Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All, Richard A. Horsley. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Summary: A biblical study of how God’s covenant with Israel, including the New Testament appropriation of that covenant was intended to shape economic life and justice for Israel and “assemblies” in the New Testament era, with application to modern economic life and the “covenant” our government has with its people.
Richard Horsley begins this study with an interesting contention: that the founding documents of the United States articulate a kind of covenant between government and people that has not only political but economic implications and obligations around our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” There were frequent references to this in early discourse but a growing disconnect with the growth of giant corporations and multi-national interests in the more recent past and present. With these changes has come an erosion of a “covenant commitment” to economic justice for all.
In this book, Horsley frames an argument for economic justice based on another covenant, that of God with Israel. He begins by contrasting the covenant life of Israel with the imperial civilizations, which were often oppressive of the economic interests of their people. God’s covenant with Israel, he demonstrates concerns not just religious life but protects the economic interests of the people with various provisions from gleaning, to debt forgiveness and no-interest loans, to reversion of the land to its original owners in the Jubilee year. In the books of the Prophets, he shows that a significant theme of the prophets were the breaches of economic justice as Israel’s kings acted like the kings of surrounding nations and the rich unjustly expanded their holdings at the expense of fellow Israelites.
Horsley then considers the New Testament and finds in the teaching of Jesus extensive material that subverts the Roman domination and priestly oppression under which the Jews lived. In doing so, Jesus appropriates the covenant economics of Israel to this new situation as he calls for mutual sharing and blesses the poor. After considering particularly Mark and Luke, he turns to the communities the Apostle Paul was in touch with, as well as those addressed by the Gospel of Matthew, showing that these “assemblies” were not just liturgical bodies but organized around economic principles of mutual care as a kind of “counter-culture” in a Roman dominated world, albeit one still under Roman rule. His concluding chapter then considers the implications of covenant economics in scripture to how the contemporary church orders its own economic life and engages economic injustices in the broader society.
The value of this work is that it is a biblical study of the economic material in scripture, often overlooked in overly spiritualized and privatized readings of scripture. His challenges of Christians to disengage from the economic captivities of our contemporary society and to stand against economic injustices are welcome and important words.
At the same time, it felt at times that Horsley reduced the teaching of scripture to economics, or at least did not relate this teaching to other themes that might strengthen his case. For example, relating economics to soteriology may emphasize the basis of a “non-zero sum game” approach to economics in the grace of God who gives lavishly and undeservedly to his people. Similar, the lack of a connection of economics to eschatology severs a tie of economics to the just order that will pertain in the new creation, that motivates the pursuit of economic justice now.
I also wonder about both the historicity of the purported covenant in American history, and also the equation of a covenant between a government and its people with a covenant between God and his people. Does this feed into the strain of American exceptionalism that is foreign to a kingdom of people of every nation, tribe and tongue? I don’t think this was Horsley’s intent, but I could see the material being appropriated in this way.
Horsley writes this book for an adult education context. It is readable and provides good explanations of any technical matters. Each chapter includes questions that may be helpful for both individual reflection and group discussion. The work can definitely open eyes to the economic teaching of scripture, and used by a theologically-informed leader could be useful in helping a group wrestle with what economic faithfulness as followers of Christ might look like.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.