Folks Michael Kruse finishes off this wonderful series today, and I hope you express your appreciation to him. We need education like this, and to that end David Opderbeck will begin a series next week on “Law” — David’s a Law professor. So, here’s Michael’s last post…
Today we come to the final post is this series on basic economics. Over the last nine weeks we’ve reviewed several economic issues: scarcity vs. abundance, supply and demand, positive vs. normative economics, opportunity costs and tradeoffs, markets and trade, division of labor, self-interest, wealth, utility, profit, face-to face community vs. commercial society, and capitalism, to name just a few. Any of these topics are book length material. As I noted in the first post, I’m not an economist and I’m certain I haven’t done justice to each issue. Nevertheless, I hope the discussion has illustrated the lens through which economics views the world. I want to conclude this series with thoughts on why I think economic thinking so critical for Christians today.
Why should we care about basic economics?
Many people have noted that material possessions are addressed in the Bible more often than any other topic. Passages like Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 make clear that, in addition to being in relationship with God, our function is to exercise dominion over the created order. Dominion includes the formation of human civilization to carry out our mandate. So in light of our present circumstances, we might ask, “Is capitalism Christian?” There is little doubt in my mind that the answer is, “No “… but neither is any other economic system. There is no economic system presented in the Bible.
A few of questions. I hammer theologians and Christian leaders pretty hard at the end of this post. Is it justified? Do you agree that we need more venues for this dialog to happen? In what venues do you see dialog that draws on both mainstream economics and scholarly theological insight?
Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman cultures
had no concept of economics as we have known it over the past century or so … the
systematic analysis of production, distribution, and human decision making. We
tend to think of society as government, business, family, religion, and
education, … each with distinct traditions and semi-autonomous institutions. Everything
in the ancient world was subsumed under kinship and politics. What happened
“economically” was an extension of these two ancient institutions.
Ancient Near East patriarchy and
Greco-Roman patronage was the milieu of biblical times. Appreciating this is
critical. God always revealed himself into specific contexts. For instance, it
is a cardinal doctrine of Christianity that there is one God. It was believed
that there were many gods in the ancient Near East. Note the first of the Ten
Commandments: “Do not have any other gods before me.” Passages like this do not
correct the mistaken notion of multiple gods but rather limit worship to Yahweh.
The “one God” concept comes into focus later. Concerning enemies, the Hebrew
law reforms the sevenfold vengeance into the equitable “eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth.” Then Jesus says, “love your enemies.” Slavery, in one form
or another, seems unquestioned in the Old and New Testament. Yet today we
consider it unethical. Treating culturally bound practices and revelations as
transcendent mandates creates a number of problems. Context is important.
Jesus’ context was First Century
Palestine. The “American dream” for the Jewish Palestinian was to own his land,
to live in self-sufficiency, and to barter within the village to supplement
what was not produced at home. There was no concept of specialization of labor
or an expanding economy. Economic life was a zero-sum game where anyone who
became significantly wealthier than others did so at the expense of others.
Furthermore, the powerful persistently tried to impose monetary exchange on to
the community to facilitate the collection of taxes and fees. Lending was a way
of trapping people in debt and confiscating their land. Where we see money as a
liberating force, the peasants of Jesus’ day viewed money as a means of
oppression. This is the context into which Jesus delivered his message of the
Consequently, we see criticism of
hoarding in Jesus’ message. The powerful stored up grain they had extracted
from peasants. Crops frequently sat in storage facilities serving no productive
use until the owners saw fit to sell them. Some uncritically apply “hoarding” to
anyone who has wealth today. Yet most wealth held by the wealthy today is in
the form of productive assets. Wealth is invested through ownership of personal
businesses or through shareholdings in firms that produce goods and services.
Wealth is placed on deposit to be lent to other people for business enterprise
and discretionary projects. All of this creates more wealth, more goods and
services, and more jobs. Clearly those who invest more wisely are going to be
wealthier than others who do not. Are these people hoarding?
Similarly, while greed was essentially
craving more than your fair share of a fixed amount in Jesus’ context, is
someone having more than others do through prudent investing and management in
an ever growing economy evidence of greed? If not, than what constitutes greed?
Is lending money in order to help finance productive enterprises different from
lending money to those in need? How does one determine how much to consume, how
much to invest, and how much to give? What constitutes a just economic system?
