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We don’t own what we possess, we merely hold it in trust

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Yesterday in both Britain and America banks and courts were in the news, but for different, even opposite reasons.

In Britain the Supreme Court ruled against the office of fair trading which had challenged what it saw as unfair bank charges on overdrafts. In New York, by contrast, a judge ruled against a bank which was claiming mortgage payments from a couple that simply couldn’t pay them. The bank had rejected the couple’s request to find other ways of repaying the loan, and the judge, finding in favour of the couple, described the bank’s behaviour as “harsh, repugnant, shocking and repulsive”.

Now obviously there’s no exact parallel between the cases. What’s more, the judges had to rule on the law as it stands, not on what they might think it ought to be. But there is a larger ethical question, namely, to what extent should the law, or society as a whole, reflect the principle of fairness?

On this the Hebrew bible has something very interesting to say. It comes in the context of Abraham, whom Jews, Christians and Muslims all see as the father of monotheism. There’s only one place in the bible which explains why god chose Abraham: in genesis 18, where God says that he has chosen Abraham so that he would teach his children to keep the way of the lord by doing zedakah umishpat, which the King James Bible translates as justice and judgement.

The difference between these two ideas is that mishpat means legal justice. But zedakah is something else altogether. It’s a word impossible to translate into English because it means both justice and charity. Now in English justice is one thing but charity is something else entirely. Suppose I give you a thousand pounds. If I do so because I owe you a thousand pounds, that’s justice. But if I do so not because I owe you anything but because I can see that you need it, that’s charity. It’s either one or the other. It can’t be both.

The reason it can be both in the bible is because it sees everything as ultimately belonging to God. We don’t own what we possess. We merely hold it in trust, and one of the conditions of that trust is that we share some of what we have with people in need. Zedakah means that justice must be tempered by charity if a society is to be seen as fair.

This isn’t a legal argument, but it is a moral one. In the long run a system must be fair if it’s to survive.