Gleaning truth from Ruth

Gleaning truth from Ruth

Stained glass window, Ruth gleaning in the fields.

The above image is part of a stained glass window on the north side of Holy Trinity Church, Huddersfield. It is taken from the story of Ruth in the Old Testament and shows women gleaning in the fields.

Gleaning is the practice of collecting grain from the fields after the harvest has been gathered in. In the Old Testament landowners were forbidden from reaping the corners of their fields or from picking up the grain that had been dropped. The dropped grain and grain in the corners was to provide for the poor, orphans, widows and visitors including foreigners. Ruth and her Mother-in-Law Naomi were both widows and Ruth was a Moabite, a foreigner. It wasn’t just grain either. Fruit trees were only to be shaken once and some grapes had to be left on the vine.

In many European countries that based their laws on the laws in the Bible gleaning after the harvest carried on for some time. In England, this ended in 1788 when the House of Lords ruled that someone coming onto another’s property for the purpose of gleaning counted as trespass and is therefore illegal. This happened at a time when what had been considered common land and used by the community was being enclosed and called private property.

Gleaning is coming back in the twenty-first century. Food banks are collecting leftover short-dated food from supermarkets which would otherwise be dumped and giving to the poor. It is no surprise that this idea, which stretches back into the Old Testament, possibly further, but it is commended in the Old Testament, should be largely implemented and run by faith groups.

The reason why there should be a need for food banks in one of the most wealthy and developed nations in the world is down to the economic philosophy that is followed.

Back when gleaning was criminalised in the mid-eighteenth century Adam Smith published two books which went against the ideology of his day, Mercantilism: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Smith was a philosopher rather than an economist, he alludes to the invisible hand that guided the economy towards balance and equilibrium, in his contemplation of the rich he said that they are compelled, not by law but by a moral imperative to distribute onto the poor the necessities of life. Since then the ideas have mainly gone like this:

Mercantilism: an economic policy that is designed to maximize the exports of a nation. Its purpose is of augmenting state power at the expense of rival national powers.

Laissez-faire: Based on Smith’s invisible hand, but adds that we must closely watch corporations because of their inclination to disrupt spontaneous order.

Keynesian Economics: In times of economic downturn governments should lower taxes and spend more in order to raise demand for goods or services.

Monetarism: Milton Freidman on the other hand, advocated for the government controlling how much money is in circulation by fluctuating tax rates but taking no action.

Neo-liberalism: The current economic system is an update of Laissez-faire. If you hear any talk of trickle-down economics, you pay the people at the top of companies a lot and it will trickle down to the poorest, that is Neo-liberalism. Everyone benefits. But they don’t benefit because trickle-down does not work. The gap between the richest and poorest in the country is increasing; I think Neo-liberalism is directly responsible for the poverty in the country that makes gleaning from the supermarkets necessary.

We need a new economic philosophy. We need an economics that is based on moral standards, morality, like that of Adam Smith, needs to return to economics or we are totally stuffed.


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