How does one discern the common good, much less pursue it? These are not
academic questions to the great majority of business people I converse with.
My experience is that Christian leaders
of many different stripes do not handle these questions well. They uncritically
lift Scripture passages out of context … or maybe read their present context
back on to Scripture … to support particular views. There is the prosperity
“name and claim it” gospel that cherry picks from passages about faith and
blessing. Another view finds free market exchange emanating from the Word …
success in business comes close to being equated with spiritual maturity and receiving
God’s blessing. Then there is Liberation theology with its roots in sociology
and conflict theory (Marxian analysis.) In Mainline Protestantism, Scripture’s
“economic” teachings are little more than soft-socialism baptized in
theological language. Roman Catholic social teaching is one place where I think
there has been some solid reflection on economic issues, although even here I
question the way some economic issues are framed. But I suggest that there is
something deeper than just poor interpretative frameworks.
Most theologians and church leaders I’ve
encountered have considerable ambivalence, at best, and outright animus, at
worst, toward the marketplace. Charles North and Bob Smietana write in Good Intentions:
“In interviewing businesspeople for her
book Church on Sunday, Work on Monday,
[Laura] Nash discovered a chasm between how business people and their pastors
saw economics. Pastors and church leaders talked in restrictive terms about the
need to limit greed. The businesspeople in their congregations had a different
‘Business people took a positive, additive
view: faith was about expanding economic opportunity for more people through
business success,’ says Nash. ‘For the business person, business was about
solving problems and creating prosperity and it centered on specific
John C. Knapp, a professor at Samford
University and Columbia Theological Seminary, wrote an article three years ago about the perceptions of
the church by businesspeople. He mentions one study (which I heard him review
in person) that featured interviews with 200 Christians from all walks of life,
ranging from a Fortune 500 CEO to retail clerks. Each was invited to identify a
time when they had encountered a particular ethical problem in the course of
their work. When asked if they had sought counsel from a pastor or spiritual
leader all but two or three said no. The most frequently given reason for not
doing so is that their pastor would not understand or would not care. Another
survey of 2,000 people who regularly attend church were asked, “Have you ever
in your life heard a sermon, read a book, listened to a tape, or been to a
seminar that applied biblical principles to everyday work issues?” Ninety
percent said, “No.”
Miroslav Volf writes in Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of
“Given the paramount importance of work
in both liberal and socialist economic and social theory, it is remarkable that
in our world dominated by work a serious crisis in work had to strike before
church bodies paid much attention to the problem of human work. Theologians are
to blame for the former negligence. Amazingly little theological reflection has
taken place in the past about an activity that takes up so much of our time.
The number of pages theologians have devoted to the question of
transubstantiation – which does or does not take place on Sunday – for
instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to work that
fills our lives Monday through Saturday. My point is not to belittle the Christ
in the Lord’s Supper but to stress that a proper perspective on human work is
at least as important.” (69)
While more attempts to rectify this
deficiency are emerging, the reflection is still most often done in isolation
from mainstream economics. In fact, I frequently detect a prideful admission of
economic ignorance in some literature, signaling that the Christian scholar has
not been corrupted by such degenerate thinking. Economics is to Mainline
Protestant seminaries what evolution is to many conservative seminaries. Mario Varagas
Llosa says human nature demands two things for our world: A hero to solve our
problems and a villain to blame for creating them. Business people are quite
clear what role they’ve been assigned by all but some conservative Evangelicals
Business people need … and in my
experience many of them crave … to know how their day to day work connects with
the mission of God in the world. They struggle for clarity in the work they do.
When this connection becomes real for them, ethical decisions become clearer.
The obligation to use resources to bring the poor into the economy with dignity,
and to exercise proper respect for the environment, emerges. Yet, the Church,
by and large, seems content to A) uncritically lionize business success, B) to ignore
economics and the world of business, or C) to treat brothers and sisters called
to marketplace work with condescending platitudes about abundance and avoidance
of greed. The venues where genuine economists and theologians meet are few. Scot
has provided a venue here at Jesus Creed for such discussions to develop. I
hope many others will follow his lead.
A few of questions. I hammered theologians and Christian leaders pretty hard at the end of
this post. Is it justified? Do you agree that we need more venues for this
dialog to happen? In what venues do you see dialog that draws on both
mainstream economics and scholarly theological insight?