A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the ethics of file formats. That article covered ethics from a more philosophical perspective. While that case is strong in and of itself, I wanted to follow up with teachings from the Bible that also support the position.
Now, the Bible doesn’t mention anything about the digital era, files or formats. Society was quite different then, but I believe several concepts in biblical teaching can be used as metaphors to help us along. Those metaphors can help us in the discussion about file formats but also more generally as we rethink ethics in a digital world as well as anything else that comes along in our society. 1 Corinthians 13:5 says to “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine.”
So in process of examining ourselves through the use of Scripture, what metaphors can we use to look at this issue specifically? Since the use of open vs closed file formats really comes down to exclusion vs inclusion (see my previous post on file formats), I’ll focus on that. I believe one of the strongest, most applicable biblical metaphors that examine inclusion and exclusion is the concept of gleanings. In Lev 19:9-10 and Lev 23:22, the old testament law mentions:
When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD your God.
And in Deuteronomy 24:21, it commands:
When you gather the grapes in your vineyard, don’t glean the vines after they are picked. Leave the remaining grapes for the foreigners, orphans, and widows.
As we learn later in Ruth 2, Boaz definitely holds to this practice, so it seems this law was not only laid down, but it was also assimilated into the culture successfully. But why was this law created?
Like today, the poor didn’t own land and had no access to it. Obviously, the poor also had very little or no money. So, not only did they not have a livelihood, but they also had no way to produce a livelihood or at least very limited means because agriculture was the main driver of the economy. Widows and orphans had no means because family was the main source of insurance since there was no social security or other welfare system. That’s when the community was expected to provide a mechanism so that those that could not provide for themselves had a way to at least gather food to eat and therefore remain a part of the community.
So let’s take a look at this principle and use it as a metaphor in the digital age.
In our society, computers and the internet are becoming the main methods of communication and upward mobility in our society. We are well into the Information Age. Whether cell phones, laptops, internet access or whatever else, computers and the internet are how our society runs (even for the jobless and homeless). It is also mainly how we get work done. Technology and software has become indispensable for us. Without access to that technology, we are taking away the ability for the poor and marginalized to engage in our society and community. By using file formats that aren’t open, we widen the chasm that the poor must overcome to gain access into our increasingly technical society and community.
On the other hand, the principle of gleaning shows that we should make at least one way for the poor to engage with the community and provide for themselves. For technology, using closed formats just makes it harder to enter into that community because there are no alternatives except those attached to paying lots of money (when you are poor, any amount is a lot). On the other hand, using open formats allows as many people as possible to have access to the information gateway to the community. For instance, you might choose to purchase a proprietary program for any reason. If you choose one that supports open file formats (even though it is proprietary), you are allowing others that you collaborate with to make a different choice if they need to. They are still able to use a different solution to be in community. Like gleaning a field or vineyard, it might take extra work to use free and open source solutions, but they aren’t immediately excluded from the community by doing so.
Additionally, the Bible has many other examples and teachings for including the poor and marginalized in our communities. These teachings support the use of open file formats, but also an open source culture more generally. For instance, 1 John 3:17-18 says:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
As Christians we should not only talk about the need, but find ways to take action to remedy that need. Using open file formats is a tangible action that you can take to make sure that the poor are included and not excluded from your church or organization. Additionally, James 2 says:
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom He promised those who love Him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?
Isn’t it proprietary, closed companies that are dragging everyone into court because you infringe on their intellectual property? By using open file formats and open source and Creative Commons projects we support a more moral and less litigious society in general. Additionally, we shouldn’t always be wooed by the glitter of the beautiful (i.e. Apple ), but rather support everyone whether rich or poor. As a church or organization, using open file formats and open source software invites more people to invest in your community rather than being relegated to the periphery because they can’t afford to be involved.
Jesus’ words in Luke 14 put an even finer point on it:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
According to Jesus, it was good to invest in the community without the chance for repayment. As a church or organization, you will invest resources into open communities without repayment, but you are investing so that everyone is invited to your party. That’s pretty cool.
As the last example, when Zacchaeus gave his life to Christ he was changed and different. He immediately gave half of his possessions to the poor and repaid those he had cheated four times over. He obviously was putting into action the love and gratitude that was in his heart. How are we showing that love and gratitude in the digital age? Do we continue to just think of ourselves and our own church? If we can afford expensive proprietary software that excludes the poor and marginalized from our community, do we ignore them and continue not to care? Or do we seek to make amends and repay for the wrongs that have excluded them? Do we seek to invest in community without the need for repayment? Do we seek to make sure as many people are involved with our digital community as possible?
I encourage you to choose open file formats and open source software as a biblical mandate. When you do, you are investing in love and community, not in a company and a bottom line. You are showing your love and faith in Christ through specific actions. In Galatians 6:10, it says “therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.” That’s the challenge I want to put to you as you continue to rethink ethics in a digital world.