Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A Biblical Case for Universal Basic Income

A few weeks ago I posted a link about Universal Basic Income to my social media stream, and a friend who I respect came back to me with an interesting response: They said that they are not sure that UBI is ‘biblical’. Their point was that God’s provision should be matched by an corresponding expectation that people undertake work in response; and that the biblical injunction to stewardship negates an economy based on the ‘free gift’ of money.

This approach certainly has a long tradition within Western Christianity and Western Society, with the influence of the Protestant Work Ethic embedding in our collective consciousness an emphasis on hard work, discipline, and frugality. Comments from a number of sources within the mainstream denominations suggest that my friend is not alone, and that there is a substantial suspicion about whether UBI is something that can be supported from a Christian perspective.

So I thought it might be interesting to explore a biblical model that might support the concept of a Universal Basic Income, and I want to offer two key concepts for our consideration. On the one hand we have the wilderness experience of the Israelites as they fled slavery in Egypt on their way to the promised land; and on the other hand we have the words of Jesus, so let’s start there.

It was to disciples facing uncertain economic futures that Jesus taught the prayer: ‘Give us, this day, our daily bread’ (Matthew 6.11and there is an urgent simplicity to it when it’s heard in a subsistence context. But what can the stark simplicity of a prayer for daily bread say to a world where investment banks and food banks sit side by side?  Well, in the background to Jesus’ prayer for daily bread lies the story of the manna which sustained the People of Israel in the wilderness.

Deuteronomy 8.3  [The LORD your God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

If you remember the story, when they collected too much, or tried to keep more than they needed, it went rotten by the next day. And I think this ancient story from the wilderness wandering of Israel can offer us a parable of transformative economics. Because here we have a story which speaks of simple living: where enough is enough, where unnecessary accumulation is pointless, where rest is sanctified, and where people experience contentment because they have sufficient resources to live day-by-day.

It is significant that Jesus quoted from the Manna story in his own wilderness experience of hunger, as he responded to the tempter’s invitation to turn stones to bread. (Matthew 4:3-4) The instruction to pray, each day, for daily bread is not some ritual to get God to give us what we think we need; rather, it’s a prayer that takes us into solidarity with those who lack, and which drives us into action to see the hungry fed, the poor raised up, and the impoverished released from the snares of debt. It is a prayer that takes us into works of transformative economics. It certainly did for the early Christians, as they redistributed food and resources across their community, so that no-one went hungry or in need (Acts 6:1; James 2:15-17).

And I wonder, in our complex, interconnected, globalised capitalist world, what such actions might look like for us? On the one hand, we might become advocates for good employment practices where people are paid a fair living wage, and receive paid holiday, sickness benefits, and maternity cover. But on the other hand, we might find that the prayer for daily bread draws from us a commitment to alleviating food poverty.

And so we come to the idea of a universal basic income as an alternative to the current cruelties of our social security system. A daily allowance, given with grace, sufficient to live, each day, with dignity. This surely is what Manna from heaven might look like in our time, as the prayer for daily bread is answered in the lives of those who would otherwise go hungry.


Colin said...

Thanks for your contribution to the Basic Income Conversation online session about UBI and Christianity earlier this evening (2nd July). I'd like to ask, though, whether we can rightly use biblical doctrines of grace and 'manna' and apply them to secular society. I'm NOT saying that UBI is 'unbiblical' or that we must apply 'if he will not work let him not eat' etc!
But both the latter and Jesus' teachings (and referencing of OT) and the OT itself are all words given in the context of the common life of the people of God: OT, Israel; and NT, church. Therefore, whilst UBI is not contrary to NT principles, can we actively promote it on the basis that it's a God-ordained idea? Isn't it 'simply' good economic and social policy?
(In the same way, various schemes for carbon taxes are a good thing; and in accord with a biblical mandate to care for creation and our fellow man; but aren't anywhere mandated specifically.)
Otherwise, are we not going to end up in a 'theonomy' - just a 'progressive' one rather than a religious-right/moral-majority-type one?

Simon Woodman said...

Hi Colin, thanks for your reflections. I think that the example of Manna works precisely because it was a society-wide blessing, i.e. everyone got it, whether they were diligent in their prayerful devotions, or not. I take the point that the society in question was Israel God's chosen people, and that modern western Christians no longer live in a society where faith and nationhood are fused in this way, but I think that people of faith can authentically advocate for a 'universal' blessing to wider society.

Colin said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond, Simon.
I can agree that we should seek to 'bless this city' as per the Exiles; but at the level of 'realpolitik' I worry that attempting political action to 'legislate righteousness' in a theonomy, as US the religious-right seems to want (but with a different definition of what that 'righteousness' is...) can be a distraction from the Kingdom rather than the way to build it and preach good news. But I'm going to press on promoting UBI, Green New Deal and so on, anyway! Shalom!

raysol20 said...

Hello. Nice and very interesting response to the UBI question. After some time thinking about what you have said I agree partially with Collin.

I looked up manna and it seems it stopped once the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. They were then living off the fruits of the land. Thus it was time limited. I suspect also it was only for the Israelites themselves and not universal, that is, not for Egypt and other nations/peoples also though this might need looking at further. Certainly from a scientific point of view I have often wondered what the Israelite camp would have looked like and the cloud that sometimes was stationary and sometimes moved. They had to burn regular offerings and so I suspect the smoke and ash made by a type of barbeque and with the condensation in the air made particles fall overnight and form what was possibly protein mixed with dew ie. Manna.

Other folk in the Old Testament other than Egypt based were traders/farmers eg. Abraham and a lot of Royalty.

To the New Testament

The church certainly mixed together their assets to meet needs however it is noticeable that Paul (as in the letter writer) worked as a tent maker in order not to be a (financial) burden.

I have the impression also there were characters in the New Testament who helped fund the church ministry.

On a personal note, several times my wife and I have attempted to fit the Western economic stereotype of earning saving and spending and giving. However more often than not we’ve found we’ve been taught dare I say a more Biblical economic practice than we’ve come across elsewhere. For example I ended up using the parable of the Talents about savings and investing. I have also found the ‘cast your bread on the waters’ phrase a good reminder. One thing that I found very intriguing was the practice of bartering. something that up until the time I did it I was very much against. It was offered as a method of payment on some work I did, I prayed and felt strongly to take it and with even the added concept of the banks being a problem. That sent a shiver down my spine thinking of the implications. Not long after the some banks collapsed. It was 2008.

I once heard that Christianity is a type of Communism. I disagree. Even in the Sixties in San Fransisco with the hippies and their communes and soup kitchens only lasted a certain amount of time until I gather roguish types from elsewhere moved in and abused the system.

In short I think UBI is Biblical but is both time limited and context limited.