Posted by: gmscan | April 14, 2011

Christianity and Capitalism

I have been away from this blog for quite a while. There is a lot going on. Our church has found a new pastor, a woman who came to Christ fairly late in life like me. She has five grown children so has plenty of life experience to bring to the mission. More importantly, she is faithful to the truth of scripture and gives a terrific sermon.  I could not be more enthusiastic about her and our congregation voted unanimously to install her last Sunday.

On the other hand the broader denomination (PCUSA) seems to get ever more detached from Scripture. It seems to be moving toward allowing the ordination of gay pastors and removing fidelity and chastity as a standard for ordination at all. It seems to be moving to a new form of government that will allow the central body to dictate what each congregation should be doing, and the central body in Louisville, Kentucky is rapidly becoming a liberal lobbying organization, weighing in against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and threatening to boycott Indiana because the legislature is considering an Arizona-type immigration law.  Plus, its position in the Middle East is becoming ever more one-sided in favor of the Palestinians and hostile to Israel. It completely ignores the rocket attacks on civilians by Hamas and condemns the Israeli response.

I have also been absorbing a huge amount of information from a wide variety of sources and looking for a way to bring it together into a coherent theme. Let me try to do that here.

Steve Forbes kindly sent me a copy of his new book, “How Capitalism Will Save Us.” Of course I have come to realize that only Jesus can save us, so I take exception to the title, but still Forbes is on to something.  I would guess that most Christians see capitalism as an enemy, but with a very few exceptions (Michael Novak for one) religious people seem to have little understanding of economics.  Those of a liberal bent are more inclined to socialism as a means of achieving social justice. I will get to this later. But even evangelicals are hostile to capitalism for several reasons:

  1. They see it as emphasizing materialism over spiritual values. They look at the products of capitalism as expressed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue and are appalled at how it exploits man’s basest instincts – lust, greed, envy – to maximize profits.
  2. They are wary of any economic/political system that glorifies itself and controls the population on the backs of the church – “God is on our side.”  Certainly the Nazis did this with great success with the small exception of the confessing churches movement.

I understand these concerns, but they misunderstand the core values of capitalism.  More than anything else, capitalism is a way for individual humans to express themselves. Like all human endeavors it is subject to sin, but it also allows for great creativity and problem solving.

If Christians are called to feed the poor and reduce human suffering, capitalism is by far the best means for achieving those goals. It is also an unparalleled engine for human creativity.

We all admire artists and musicians who use their God-given gifts to create new works of art and music. I once heard that the proof that God exists can be made in one word – Mozart. But often overlooked is that people who start new businesses are driven by the exact same creative spirit. They begin with nothing more than a thought and turn it into a reality. The ability to do that is every bit as much a gift from God as the talent of a great composer.

Some people are “serial entrepreneurs.” They will start one business after another, driven not by a quest for profits, but by their creative impulse.  Very often, once the business is up and running, they will lose interest and turn it over to professional managers. Think of Steve Jobs.  He didn’t create the Ipod and Ipad and Iphone to get rich. He was plenty rich already. He created these things to satisfy a creative need, a compulsion. In the course of doing so he also made an enormous contribution to humanity, possibly including the ability of Middle Eastern youth to demand freedom in repressive cultures.

Now, as I wrote about in one of my blogs about “Girls Like Us,” the biography of Carol King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, great musicians sometimes (often?) forget that their talents are gifts from God and get consumed with pride. The same thing happens too often with capitalists. But that is not due to the economic system, but to the fallen nature of man.

Which brings us to the next point – the vital importance of combining Christianity with capitalism.  Next time.

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Responses

  1. Thanks Greg as your take of capitalism vs. christianity is spot on in my viewpoint as well. Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. Without a sinner repenting and humbly submitting daily to the spirit of God, all rules and governments will be run by a man’s tainted views. Please know that I am the lowest of the lowest humans and am not putting myself over anyone else here in this posting. God gives us wisdom and desires to create a new and better way of living via products and innovative solutions. It is when the fallen nature of man takes over in our day to day lives that sinful pride and greed take over and brings unfair, unbalanced hurtful circumstances to some or all of the people involved.. The product or solution created in a capitalistic environment is not to blame or the economic system as evil, it is actually the evil in man’s heart to blame. Regards, Dr. Thomas Schmidt

  2. In the Luke 19 parable of the pounds, one pound is entrusted to each of ten servants. When the nobleman returned, those who invested at a profit are rewarded and to the one who just held it in safekeeping is criticized for, at least, not loaning it with interest. The pound entrusted to him is furthermore confiscated. This is as good of a lesson in capitalism as you can get.

