Walter Brueggemann: The Protocols of Scarcity

In several of my previous Church Anew columns, I have referred to “the protocols of scarcity.” In this setting I want to exposit what I mean by that phrase. “Protocols” are rules of procedure for the accomplishment of a specific task. They may be official rules that are spelled out; but often they are tacit conventions to which everyone subscribes without awareness. They are simply the accepted way of proper procedure for given tasks to which we all agree.

When I refer to “protocols of scarcity” I am not thinking of official rules. I have in mind, rather, the tacit conventional assumptions by which the economy tends to operates in our society. The phrase is intentionally ambiguous. On the one hand it may specify the best way to proceed in the economy in which we face the given reality of scarcity. This would be the intent of Milton Friedman, the great apostle of scarcity, who could readily assert that economics is “the study of the distribution of scarce resources.” That is, scarcity is a given reality and we must cope with it in a proper, responsible way.

On the other hand, however, the phrase can also mean that there are procedures to be followed in order to create, maintain, and manage economic scarcity.

The rules are important; if they are violated then we might not face scarcity. Thus a more conventional assumption affirms that such “protocols of scarcity” are mandated by reality. But in a more suspicious perspective (that I intend), the protocols function to maintain and legitimate a certain claim that is “socially constructed.” My exposition, based in this suspicion, intends to challenge the first understanding that is widely assumed among us. That is, scarcity is a “social fact” created to serve certain identifiable interests. On that basis I could identify four “rules” of procedure that are widely accepted that serve to champion and maintain an economy of scarcity.

Pay the lowest wages possible.

Current conversation concerning the “minimum wage” is a recognition that low pay for workers will continue to be a measure of the wellbeing or failure of society. The “rule” of low pay is an indication that the ownership-managerial class intends to keep all that it can for itself and pay only enough to workers to assure a reliable dependable work force, but not enough to provide workers with a viable life. Thus the ownership class is “unable” to pay more. The sustained effort to do away with labor unions and enact so-called “right to work” laws is an attempt to minimize the bargaining power of labor so that labor is at the mercy of the management class.

A fair wage is at the center of biblical faith in it concern for a viable society. Indeed the beginning story of the Bible in Pharaoh’s Egypt and the ominous threat of “return to Egypt” put the matter of fair wages the center of the narrative. We may notice two references that concern exactly equitable wage practices. In the Torah of Moses, this is the requirement:

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay theme their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them (Deut. 24:14-15).

The Torah knows about wage theft and delayed payment. Moses forbids saying to a worker, “The check is in the mail.” And in Jeremiah 22 the prophet notices that King Jehoiakim (Shallum) brings “woe” upon himself by his maltreatment of his workers:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes is neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages (v. 13).

The prophet asserts that laborers are “neighbors” who are entitled to justice. Biblical faith, “in the law and in the prophets” speaks against the exploitation of workers. The parable of Jesus in Matthew 20:1-16, moreover, takes up wage payment as a metaphor for the coming kingdom. The intent of the parable is of course not confined to this horizon; but the verdict of the landowner in the parable requires thinking beyond narrow transactional economics:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:13-16).

Charge high interest on loans.

While we currently have a very low interest rate for borrowed money, legal permission is still on offer for exploitative pay-day loans to take advantage of the most vulnerable. Indeed the more vulnerable and dependent a borrower is, the more likely the interest rate is sure to be predatory in a way that precludes viable repayments of the loan. Again the Torah of Moses is alert to the ordinary rules of exploitation and asserts a firm limit against such a rule:

You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess (Deuteronomy 23:19-20).

This provision limits exploitation to “foreigners.” But the provision for interest-free loans to Israelites shows an awareness that interest on loans is destabilizing for a community. The readiness of the New Testament to include Gentiles in the covenant would suggest that the prohibition of interest on loans to insiders might now include the newly welcomed insiders who are also protected from exploitation.

The teaching of Moses is a radical rejection of our usual political economy. High interest rates suggest and assume that money is hard to come by and in its scarcity, one may expect to pay dearly for it. Milton Friedman’s endless mantra is, “Tighten the money supply.” The expectation of the Bible, against such costliness, is the insistence that the resources of the community must be generously shared without exploitative conditions with every member of the community.

Practice regressive taxation.

It is not a secret that in recent time federal tax policy has become increasingly regressive. The recent “tax cut” gave “relief” to some among the most wealthy at the expense of lower income wage earners. When an oligarchy of wealth controls the government and its tax policy as is now the case in our economy, the tax burden is predictably shifted to those who are left out of the decision-making process.

