OccupyOurHomes—Bankruptcy, the Beatitudes and Quaker Economic Testimony

December 1, 2011 § 7 Comments

Colder weather and newly aggressive police pressure have been driving some Occupy settlements out of the public spaces that they have claimed as public commons. (These settlements, by the way, closely resemble those of the Diggers who, beginning in 1649, occupied common land on Saint George’s Hill, Weybridge, in Surrey, under the leadership of Gerrard Winstanley. See the section “Correlate movements for radical economic change and their influence on Quakers” from Quakers and Capitalism. Quite a few Digger writings are available online; I believe I found them through Google Books.) As reported by Nation of Change, the Occupy movement has responded with a new focus on bankruptcy, calling for a National Day of Action to Stop and Reverse Foreclosures on December 6.

Bankruptcy is another of those areas in which Friends can draw from the teachings of Jesus to present a radical, coherent and moral argument for progressive change that ought to speak to the social conservative wing of the Republican Party, if not to other nominal Christians everywhere, and especially on the boards of the note-holding banks. Bankruptcy was a central theme of Jesus’ ministry and his teachings on bankruptcy are embodied in some of his most familiar and popular sayings—the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are a midrash on inheritance law in Torah, with a special focus on bankruptcy. Every one of the Beatitudes addresses these concerns. We’ve never been taught this because the common translations either ignore or are ignorant of the technical legal language they contain. Having abandoned the law under Paul’s influence, the Christian tradition has for millennia either missed or dismissed the radical reinterpretations of the law in Jesus’ teachings and we are the poorer for it. Having embraced the spiritualization of redemption under Paul’s influence, the Christian tradition has for millennia either missed or dismissed the concrete and practical implications for community life in Jesus’ teachings.

I have treated this subject at some length in my other blog, Biblemonster.com, which has been languishing for lack of attention for quite some time while I’ve focused on this blog. I have found it virtually impossible to maintain two blogs at once; one is hard enough. Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read those entries under the Category of “The Beatitudes.”

Here, I want to raise up the Beatitude that is perhaps most familiar and that also most directly addresses the suffering that bankruptcy entails:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (BibleMonster link)

This familiar translation totally misses the thrust of what Jesus is saying. It’s not a cosmic (“the earth”) and fantastical promise to those who passively accept their suffering; it is a radical promise to return families that have lost their family farms—their ‘portion’, their inheritance—to foreclosure.

“Meek” is a technical legal term for those who have been judicially disenfranchised by bankruptcy, who, because they no longer own property, can no longer sit in the assembly of the elders in their village or town and must seek an advocate (Paraklete) to represent their interests in court—some elder who will speak on their behalf, to recover debts owed or to defend them against suit by others.

“Earth” (eretz, in Hebrew) does indeed mean ‘the earth’ in some contexts, but it can also mean the land, either the land of Israel, or simply soil or dirt—or one’s farm, one’s land, one’s ancestral inheritance. That’s what it means in this context. So this is what Jesus’ listeners heard when he spoke this Beatitude:

Blessed are those who have lost their family farm and can therefore no longer protect themselves in court or bring their own claims for judgment, for they shall re-inherit their portion—their family farm—and recover their position among the elders of the assembly.

Jesus is promising to return the landless to their land.; that is, to end their poverty, for “the poor” means specifically those who have lost their farms and must support their families as day laborers on someone else’s land (or even, most oppressively, on their own land), or—worst case scenario—as debt slaves, working off their debt as indentured servants.

The Beatitudes (and other passages as well) offer a religious and moral argument for doing our utmost to protect homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure and for returning those who have been swindled out of their homes back to their homes, or at least to compensate them from the massive profits of the foreclosing banks. I think we should bring this message to the events on December 6.

(As a side note, it’s worth noting here that the ninth and tenth commandments do not prohibit grasping thoughts about one’s neighbor’s property—they prohibit fraud. Jewish law is consistently practical in its perspective and punishes acts rather than motives. The word translated “covet” means to swindle, not to harbor thoughts of possession. It’s basically a companion to “thou shalt not steal,” except that “steal” means outright theft, robbery. Coveting is thievery by deceit.)

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§ 7 Responses to OccupyOurHomes—Bankruptcy, the Beatitudes and Quaker Economic Testimony

  • Wow Friend!,

    I am gobsmacked…… I have just stumbled upon your blog , and this particular posting is especially poignant because on the 4th December in Bremen, Northern Germany, I quaked during meeting for worship, on an uncommonly similar theme.

    For those interested, here is my blog entry on Tumblr.

    http://christopher-hatton.tumblr.com/post/13753505050/quaking-in-bremen

    For the record, I had read Psalm 37, the week before and during my Christian Peacemaker Team training in 2009 we looked at the Beatitudes in Aramaic. During worship, the 2 came together.

    Blessings

    Christopher

    P.s. I love the title of the blog.

  • P.B. says:

    I’d be very interested to know where the translation for “meek” as a technical term for bankruptcy comes from.
    Most translators use “meek” for that passage, but the New American Standard uses “gentle,” and New Living Translation uses “humble” instead of meek. “Meek” in other Biblical passages is used to describe virtue: in Numbers 12:3 Moses is described as “meek” and in Matthew 11:29, where Jesus is described as meek; in Zep 2:3 where we are enjoined to actively seek “meekness,” and in Zep 3:12 where all of us are enjoined to be meek: “I will leave in your midst A meek and humble people, And they shall trust in the name of the LORD.”
    Were all of these passages telling us we should all lose our property, or were all the translators looking at one meaning of meek? Moses had to have had a lot of “property” or at least “capital” to have taken the long journey from Egypt to Israel, and Jesus never seems to have had property to lose.

  • Jo says:

    I find this fascinating. We have been having discussions about the Beatitudes in our group. Please can I ask you where you found this definition of ‘meek’? Could you perhaps point me to some reading material which explains this? Many thanks,
    Jo
    Coventry
    England

    • Jo, I’m afraid I’ve lost track of the citation for this reading of the Beatitudes, but, going over my notes, I suspect that it was Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee, by Sharon H. Ringe. I know she discusses the Beatitudes as a comment on Isaiah 61:1, which is the passage Jesus quotes and declares fulfilled in Luke 4, the first words of his public ministry in the gospel of Luke. Isaiah 61 promises a Jubilee, per Leviticus 25, which 1) canceled all debts; 2) released all debt slaves from their service; 3) returned families that had been alienated from their inheritance by bankruptcy to their family farms; and 4) mandated a fallow year for all crops. It’s number three that the Beatitudes address specifically: the promise to return families to their ancestral ‘portion’ or inheritance.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more specific. I think I’ll have a chance to go to the library in the next couple of days, so I’ll take the book out again and check on this.

      Steven

  • Bill Samuel says:

    This is excellent. It’s ironic for a Quaker, because Quakers used to routinely disown members for bankruptcy. William Penn is an example of one who was disowned after he was robbed blind by someone he had entrusted with management of his assets.

  • Thank you, Steven. This is very good, relevant stuff. Keep it coming!

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