A biblical perspective on living wage
by Walter Brueggemann
The central and defining narrative memory of biblical faith is the story of the Exodus. While popular religion is preoccupied with the great divide of water in the Exodus story, in fact this defining memory is not about water; it is about rescue from unbearable poverty and abuse in debt slavery.
It is clear that the slaves in the book of Exodus did not just "happen" to be slaves as "the less fortunate." According to the drama of Genesis 47, they got into slavery because the great food monopoly of Pharaoh charged them for life support until they lost their marginal "means of production." They ended in slavery because they had no capital except their bodies that were eventually placed in hock to the power of the food monopoly with its concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
The wonder of the biblical story is that God paid special attention to these poor in their wretchedness:
God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them (Ex. 2:24-25). God intervened decisively in the distorted economy of Egypt on behalf of the poor who were being ruthlessly exploited in their helplessness.
That rescue, however, was not by an easy, heavenly miracle. It was accomplished through tedious, nerve-wracking negotiations led by Moses, supported and authorized by God. In some part, this emancipation of the helpless poor who became Israel is accomplished by human agency that refused to accept degrading poverty and economic injustice as a permanent or legitimate social condition.
The Exodus is a defining tale of rescue from economic disaster. It makes a grand religious narrative that feeds our imagination on the wonder of Gods powerful love. The Bible, however, always intends that religious sentiment should have practical expression in policy formation and concrete public action. Thus in the book of Deuteronomy Moses ponders how the Exodus narrative is to be transposed into economic policy and practice.
The outcome of that pondering is the remarkable policy statement of Deuteronomy 15:1-18, wherein Moses, at the behest of God, commands that the people reduced to debt slavery by their inability to pay their debts must be held in debt only as a short-term affair. This teaching provides that no matter how great the debt, it must be cancelled and forgiven after six years, so that the poor person is freed to reenter the economy. (This is rather like a bankruptcy procedure, except that it pertains to resourceless poor people, not to those with smart lawyers).
This command of God via Moses is a remarkable cornerstone of a vision for a covenantal, neighborly economics. It is concerned a) that there should be no permanent underclass and b) that the will of the Exodus God pertains precisely to economic matters.
Moses says: That there will always be poor people, and so this procedure must be scrupulously followed in all times and in all circumstances (v. 11).
Moses says: That if this practice of debt release is practiced, you can eradicate poverty: the "poor will cease in the land" (v. 4).
Moses says: Not only must you cancel debts and let the debtor free; you must "provide liberally" extra resources to the poor so that the poor can be economically viable (v. 8-10). (This provision sounds strangely like economic "reparations.")
Moses says: You, the monied and the propertied and the privileged, shall do this, because you were debt slaves in Egypt, freed from your debt bondage. You must do what God has done for you (v. 15).
Long after Moses, the prophets, the great advocates of an Exodus-economy, considered a) positively the possibility of an Exodus economy and b) negatively the consequence of an exploitative economy whereby the rich get richer and the poor become even more hopeless. Amos, among the prophets, speaks of the consequences of unrestrained acquisitiveness at the expense of the neighbor, greed exhibited as self-indulgence:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
The practice of immense satiation that does not take into account the deep social destructiveness that it produces with its dire results:
"Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away" (v. 7).
Amos anticipated that an economy that is not restrained enough to share with the poor will end in disaster ... as indeed it did in ancient Israel!
Now these are very old texts, quite remote from the issues facing us in a complex urban, post-industrial, technological society. Except that the fundamental economic issues remain constant. It is not very difficult to get rich in our society, if that is what one wants. The hard part is self-congratulatory acquisitiveness while we are keenly aware of neighbors (fellow citizens and members of the same economy) who lose out and suffer from unequal arrangements of education, housing, and health care not to mention the stacking of the cards on mortgages, credit, interest and taxes.
The Exodus narrative, the Mosaic legislation, and the prophetic poetry are all agreed. The rich are not autonomous, but are under divine mandate to act in solidarity with the poor. It is the bottom line of this biblical, theological tradition. If solidarity with the poor is not to be welfare (that offends and is currently out of style among us) and is not to be charity (that never fully touches the big systemic issues), then a fair, living wage is precisely the vehicle through which a) we express a deep theological conviction about Gods will for the neighbor, b) we enact neighborly solidarity that cannot be denied, c) the advantaged are sheltered from the destructive consequences of acquisitiveness.
It requires a little imagination but not much! to transpose this ancient teaching from a peasant economy into a post-industrial, technological economy. The bottom line in either arrangement is that every member of the economy is valued by God and therefore entitled (!) to a share of the communal economy, in terms of social power, social goods and social access. This theological tradition, rooted in the character of God, has no patience with an unrestrained acquisitiveness that imagines one can disregard the neighbor. The theological word for such economic disregard of the neighbor is sin; the certain outcome of such disregard is the collapse of the social infrastructure.
Moses taught: "You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens [illegal immigrants] who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt" (Deut. 24:14-15).
Moses understood about the flow of money, the practice of monopoly, and the sharp practices that the powerful can perpetrate (by remote control) upon the poor. He would have none of it! Moses, moreover, is echoed by this strange wisdom teaching that may haunt us:
"Those who mock the poor insult their Maker;
those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished" (Prov. 17:5).
We mock the poor when we imagine that they are not present to us and we make them invisible. We mock the poor when we imagine they are not entitled (simply because they are among us). We mock the poor if we blame them for their status which is created by hidden power arrangements and unacknowledged social advantage. We mock the poor when we resist viable ways through which to share the well-being of society. We mock the poor, and they are helpless to retaliate (except, of course, in random acts of violence). We mock the poor ... and God is unsettled ... and the stakes are upped severely.
The counter to mocking the poor is to take the poor with economic seriousness as entitled neighbors, as legitimate members of the community who are not going to go away. It is Gods practice to notice the poor. It is Gods delight when Gods powerful and blessed also notice ... and act accordingly.
Walter Brueggemann is on the faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.