211 “Money, Greed, and God”

While attending a nominally Methodist university in the 1980s Jay W. Richards easily absorbed (from classes and assigned readings as well as TV and secular media) the anti-capitalistic bias of eminent academics such as John Kenneth Galbraith and “evangelicals” such as Jim Wallis.  He rather enjoyed, he now realizes, the sophomoric “chance to rebel against authority and feel self-righteous doing it” (p. 10).  In time, however, as he more carefully studied economics and observed the world, he changed his mind and has written Money, Greed, and God:  Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (New York:  HarperOne, c. 2009).  He argues that “despite what you’ve been told, the essence of capitalism is not greed.  It’s not even competition, private property, or the pursuit of rational self-interest.  . . . .  What we now know is that market economics work because they allow wealth to be created, rather than remaining a fixed pie.  Economics needs to be zero-sum games in which someone wins only if someone else loses.  We have discovered an economic order that creates wealth in abundance—capitalism.  And only the creation of wealth will reduce poverty in the long run” (pp. 7-8).  

To demonstrate this truth Richards addresses nine prevalent anti-capitalist “myths” that often beguile Christians.  First, there is “The Nirvana Myth (contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives.”  All of us imagine, at times, how to build a just society.  Yet a brief glance at recent endeavors to actually do so in the USSR and China and Cambodia should quickly disabuse one of fantasies regarding social construction!  Scholarly studies, such as The Black Book of Communism, detail the somber truth of utopian socialist experiments.  Similarly scholarly studies reveal how first century Christians, unlike the dreamlike portraits of today’s social justice advocates, never made the brief communal life in Jerusalem “the norm for Christians everywhere” (p. 23)  Nor have Christian communities, such as the Pilgrims in New England, found sharing all things in common a viable way to coexist.  

Social justice devotees such as Jim Wallis and Ron Sider often want us to ignore history and just imagine “what would Jesus do?” when crafting public policies—championing a “living wage” as well as a “minimum wage,” favoring “fair trade” coffee, etc.  Clearly Jesus, in accord with the prophetic tradition of Judaism, calls His disciples to care for the poor.  Given this truth, however, Richards insists we must use our minds as well as our hearts, exercising the virtue of prudence.  And when dealing with economics we must heed Henry Hazlitt’s admonition:  “‘The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups’” (p. 36).  

Government-run welfare programs, Richards says, illustrate a century’s failure to weigh the consequences of what’s been done.  FDR’s New Deal sought to end the Great Depression but acerbated it instead, and the Great Society of LBJ, with its “War on Poverty,” actually turned into a “War on the Poor” (p. 47).  Lots of well-intended endeavors, costing trillions of dollars, have wrought pernicious (if unintended) consequences.  For example, throughout most of America’s “history, the federal government cost every citizen about twenty dollars a year (in current dollars, not the more valuable dollars of the past).  Now it costs every one of us, on average, about ten thousand dollars” (p. 53).  We’re paying the bills for politicians who relish redistributing the nation’s wealth.  But, Richards insists:  “We don’t have the right to take the property of one person and give it to another.  Therefore, we can’t rightfully delegate that function to the state.  Delegated theft is still theft” (p. 53).  

Goods best circulate through society via free trade rather than government edicts and programs.  Richards learned the power of free trade as a sixth grader, when his teacher facilitated a simple session demonstrating its positive sum or win-win nature.  He learned that free enterprise capitalism doesn’t breed brutal competition.  Rather it maximizes the opportunities one has to acquire what appeals to him.  There is certainly a mystery to the market—it’s the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, whose belief in God led him to see “this invisible hand as God’s providence over human affairs, since it creates a more harmonious order than any human being could contrive” (p. 75).    No human being, however intelligent, no human institution, however sophisticated, could even begin to design the millions of transactions that make the marketplace work.  

In this marketplace—a win-win forum—no one is impoverished when someone else prospers.  Whenever filmmakers such as Oliver Stone or Michael Moore or liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez or Ron Sider lament the lot of the poor, blaming the rich for exploiting them, they distort the truth.  Today’s “poor” hardly resemble the truly “poor” of a century ago.  The evidence reveals that as the rich prosper so do the poor—a rising tide floats all boats.  And even if the “gap” between rich and poor grows greater “The relevant issue is whether the lot of the poor improves over time, not how close they are to the richest member of their society” (p. 90).    Wealth is not taken from a common store of natural resources!  Rather it is created by free, innovative individuals (who design things such as e-mail and the calculator I-Pod), and then circulated through the marketplace.  

Entrepreneurs are driven not by greed but by the desire to offer their products to the public.  Despite the stereotypes, celebrated in the novels of Ayn Rand (severely critiqued by Richards) and personified by the likes of Ivan Boesky (the businessman who declared that “Greed is good”), the driving impetus of capitalism is the desire to develop and offer things of value—goods—to others.  To Christians, as well as ancient ethicists such as Aristotle, greed is indeed contemptible.  But “capitalism is not based on greed” (p. 112).  It takes for granted our limited self-interest, as well as our sinful nature.  But, as Adam Smith saw, “in a free market, each of us can pursue ends within our narrow sphere of competence and concern—our ‘self-interest’—and yet an order will emerge that vastly exceeds anyone’s deliberations” (p. 122).  

