Sunday, June 05, 2016

ET20: The economic structures of society can be more or less loving.

This is the twentieth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
The economic structures of society can be more or less loving.

1. The New Testament was not written at a time when wholesale changing of the social structures of society was a thought. Rome was not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination, and it seems very likely that the earliest Christians expected Jesus to return in the immediate future.

So when Paul or Peter gave instructions on how to live in the broader Roman world, their instruction was usually that of optimizing a Christian Life within a context that was clearly not Christian. Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 7 not to worry about their current social situation. Similarly, 1 Peter assumes that servants of unjust masters and wives of unbelieving husbands were stuck in their current social situations. The message in effect is to "hunker down" and be without offence within those societies.

The question thus arises. If Christians come to live in a society where they can change the social structures, why should they not work to make them more loving? The qualifier, "more loving" is important because there is a human tendency to want to make human society more restrictive when given the power to do so. It is an unfortunate fact of human history that when people have the power to impose their religious ideas on others, society usually does not become more loving but rather more oppressive.

So we are talking about the opportunity to make society more loving toward all its people, not the opportunity to impose religious ideologies on a broader culture. For example, in the late 1700s in England and the 1800s in the United States, slavery was abolished. There were many Christian voices at the time that suggested slavery was biblical and that the New Testament did not endorse abolition.

Yet a society without slavery in theory would be a more loving, more equitable and more Christian society than one with slavery. Accordingly, many other Christians, including those in my own Wesleyan tradition, saw this as an opportunity to make the world more like the kingdom of God. Significantly, making the world more like the kingdom of God in this instance required us to move away from some of the specifics of the New Testament, those where it was assumed that the world simply was as it was. Abolitionists worked from the bigger principles of Scripture rather than some of the specifics that related directly to their incarnation in the first century.

In the present day, Christians are working through the question of women in society. Are the household codes of the New Testament another instance of the gospel accommodating its social situation? After all, there was nothing specifically Christian in the first century about the idea that a husband is the head of the household, including the wife. Indeed, the New Testament is quite possibly demonstrating the influence of Aristotle in its household codes.

Accordingly, many Christians today, including many in my own Wesleyan tradition, believe that this is another point where the gospel was incarnated into first century clothing. The "weighter principles" of Scripture suggest that a world in which there is no artificial difference between male and female looks more like the kingdom than one in which women are disempowered or are second class citizens. Several key Scriptures, like Acts 2:17 and Galatians 3:28, suggest that the trajectory of the kingdom is one in which women are not subordinated to men and certainly participate in spiritual wisdom and insight.

The point we are making here is that it may be more possible in our Democratic world, a world that already is loosely based upon Judeo-Christian values, to be more loving and more like the kingdom of God in these areas than even the New Testament world.

2. This is also true of the economic structures of society. The New Testament authors largely assumed the economic structures of their day. For Luke-Acts, this included the idea of limited good in the world. There was only so much to go around, such that if one person had more then another person somewhere had less. This immediately creates a situation in which the hoarding of wealth becomes almost intrinsically sinful. It is thus no wonder that Jesus and James in Palestine are sometimes harsh against wealth.

Interestingly, however, the Apostle Paul does not seem quite as harsh. Paul argues more for proportionality in giving than he does for a more radical giving away of one's excess. Similarly, the author of Matthew does not seem as strong in his economic statements as Luke. Matthew arguably gives more spiritual versions of Luke's bald Jesus statements against wealth. [1]

The economic situation has changed drastically in the western world since the Industrial Revolution. The amount of wealth available has increased exponentially. The miracle of modern economics is that there is no limited amount of good but that resources can be multiplied in ways before unimagined.

3. But the Industrial Revolution did not come without negative consequences as well. With the powerful left to their own devices, the 1800s saw the rise of a small number of incredibly wealthy and powerful individuals, accompanied by a large number of workers with no rights or power whatsoever. In some instances--post-communist Russia comes to mind, the rise of wealthy capitalists was so strong that it arguably began to take control of the government.

Most western democracies have therefore put into place safeguards against unbridled capitalism. These include such things as antitrust laws, price-gouging laws, and various protections for workers. These sorts of precautions have generally prevented the kinds of uprisings and revolutions that Marx predicted would eventually befall capitalism and that we saw in Russia and some other places. [2]

Here it is helpful to remember what the origins of modern capitalism were. Its origins were in the desire to increase the happiness of the general population over and against a system where resources were alloted by birth among an aristocracy. That is to say, the roots of capitalism as an economic system were utilitarianism, which aims at the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This was a noble goal.

