seas’ (developed against claims to dominance by other European states) . Following Jacob Arminius (professor of theology at the University of Leiden until his death in 1610) and his followers, Grotius believed that salvation involves not merely God’s inscrutable decision concerning election (predestination), but also the faith of each individual. This faith is eternally known, but the shift from orthodox Calvinism is crucial: God elects all who have faith. In other words, a window is left open for individual human agency, even if it is foreknown by God. The analogy with his doctrine of the free seas may be cast as follows: instead of states monopolising the sea, each state and individual is free to use the seas for trade, unhindered by any other state. That is, anyone who could be shown to be a user of the sea was thereby entitled to do so; so also, anyone who shows the true marks of faith is thereby one of the elect.
3. Hobbes and the Natural State of ‘Man’
Hobbes the materialist was the son of a vicar, taught by the puritan, John Wilkinson of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and held rather unconventional theological views. Sporadic attention has been given to Hobbes’s economic thought, especially in terms of its contradictions, working on the tension between self-interest (greed) and public welfare, between homo economicus and absolutism, between the state and the need for individuals to engage in buying, selling and the pursuit of profit, but also of his anticipatory naturalising of capitalism’s functions as intrinsic to human nature in a way that universalised a particular form of economic activity (Levy 1954; Macpherson 1962; Viner 1991). Yet, what is not noticed is that Hobbes develops these arguments through extensive engagement with the Bible. Most significantly, his treatment is highly critical (he is often seen as a precursor to historical critical methods of interpretation), with scepticism concerning miracles, prophecy and traditional views of authorship. Here then I pursue a close analysis of precisely those sections of Leviathan where Hobbes develops his politico-economic arguments through his critical analysis of the Bible.
4 Locke: The Problem of Paradise and Property
Locke is particularly interesting, for he struggled to overcome the profound difference between the Bible and his own economic context. For Locke, the Bible ‘has God for its author; salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture for its matter’. Given that it contains infallible truth, he vowed, ‘I shall immediately condemn and quit any opinion of mine, as soon as I am shown that it is contrary to any revelation in the holy scripture’. The problem was that on his reading, the state of paradise, when human beings were in harmony with God, contained no private property. Human beings had free run of the Garden, with no sense of owning any part of it, since it was God’s creation. How then did private property arise? Through tilling the soil and using the earth for human sustenance. From this first step, the ever more complex patterns of private property developed. Locke thereby elaborates on Hobbes’s preliminary effort to develop the myth that capitalism is the eternal unfolding of basic human proclivities. Three points are worth noting. First, the Bible is naturalised as part of a grand myth of capitalism. Second, he embodies the very difference between the Bible and his own context by the effort to overcome the contradiction of property. Third, the development of private property becomes a result of the Fall, for the human beings only begin to till the soil after they have been expelled from paradise.
5. Malthus: Theodicy and Political Economy
The Reverend Malthus brought the problem of theodicy into the heart of political economy. How could an all-powerful, all-knowing and loving God afflict human beings with overpopulation and thereby famine, disease and starvation? On the one hand, the results of overpopulation may be seen as a moral lesson in order to make us reform our social modes of life. But God is not responsible, argued Malthus, for human beings are guilty (Gen 2-3). In order to counter the objection that Gen 1:28 encourages us to be fruitful and multiply, he argued that we have been reckless and misinterpreted that text, for we have not been fruitful in a responsible manner. Malthus’s answer was characteristic of early 19th century theology: repentance from sin requires a strictly moral life, with sexual abstinence and honest lives (only his followers proposed contraception). Malthus also signals on a theological register a central feature of economic thought, namely, its deeply moral nature.
6. Sublating the Bible: Morality and Classical Economic Theory
Thus, in the chapter on ‘sublating the Bible’, I focus on the work of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and J.S. Mill. Apart from Malthus, economic theory separated from theology in the 19th century (Waterman 1991; 2004), thereby producing the theoretical perception of an economic sphere independent of all else. In the process, explicit biblical engagements are increasingly sublimated by moral concerns. Thus, the Bible is peripheral in Smith’s work – Wealth of Nations is drawn from Isa 60:5 (and 61:6; 66:12) and the ‘invisible hand’ is a short step from the inexplicable and ubiquitous ‘hand of God’ throughout the Bible – but his argument is deeply moral, with an emphasis on both compassion and self-interest as universal elements of human nature that determine economic behaviour. In Ricardo, this moral focus is manifested in the theory of comparative advantage, while J.S. Mill sought to counter the element of greed in these theories by emphasising that at the end of capitalism, when profits, capital, industry and population had become static, people would turn from selfish to altruistic concerns – the ultimate maximisation of pleasure and happiness. A mark of the sublimation of biblical and even theological concerns is that Smith was a deist, Ricardo a Unitarian and Mill an agnostic who saw the moral and aesthetic power of religion in providing ideals and hopes for human improvement.
