Friday, February 24, 2012

Jesus and Capitalism 6

... continued from Tuesday
... He intervened when the weak were enslaved beyond their control. His impulse to heal is the impulse we should have toward those in distress in our society.

I hinted above that a society as a whole can "help" the poor by the way it structures itself.  For example, capitalistic systems, if they are set up well, seem to be able to help a society overall.  Many would argue that capitalism at its best makes it possible for more people to have more.  The question of how to set up economic systems to maximize the benefit to the most people is a question for economists and historians. It is not what a book like this one is about.

But what a book like this one can do is clarify the values that a Christian should have.  What would Jesus do, when setting up an economic system?  He would set up one that "loves" the most people the most, while not forgetting any individual in the process.  He would oppose any system that tended to impoverish some in the process of giving massive excess to others. Would Jesus set up a capitalistic system, if he were setting up a human economy?  The answer can only be yes if it meant that more people would benefit and that others were not neglected in the process.

Normally, we do not have much control over such things.  Few of us have any say on what the economic system of a country is.  From time to time, it does become part of the mix of topics in politics.  One politician says that one way of doing things will make things better, while another says it will make things worse.  Again, few of us are competent to know who is right, and even economic experts can disagree.

What is important is to be clear on the goal of loving and not harming our neighbor.  If an economic system only causes a few individuals to accrue massive wealth while those who work "in their fields" struggle, Jesus would reject such a system out of hand (cf. James 5:4).  You will find no support for such a system in the New Testament.

And it seems important to recognize that the way a system is set up has implications for how money is distributed.  Money is not property, not in the modern world.  The value of money goes up and down, as does the price we charge for something. Some of the most influential factors in the modern economic world have to do with gambling and speculation. The wealth accrued by a good bet on the market is not the same as a goat a family plans to eat for supper.

As we have seen, the New Testament looks negatively toward those with massive excess of wealth. One parable in Luke may even applaud a manager who, without his master's permission, writes off debt owed to his master.  It seems to applaud him even though he does it for selfish reasons (Luke 16:1-13). The reason this parable seems so strange to us may be in part that we do not realize the strongly negative underlying view of wealth that Luke has.

The Bible never connects its prohibitions on stealing with this sort of person. Indeed, a better argument can be made that it saw this sort of person himself as a thief.  Most people in the Roman world had barely enough to feed their family and pay whatever they might be obligated to pay the powers that be.  Stealing from this sort of person was not a violation of some abstract philosophical sense of property.  It was taking the goat from which the family got its milk and cheese.

Again, the point is that the follower of Jesus will always keep in mind the fundamental value of helping those in need.  There is no inherent virtue to capitalism.  Quite the opposite, it is based on a principle of self-interest that tends to move in the opposite direction of biblical values (e.g., Phil. 2:3).  Christians can only justify capitalism if they think it is an economic system that can help the most people while not oppressing the rest...

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