    The parable of the talents in Matt 25, where the departing master gave three servants 5, 2, and 1 talent respectively, reinforces the same principle of captitalism, even when the starting assets are unequal.

    How can we explain the “wicked and slothful” Christians who do not hold fast to the teaching of Christ on capitalism?

  3. Actually, Greg, to a great extent, it’s not the system as much as it is how the people, partcularly, those in power, respond to the system.
    No matter how good capitalism is in its ideals, it can be corrupted by fallen man.
    God wants us to use our gifts, talents, and abilities, to the fullest, for that brings us closer to our God-given missions on earth.
    I see one glaring difference between Christianity and capitalism.
    That is to seek first the kingdom, not profits.
    It is, in my mind, a contradiction, that cannot be overcome, unless the business owners are very special people.
    Judaism believes that 18 such people exist on the earth at one time – they are called tzadiks. Like Jesus, they may be tempted to sin, but do not do so.
    In fact, they hate sin and love holiness.
    What we are lacking today, in my opinion, is the abundance of me-too products and services, and not enough true, productive innovation.
    That will disrupt any system, no matter how well it is designed.
    If humans continue to give in to their baser instincts, we will continue to see the downfall of our economy.
    God made man last. Chasidic Jews believe because we are given free will, we come closer to God’s image than animals, which act basically on instinct.
    They also believe that if man acts like an animal, say a cockroach, with more instinctive than well thought-out behavior, we have lost our position of being created last.
    Even the cockroach, who was created before man, then is better than man, for the cockroach was created before us!
    Shalom,
    Don Levit

    • Someone once said, “The problem with capitalism is capitalists; the problem with socialism is socialism.” Sure, sinful human beings mess up everything (literally, no exceptions), but some political/economic/social systems are better than others. Capitalism, founded as it is on personal liberty, is consistent with God’s desire to have free agents occupy his creation.

  4. Thank you again for this blog and the dialog. I don’t contribute much, but I do read and gain pleasure from the discussion.

    With respect to us that are the slothful Christians at times during a day. Even we can be called by the master and trusted with His treasures. With each call to service our behavior and willingness to do what He has instructed us with will help make our efforts more effective.

    Today, I am more aware of the times my actions and words can make His heart sad or even mad. Likewise, I am seeking more often to do those things He has told me make His heart joyful.

    When we can tune our hearts into those things more often, we become more effective, regardless of the labels people put on us.

    Refer to Acts 6:8-9 Stephen was richly blessed by God who gave him the power and grace to do great miracles and signs amoung the people. …. But some peple were against him.

    Even some of us good Christians have a hard time seeing how He is working in us hour by hour, challenge by challenge.

    Won’t you be my neighbor?

  5. Great piece Greg. I wish all people better understood how the economic system should be designed to reward the best efforts of humans.

  6. What a great discussion! Thank you everybody. I’m not going to reply point by point here because my next couple of postings will deal with some of this. But very quickly —

    Don, Christians believe nobody is without sin. It is a universal condition that is cured solely by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But I am fascinated by the insights you provide here on Judaism. Please continue.

    Gerald, excellent question. I think perhaps you have debated this before. But I will be sure to keep your evidence in mind as I go forward. Thanks.

    Greg

  7. Greg, I think we both come from a small pocket of Christianity which rejects the demonizing of capitalism. My favorite argument is that it’s based on “Thou shalt not steal.” Capitalism is the free exchange of services and property; the motivation for exchange is mutual benefit. What other system excludes force?

  8. Did I recommend already Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason? He is a sociologist and a self-proclaimed agnostic, but writes very persuasively about the very issue you are discussing here.

  9. Hi Greg:

    This is something that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about, and have recently stepped out to start a mercy ministry of sorts. I’d be interested in your thoughts on it: http://www.morningcenter.org.

  10. Just went on the Morning center website.. I’m in. We are a band of brothers that have a similar vision in the Washington DC area… I would love to compare notes with you…

    Where are you located?

  11. Our ministry is headquartered in Peoria, IL. We have not yet chosen a target city for the pilot hospital, but would be glad to have your input and compare notes. Contact us through the email address on the website or through our facebook page and we’ll chat. Would love to hear what you’re thinking there.

    Philadelphia is on our list of potential target cities, not too far from you, and we’re not opposed to DC but want to try the first one in a relatively easy regulatory environment.

  12. Greg,

    So maybe you’ve heard me say this before: love is voluntary. Involuntary wealth transfers and mandates bring about resentment and apathy. Here’s a good clip from the April 7th WSJ piece “The Good Samaritan is virtuous not because he helps the fallen through the force of law but because he does so voluntarily, which he can do only if he has the right to freely choose the good, or not.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704101604576246441115301636.html


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