7. Conclusion: Economising the Bible
The conclusion explores the paradox in which it seems ‘natural’ to apply neoclassical theories of capitalist economics to the Bible, despite the evident difference between its economic context and capitalism. Two paths may be identified. For some (Locke and Malthus), the Bible presented them with a profound difference between its context and their own. Their work functions as both a recognition of that difference and a sustained effort to overcome that difference in order to naturalise the Bible. For the later theorists (Smith, Mill and Ricardo) and their moral focus, they assumed that human nature is always the same, being a mixture of self-interest and altruism. By connecting that human nature and the core drives of capitalism as a natural fit, they easily moved to the assumption that the history of economies is an unfolding of the same principle. Both paths converge with the myth of a long history of capitalism in which earlier economies function as ‘capitalism light’ – those ‘primitives’ did not know the complexities of fully-fledged capitalism. In regard to the Bible, it thereby seems perfectly ‘natural’ to apply neoclassical economic theory to studying its context. Yet, since it can be shown that early theorists misappropriated the Bible, and since biblical economies were very different than they imagined, such economic theory becomes highly problematic for the study of non-capitalist economies.
9 December, 2012
Back in 1911, Anatoly Lunacharsky – in the second volume of Religion and Socialism – offered what is arguably one of the more astute political readings of Paul’s theology. Lunacharsky calls him the ‘poet of early Christianity’.
In sum, the argument goes as follows: In response to the delay in Christ’s return, Paul constructs an idealized, mystical, and other-worldly theology that spiritualizes a very earthly and political movement. The heavenly face of Christ now overshadows the worldly person (1911, 53). Yet by means of that spiritualization Paul breaks through to a more international and democratic form of Christianity. It is no longer ethnically and nationally limited, for it belongs to all. The analysis of Paul becomes even more subtle, for in internationalizing Christianity, he overcomes yet another tension, now within early Christianity. That form may have been resolutely communistic, yet it was trapped within a fierce nationalism and hatred of foreign oppressors. Paul’s response both moves away from that early communism and negates its fiercely nationalistic focus. Indeed, he was able to do so only through an anti-communist spiritualization. And yet, at this higher level (Aufhebung) Paul offers a new revolutionary doctrine: justification by faith is itself deeply revolutionary, for it destroys the privilege of the rich and powerful (1911, 55). Finally, it is precisely this mystical theology that makes of Paul the great myth-maker, producing a reshaped narrative of the dying and rising Christ, a myth that Lunacharsky admires for its sparkling poetic power (1911, 41-45, 53, 58-60).
22 November, 2012
Apart from my thrills at the book display theme park, I did actually attend some paper sessions, presenting at a few, listening at others. And a conference – even with 10,500 people – is never worth it until you encounter a really abysmal presentation and find one really good idea.
The worst: curiously, it was on a panel called ‘Race Matters in Political Theology’. And the moment was what may be called ‘Imperialising Theory-Speak’.
To begin with, I thoroughly enjoyed what Kowk Pui Lan and Eleazer Fernandez had to say, urging other US-based scholars not to become wrapped up in their own parochial concerns and ignoring the rest of the world. And the effort by some of the others present to defend Judith Butler, after I had dumped on her liberal and hypocritical ethics, left me somewhat bemused.
But the self-styled radical, Andrea Smith (who has written her own Wikipedia page), provided two moments of stunning imperialism. The first was to cut off a question regarding class, especially the complex interweaving of race and class in the USA.
She replied: ‘Seeing race as a superstructural dimension of class was demolished ages ago …’
‘That’s not what I said …’ interjected the questioner.
‘Let me finish my sentence’, she cut in. The sentence lasted another ten minutes.
The second moment was in response to my point – following on from Kwok Pui Lan – about the implicit imperialising of debates in the USA, especially the way specific issues with their own particular histories are assumed to be everyone’s issues. Again, in a stunning example of precisely that process, Andrea Smith asserted through a torrent of theory-speak that her position is indeed universal. Given that she also dominated question time and made sure she had the last word, I gained the distinct impression of being hectored into submission – the effect was much like being bombarded by a theoretical aircraft carrier.
The best: Christine Mitchell’s paper on the myth of the benevolent Persians. It was a timely reminder not to be seduced by the propaganda found in inscriptions from the halls of power. Christine focused on the Persian self-representation as benevolent imperialists, only to rip it apart. They simply refined the brutality of the Assyrians – much like the democrat version of imperialism in the USA, I guess. But it reinforced my growing awareness of the way so many scholars who deal with politics and economics in the ANE take at face value the self-assertions of ultimate and far-reaching power, let alone their paternal loving-kindness. The land is the mine, claim the rulers, and every one is my vassal, to whom I extend mercy. The reality was quite different.