Many great Christian theologians, contrary to popular myths, have endorsed capitalism.  Certainly “usury” was condemned—but it must be understood in the light of ancient, agricultural economies.  During the High Middle Ages, as trade and technology began transforming Europe, Scholastic theologians thoroughly analyzed money and banking, discerning the difference (distinguished by Jewish theologians centuries earlier) between loaning to a person who needs a winter coat and loaning to a person who wants to start a carpentry business.  “Usury isn’t charging interest on a loan to offset the risk of the loan and the cost of forgoing other uses  for the money; it’s unjustly charging someone for a loan by exploiting them when they’re in dire straits.  That’s the work of loan sharks, not banks” (p. 144).  Similarly, though Christian thinkers soundly condemned gluttony, attributing “conspicuous consumption” to capitalism is fundamentally wrong.  Saving (not spending) sustains capitalism.  Wealth must first be created and then saved and reinvested.  “Delaying gratification is restraint; it’s the opposite of gluttony.  So consumerism is hostile to capitalist habits and institutions” (p. 165).  

Richards closes his treatise with a chapter on natural resources, arguing that we’re not actually exhausting the earth.  Indeed, various unexpected innovations seem to continually enable us to produce ever more food and energy.  Wealth results from our ingenuity and innovation—and there’s an endless supply of this immaterial resource!  As John Paul II said in 1991:  “‘besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself.  His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied’” (pp. 206-207).  Clearly we’re to be good stewards of creation, but that doesn’t entail regressing to some imaginary “sustainable” state of equitably distributed poverty.  Moreover, he says, “remember:  every predicted global environmental catastrophe based on current trends has proved false.  If we look at long-term historical trends, in contrast, the evidence of declining energy costs, increasing energy abundance, and growing prosperity provides no basis for such pessimism” (p. 202).  

This is an eminently readable, persuasive treatise, making the case for a Christian capitalism which seems to be “just what we might expect of a God who, even in a fallen world, can still work all things together for good.  Seen in its proper light, the market order is as awe inspiring as a sunset or a perfect eclipse.  . . . .  At the very least, it should settle the question we started with:  Can a Christian be a capitalist?  The answer is surely yes” (p. 215). 

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

In Jesus and Money:  A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis (Grand Rapids:  BrazosPress, c. 2010) Ben Witherington III, a Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, proffers a critique of the prosperity gospel and those who imagine the popular “Prayer of Jabez” applies to them.  “If there is to be a prosperity gospel worthy of its name,” he declares, “it should be all about the great blessing of giving and living self-sacrificially and how freeing it is to be trusting God day to day for life and all its necessities” (p. 77).  What we need to do, he asserts, is to learn to live with less rather than looking (and praying) for more.  To prove his point he devotes most of the book to careful exegesis and exposition of selected biblical passages—though I (ever uneasy with highly paid seminary professors’ pleas for simplicity!) suspect his personal agenda (all too reminiscent of the “simple life” counterculture of the ‘60s) overly shapes his presentation.  

The Old Testament, Witherington acknowledges, has many passages indicating God prospers his people.  But many of these texts are in the Wisdom literature and are quite situation-specific, not universal in scope.  Turning to the world of Jesus, we must remember that he lived in an agricultural world that had been incorporated into the Roman Empire with its sophisticated trading networks.  Consequently, Witherington makes “a few key points about economics in the NT world:

“1.  The ancient economy was not a money economy, and money was mainly used to pay taxes, tolls, tribute.  . . . . 

“2.  There was no free market capitalism in Jesus’s world.  . . . .

“3.  Money had explicit religious connotations in antiquity that it seldom does today.  . . . .

“4.  Religious values affected how one viewed property, money, and prosperity, and undergirding Jewish views was the belief in a single creator to whom all things ultimately belonged.

“5.  By Jesus’s day there had been a long history of Jews not ruling their own country, and a long history of oppression, even in the Holy Land.  Thus the attainment of wealth was often a matter of collusion with the oppressors of your own people” (pp. 54-55).  

Within this context we must seek to understand Jesus’ words on money, neither over spiritualizing nor deeming them irrelevant.  It’s evident, especially in Luke’s Gospel, that Jesus condemned “persons who are all about enhancing their own assets, portfolios, standards of living, or retirement accounts, which in one sense is what the rich fool envisioned.  Jesus has only warnings for rich fools, warnings about the danger of unrighteous mammon” (p. 66).  Similarly, as we read James and John and Paul we need to discern and share their positions on wealth and poverty—admonitions to work honestly and share with those in need.  