We have one remarkable narrative in the Bible about a tax crisis. When Rehoboam succeeded his father Solomon on the throne in Jerusalem, he is surrounded by young advisors who, in their lack of wisdom or experience, urged the new king to establish “a new world order” of heavy taxation to be paid by ordinary workers. In I Kings 12, the older, wiser, more experienced advisors urged restraint and moderation on the young king. But the young hot-shot advisors knew better; the king disregarded restraint and proceeded without regard to social risk with higher taxes. His young advisors urged on him defiance and cynicism in an ancient version of “Let them eat cake.”

My little finger is thicker that my father’s loins {sic!] Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions (vv. 10-11).

The results of this tax policy were of course disastrous for the king and his company, as the Northern state of Israel seceded from the regime in Jerusalem. As is always the case, the proponents of such regression lived in a bubble of privilege without any awareness of the reality of the working class. This practice of scarcity led to disaster because it operated in a pretend world of ignorance and greed.

Keep vulnerable people debt-dependent.

What appear to be generous credit arrangements serve to seduce vulnerable people into irresponsible debt. The result of unmanageable debt is that the burden of interest payments prevents ever paying off the loan. When vulnerable people can be trapped in such debt they become dependent upon the creditor class and easily lose their capacity political agency in the economy. David Garber has shown that since the beginning of an organized economy, the goal of the wealthy has been to create a debtor class that becomes in time a reliable labor force without agency. Garber observes that the endless, oft-repeated cry of revolution in every economy of debt is “burn the records.” That is, the records of endless debt, because when the papers are destroyed, the debt cannot be collected.

In the Old Testament, the prudent wisdom teachers understood the lethal risk of debt and warned that debt must be carefully avoided:

The rich rules over the poor,
and the borrower is slave of the lender (Proverbs 22:7).

But the Torah provision is more poignant and sober about economic reality. It sees that many end in debt. The Torah knows that debt is everywhere and cannot be avoided. After the wise warning of debt avoidance, there must be a way of debt relief that in the Torah is spelled out as “the year of release” that subsequently became the practice of the Jubilee year. The provision for debt relief in Deuteronomy 15:1-18 is astonishing on two counts. First Moses does aver the familiar notion that “there will always be poor [that is, indebted] people” (v. 11; see Mark 14:7). That verdict of Moses however is not a statement of resignation.

Rather the statement is to underscore the urgency of this provision for debt cancellation, for such action will make it possible that poverty can be eradicated (v. 4).

Debt relief is necessary to prevent the emergence of a permanent poverty class. Poverty grounded in debt can be overcome! It must be overcome for the sake of the covenant of neighbors.

Second, this text contains five usages of the absolute infinitive, more uses than in any other biblical text. The absolute infinitive is a grammatical device in Hebrew that cannot be spotted in English translation. It repeats the verb a second time in order to intensify the verb as an imperative. The five uses suggest the urgency of this provision for debt cancellation, the command concerning debts about which the tradition is most insistent of all commands. The five uses are:

Only obey (v. 5),
Rather open (v. 8),
Willingly lend (v. 8),
Open (v. 11),
Provide liberally (v. 14).

In Hebrew, each of these uses reiterates the verb for emphasis. This must be done! Nothing can be more important for the covenant than the cancellation of debt! The theme is echoed in the Lord’s Prayer wherein we pray regularly for the forgiveness of debt (Matthew 6:12). Sharon Ringe has shown how the prayer stands in the tradition of debt cancellation and the practice of Jubilee. It is comforting to us in the ownership class that we have conventionally siphoned off the prophetic dimension of prayer by translating it more easily as “trespasses” or “sins.” The Bible resists the legitimacy of long-term debt that keeps the vulnerable in thrall in a way that skews both the economy and the neighborhood.

It is easy to see that on all these counts the good news of the Bible is a rejection of the protocols of scarcity.

Against these widely and conveniently held notions of scarcity, the Bible insists upon beginning with the abundance willed by the creator God. This insight that the Bible resists the protocols of scarcity presents an urgent mandate to the church and its preachers.

The first work of the church is to expose the force of scarcity that is imposed by fear, that is readily exploitative. Beyond exposure, it is the work of the church to assert an alternative way in the world, a way of generosity that permits economic justice inclusive of every member of the community, that is, all of the neighbors.

In his summary of his ministry to John, Jesus provided a roster of those whom he had rehabilitated: the blind, the lame, lepers, the deaf, and the dead (Luke 7:22). His final accent in this summary is that “the poor have good news.” The good news that the poor receive is relief from the protocols of scarcity that turn out to be false and enslaving. Such witness against those protocols is not incidental to the gospel. It is the core of the news entrusted to us.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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