Actually, there was one further moment, more a trigger for thinking about an unresolved question. It emerged from the murky depths of my mind during a session on domestic space in the ancient world. Amidst much discussion of ‘house sizes’ and so on, I recalled the curious practice in Mesopotamia with the transfer of domestic space. To begin with, measurements are always given for the internal space, inside the walls. One does not measure by means of the outside walls (to maximise the profit from the sale). And there is no document or contract that cites the acquisition of a whole dwelling. Instead, we find a room, or more commonly part of a room. The space was measured by spreading emmer wheat over the floor and then the space was transferred. But what does that mean concerning the sense of space, of lived space? How can you live in one third of a room, while your neighbours live in the other two-thirds? Did they have completely different notions of the demarcation of space, or perhaps the lack of such demarcation? How did they imagine, think and live space? No one on the panel knew the answer and no one who has written on this has one either. I spent much of my time on the way back to Berlin pondering this conundrum as part of the Sacred Economy project, wondering whether this act of experiential imagination is beyond us.
21 November, 2012
One of the glorious features of the USA is that the only criterion for getting anything, or indeed getting admitted to anything, is money. If you have the cash, they’ll let you do it. Take the biggest book display on earth – in the area of religion theology and biblical studies. It was a veritable theme park, with all sorts of wonderful people hawking their wares. The fact that this was my sixth conference in about five weeks meant that my mind was wired to enjoy this other, fascinating dimension at the book display.
To begin with, I was intrigued by the logo of IVP Press. Must be an Aussie who designed this one:
Missionary position, anyone?
Then there were the friendly people from ‘Ravel Unravel’, waiting expectantly for a string of religion scholars to sit behind a camera, answer four questions and promptly find themselves on the internet:
For some strange reason, no one was tempted. Then I met the lovely, quiet Buddhist man, hoping to sell one book and offering free pins. I loved it.
Of course, there is an ‘I’ in the Dalai Lama, who was present at the meeting, vying for attention with Heerak Christian Kim.
Not to be missed was the intriguing project:
That should reshape the whole debate over secularism.
And then I met the founder and (to my knowledge only member) of the International Nimbarka Society.
I dream of having hair like that. He was a little nonplussed, though, when I mentioned that my main interest these days is Marxism and religion.
However, the highlight was the ‘Simple Truth’ stand. Here one began by throwing cloth balls (that’s Sean Burt) …
… into the mouth of a green frog:
One then fished for a Bible verse with a fishing rod, after which and depending on how many balls the frog swallowed, one was given either a beautiful badge:
Or an absolute must, a mobile phone screen cleaner:
Or a ‘tote bag’:
Or best of all – a t-shirt:
That’s pretty much my Christmas shopping done.
So enthused was I after my first visit that I brought others to undergo the stimulating experience:
That’s Tripp Fuller of ‘Homebrewed Christianity‘ (who interviewed me for a podcast), Jeremy Rollins and Clayton Crockett, both theologians.
The caption at the top left is, um, somewhat appropriate. By this time, the people at the stand began to know me rather well, welcoming me back with a smile.
11 October, 2012
For some reason that is beyond me, apart from the lure of at least some fascinating places, I have found myself undertaking the following crazy sequence of keynote addresses and papers over the next five weeks:
1. Spiritual Booze and Freedom: Lenin on Religion
- 13-15 October: keynote address at the 50th anniversary of Beijing Languages and Cultures University.
2. A Revolution is a Miracle: Lenin and the Translatability of Politics and Religion
- 20-23 October: paper at ‘Lenin’s Thought in the 21st Century‘, Wuhan University, China.
3. Venerating Lenin
- 20-23 October: paper at ‘Lenin’s Thought in the 21st Century‘, Wuhan University, China.
4. Old Wine in New Wineskins: Reassessing Dynamic Equivalence
- 25-28 October: keynote address at ‘Translation and Interpretation in the Age of Globalization: Looking Back and Looking Ahead‘, Central Universitar Nord din Baia Mare, Transylvania, Romania.
5. Antonio Negri and the Bible
- 2 November: keynote at ‘The Book of Job in Philosophical Perspective‘, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, Norway.
6. Miracles Can Happen
- 8-11 November: paper at ‘Weighs Like a Nightmare‘, Historical Materialism 2012, SOAS, London.
7. What Exactly Did Credit Mean in the Ancient World?
- 17-20 November, paper at The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.
8. Living a Life of Luxury? Subsistence Versus Trade in the Ancient Economy
- 17-20 November, paper at The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.
9. Race Matters in Political Theology
- 17-20 November, panel at The American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.