However, there is sometimes an assumption today that the creation of wealth is an intrinsic good, as if a world in which there is more total wealth is the goal itself, rather than one in which the vast majority of individuals do not live under economic hardship. It does seem true that, at least when it is somewhat moderated, an increase in overall capital does seem to increase the overall economic health of a society. Extreme socialist systems such as in Soviet Russia, Eastern Europe, communist China, or north Korea, seem to have resulted in economic depression among the general populace rather than overall prosperity.

Nevertheless--and especially from a Christian perspective--the main societal goal must be kept in view. That goal is to increase the overall happiness of the populace, not to increase total wealth per se. The creation of wealth is not in any way an end in itself.

4. From a Christian perspective, therefore (and from a common sense perspective), capitalism functions best when it increases the total happiness of its people without doing so at the expense of any group of individuals. From both a Christian and a democratic standpoint, therefore, it is important that economic systems be structured in such a way that they do not give excessive power to a small group of people or lead to the abuse a particular class of people.

Here we reach a key point. Economic resources flow in certain directions because of the way they are set up. Economic structures can be set up so that money does not simply flow to those who "own" a business but also to those who work for the business. There is no natural or intrinsic reason why a CEO must or should earn an exponentially greater amount than those who implement the business plan in hands and feet. [3]

Another important consideration in this discussion, in fact that which gave rise to this article under the category of stealing, is the question of what actually is a person's possession. Is it stealing for the government to tax an individual and redistribute profit in some way? Is the owner of a business or its stockholders the same as an individual such as those from whom the eighth commandment says not to steal?

Apparently not from a biblical standpoint. For one, everything ultimately belongs to God. The New Testament places an obligation on us with regard to our excess, as we saw in the previous article. Even more, the New Testament consistently affirms the Christian's obligation to pay taxes. Jesus considers coinage something that pertains to the realm of Caesar in Mark 12:17, and Paul tells the Romans to pay their taxes (Rom. 13:6).

So the New Testament does not seem to view excess wealth as a possession in the same way that Exodus 20:15 might view a cow. Indeed, one of the best interpretations of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13) sees everything associated with wealth in the parable as outside the realm of the kingdom. The entire parable comes to be about a world foreign to God. [4]

We should also mention that the ancient world was largely a bartering economy. It was not primarily a monetary economy. So comments about money in the Bible were not talking about something that had the same significance as money does in our world. We must take this fact into account when we appropriate its teaching on money. [5] Having a certain amount on paper in the stock market is not the same as having a cow to trade in the biblical world. Thus, the nature of stealing may play out differently in some ways also.

5. It is intriguing that Paul considers government a potential force for good in Romans 13. He must think behind the scenes that the Roman government is thoroughly corrupt and ungodly--far beyond anything we have ever experienced in United States history. But in Scripture, he expresses the positive good that the government can do, and Psalm 72 confirms the potential economic good that a government can do.

So we get to the opening claim of this article. The economic structures of a society can be more or less loving, and Christians will naturally support structures that embody true benefit for all. We would expect Christians to favor structures in which material resources do not flow disproportionately to one class of people or under which a significant group of person is ignored and abandoned to squalor.

By the same token, it is not loving to create an unhealthy dependency on assistance when it is not necessary. Paul himself gave voice to what would become the Protestant work ethic: "The one who does not work should not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). Structures that facilitate "generational poverty" are unloving just as abandonment is.

Most of us will not have the chance to seriously change the economic structures of the societies in which we live. We do have a vote, however, and the above comments should make it clear that Christian economic perspectives fit with views associated with both typical Republican and Democratic platforms in the United States. There is rarely a simple way to make the economic structures of a society more loving, and great expertise would be required to know how pulling on one part of an economy would have consequences in another.

Nevertheless, the economic structures of a society can be more or less loving.

Next Week: ET21: Thou shalt not bear false witness.

[1] So Matthew 5:3 has "blessed are the poor in spirit" rather than Luke 6:20's bald, "blessed are the poor." Mathew has "blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matt. 5:6) as opposed to Luke's, "blessed are you who hunger now" (Luke 6:21).

[2] It is often argued that the economic crisis of 2008 largely resulted from irresponsible economics, especially in relation to the packaging and selling of debt from a housing market where individuals were given loans on which they were bound to default.

[3] Yes, when more money flows to the workers, the business may not make as much money. But, as we have said, this should not be the end goal of capitalism philosophically. It is true that a business needs to stay generally competitive to survive, and so a happy middle ground must be reached between survival and the flourishing of all individuals within the business.

[4] We balance this snapshot of the kingdom also with the picture of investment in Luke 19:11-27. In this parable, Jesus advocates the responsible use of resources to multiply resources. His point of course is not so much about money per se but about working for the kingdom until he returns.

[5] This is a potentially huge blindspot for Christian groups that directly apply biblical teaching on money and finance to today with no real sense of the difference in what its teaching meant in its own world, in contrast to our world with a quite different economic structure.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for the consistent excellence of your blog.