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Friday, March 09, 2007

The Bible, social justice, and public ownership

The Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) has run an email hustings for candidates for CSM Chair.

The fourth and final question in the CSM hustings asked:

At verse 20 of his 34th chapter the prophet Ezekiel begins to declare God's Word to His flock: "Behold I, even I, will judge between the fat cattle and the lean cattle. Because ye have thrust with side and with shoulder, and pushed all the diseased with your horns...therefore will I save my
flock...and I will judge between cattle and cattle...and will cause the evil beasts to cease out of the land." Do you agree that this Divine Word
requires that a government which genuinely seeks to lead our nation back into social justice cannot abdicate control over the economic opportunism of
a market economy, but must contain it within a framework of sufficient public and democratic ownership and control for the purpose of optimal

I replied:

Yes and no!

I am a democratic socialist and that certainly does not mean I am in favour of an unrestrained capitalist economy. Indeed, my whole career has focused around encouraging business to think about more than short term profits. As a fund manager investing church money on an ethical basis, I have learnt a thing or two about markets (see

There is certainly a place for public ownership, often where there is a natural monopoly (just look at the railway network for example). One of the injustices of privatisation was that state assets were being sold cheaply, whether or not they were going to be run better by market forces.

When we discussed our values statement, members agreed that ‘all people are called to common stewardship of the Earth, including its natural resources’. That certainly includes public ownership but it also places responsibility on everyone to act as trustees and caretakers. Sometimes that may mean laws rather than ownership.

If markets are working for and serving us, then all well and good. If we find people are enslaved to markets, or, more usually, to abuse of economic power, then we need to do something about it.

What I do know is that Tory leader David Cameron is wrong when he suggests that government just needs to encourage business to be better. Exhortation does not always work and can become an excuse for inaction.

My starting point is the people and our values and aims. Are people being treated equally? Do they, as RH Tawney would stress, have economic and social freedom? And are there institutional causes of poverty (including market abuse)?

You may have guessed that I cannot think about this issue without thinking globally.

I appreciated the Biblical reference. I think it stands against people using political and economic power to oppress the poor. Today that may mean we need to ensure people around the world supplying our clothes and food have proper wages and labour rights. It will also mean we should stand against big nations bullying smaller ones.

Calls to repentance in the Bible put salvation and social justice together and so must we. I was reminded of another passage, Amos 2:6-7a ‘They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.’

Let’s work together to make sure that can never be said of us.

1 comment:

Phil Baldwin said...

I completely agree.

One aspect that I feel is often overlooked when looking at the issue of public ownership is the fact that the 'Earth is the Lords and everything in it'. Therefore, even a democratic public distribution of land/resources might be seen to be at odds with God's original intentions.

Sadly, the 'as it is in heaven' hasn't happened yet and therefore, we need to make judgements about what is the best way in which we can serve the least among us. Public ownership can definately go some way towards that, and (with shifting public attitudes) so can the markets.