2 October, 2012
Every now and then I come across that old saw: the Bible (and thereby the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ tradition, whatever that is) introduced for the first time a notion of linear history, one that moves from creation to eschaton, from a beginning to an end. All those other ‘primitives’ were locked into a cyclical idea of history, prisoners of the cycles of the seasons and agriculture. Thereby, any historian who follows a linear narrative is by default indebted to this biblical heritage. Nice piece of quasi-theological special pleading, that one. Strange thing is that there is plenty of cyclical stuff in the Bible, and I can’t help noticing that ‘primitive’ texts such as Enuma Elish or the Epic of Gilgamesh, let alone the annals of the Assyrian kings seem to be quite linear as well.
11 September, 2012
Many are the recent efforts (since 1989) that argue the ancient Near Eastern economy was founded on trade, that it was ‘partly capitalist’ (the phrase is actually used). Some cite Ezekiel 27: 12-25, suggesting that here we have a detailed and glowing account of the trading ventures of Tyre. The NSRV really gets carried away, offering the following:
Tarshish did business with you out of the abundance of your great wealth; silver, iron, tin, and lead they exchanged for your wares. Javan, Tubal, and Meshech traded with you; they exchanged human beings and vessels of bronze for your merchandise. Beth-togarmah exchanged for your wares horses, war horses, and mules. The Rhodians traded with you; many coastlands were your own special markets; they brought you in payment ivory tusks and ebony. Edom did business with you because of your abundant goods; they exchanged for your wares turquoise, purple, embroidered work, fine linen, coral, and rubies. Judah and the land of Israel traded with you; they exchanged for your merchandise wheat from Minnith, millet, honey, oil, and balm. Damascus traded with you for your abundant goods — because of your great wealth of every kind — wine of Helbon, and white wool. Vedan and Javan from Uzal entered into trade for your wares; wrought iron, cassia, and sweet cane were bartered for your merchandise. Dedan traded with you in saddlecloths for riding. Arabia and all the princes of Kedar were your favored dealers in lambs, rams, and goats; in these they did business with you. The merchants of Sheba and Raamah traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones, and gold. Haran, Canneh, Eden, the merchants of Sheba, Asshur, and Chilmad traded with you. These traded with you in choice garments, in clothes of blue and embroidered work, and in
carpets of colored material, bound with cords and made secure; in these they traded with you. The ships of Tarshish traveled for you in your trade.
The problems here is that this word picture appears in the middle of an extended condemnation for precisely these activities by the busybody Tyre. The despicable status of ‘merchants’, or rather busybodies and grovellers, is standard throughout the prophetic literature. Each of the key terms used in the text from Ezekiel has decidedly more shady and undesirable elements within its semantic field. So I suggest that a translation which captures that feel of the passage might go as follows:
Tarshish scurried [sḥr] about with you due to your massive piles of riches; silver, iron, tin, and lead they gave [ntn] for your forsaken wares [’zb]. Javan, Tubal, and Meshech trafficked [rkl] with you; they gave human beings and vessels of bronze for your barren cargo [‘rb]. Beth-togarmah gave for your forsaken wares horses, war horses, and mules. The Rhodians swarmed [rkl] about you; many coastlands became your own busybodies [sḥr]; they brought you in payment ivory tusks and ebony. Edom scurried [sḥr] about with you because of your many shady dealings (’śh); they gave for your forsaken wares turquoise, purple, embroidered work, fine linen, coral, and rubies. Judah and the land of Israel swarmed [rkl] over you; they gave for your barren cargo wheat from Minnith, millet, honey, oil, and balm. Damascus scurried [sḥr] about with you due to your many shady dealings – because of your piles of riches of every kind – wine of Helbon, and white wool. Vedan and Javan from Uzal gave for your forsaken wares wrought iron; cassia and sweet cane were for your barren cargo. Dedan swarmed [rkl] about you for saddlecloths for riding. Arabia and all the princes of Kedar were your favored busybodies [sḥr] in lambs, rams, and goats; in these they scurried [sḥr] about with you. The busybodies [rkl] of Sheba and Raamah swarmed [rkl] over you; they gave for your forsaken wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones, and gold. Haran, Canneh, Eden, the busybodies [rkl] of Sheba, Asshur, and Chilmad swarmed [rkl] over you. These swarmed [rkl] over you for choice garments, for clothes of blue and embroidered work, and for carpets of colored material, bound with cords and made secure; in these they swarmed [rkl] about you. The ships of Tarshish sailed for you with your barren cargo.
9 August, 2012
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Philippe Guillaume’s Land, Credit and Crisis: Agrarian Finance in the Hebrew Bible (Equinox, 2012) is one of the most curious books that I have read for some time. It is best described as a box of items found at the back of a flea market. Picking the box up, you never know quite what you will find. It may have a few gems; it may have some real junk. And all of them are thrown together in a way that belies any clear organisation. More soon, but one of the gems must be:
Although it is moving around the planet’s axis at an impressive speed, land tends to be classified as immovable property (p. 20).