“What is clear,” Witherington says in a concluding chapter, “is that we must not silence the repeated New Testament warnings about the deleterious effects of wealth on one’s spiritual life.  The New Testament as a whole encourages us to have generous hearts.  It encourages us not to live our lives working for ‘unrighteous mammon’ in a self-seeking and self-centered manner.  It encourages us to put our ultimate trust in God, and be willing to demonstrate that trust through sacrificial giving.  It encourages us to be wary of the wise and about the fallen economic and political institutions of this world, and to do our best to disengage from their unethical practices.  The New Testament urges us to have a theology of enough, that is, to live by a principle that godliness with contentment leads to great gain in ways that can’t be monetarily quantified” (p. 151).  

Rightly used, especially when studying and preaching from the texts analyzed, this volume proves helpful.   It betrays but superficial understanding of modern capitalism, however, and it too often rings with utopian aspirations rather than realistic advice for today’s believers.  

* * * * * * * * * * *

For several years, early in my teaching career, I assigned Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger for my Ethics students to read.    Sider launched the Evangelicals for McGovern organization in 1972 and Evangelicals for Social Action in 1974 and remains a fixture in the “Evangelical Left,” along with Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo.  Sider seemed, as a committed Evangelical (with Mennonite and Wesleyan leanings) to rightly reflect a solidly Christian understanding of “social justice.”  As a seminary professor (at Eastern Baptist Seminary), he clearly laid out the biblical injunctions regarding care for the poor, and I naively took for granted that his economic analysis was equally perceptive.  In time, however, while upholding his biblical analysis, Sider acknowledged that he is not a trained economist and the book’s economics were flawed.  

Consequently his Just Generosity:  A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, c. 1999) endeavors to better address the issues of wealth and poverty in America, declaring:  “We must combine solid, sophisticated socioeconomic analysis with normative biblical principles of justice if we are to formulate wise, effective social policy” (p. 14).  Importantly, this means reducing “injustice by providing the poor genuine opportunities to work their way out of poverty” (p. 46).  

To tell us what poverty looks like, Sider marshals statistics designed to persuade us that there “are 36 million people in the United States poor in the midst of enormous wealth, they are becoming poorer while the rich grow richer” (p. 42).  He acknowledges, as Robert Rector contends (in America’ Failed $5.4 Trillion War on Poverty), that if one considers only the basics—food, clothing, and housing—there are very few poor people in this nation.  But he insists poverty must be comparatively defined.  Relative to a prosperous plumber, for example, Sider says a welfare recipient is poor even if he has no unmet basic needs.   Having an apartment with cable TV, getting food stamps sufficient for healthy meals, and owning a car need not disqualify one from being considered “poor” in America.  

In view of this, we need “a holistic, biblical vision for empowering the poor.”  This leads Sider to sketch the biblical foundation necessary for a vision that includes both respect for human freedom and communal solidarity.  As persons we must be free to choose, and poverty usually comes with any “disobedient, lazy neglect of our responsibilities” (p. 52).  To work hard and create “wealth is one important way persons obey and honor the Creator” (p. 54).  But we are social beings, and we need healthy social systems to function justly.  Families are, indeed, primarily responsible for economic development, but the state has its proper and necessary role as well.  Thus honest courts of law, following proper procedures and dealing out commutative justice are needed, as are special provisions designed to care for those unable to care for themselves (evident in the OT’s sabbatical years, the Jubilee Year, and the practices of gleaning and Sabbath observance).  

A good society—a “civil society” in Sider’s terms—enables families, churches, and civic clubs, as well as governmental organizations, to thrive and contribute to everyone’s well being.  It will not only care for the disadvantaged but provide ways for them to become more self-reliant.  In accord with the principle of subsidiarity, articulated a century ago by Pope Leo XIII, Sider says:  “When a social problem emerges the first question should not be, What can government do?  The first question should be, What institutions in society have primary responsibility for and are best able to correct this problem” (p. 91).  Consequently, “We must reject liberals’ automatic preference for government solutions” (p. 91).  

But in many areas government must take charge.  Indeed, “paying taxes is one important way we love our neighbors and promote the common good” (p. 199).  So Sider argues that Christians should support such things as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, the minimum wage, child care subsidies and child tax credits, government funded jobs for everyone willing to work, job training programs, unemployment insurance, universal health care (Sider even includes a form letter to be sent to Senators and Congressmen calling for rapid action), better schools, stronger unions, safe streets, gun control laws, Social Security, summer jobs for inner city adolescents, and the progressive income tax.  A commitment to “biblical justice,” it seems, mandates support for most all of the Democrat Party platform!  (That Sider printed an endorsement of the book by President Obama’s former Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, indicates something of its politics!  In fairness, the book is also endorsed by Jim Wallis, Chuck Colson and former U.S. Senator Paul Simon).  

Apart from the government, however, Sider insists families and churches have crucial roles.  Could American be persuaded to follow Christian teaching regarding sexual ethics and marital fidelity many social and economic problems would be solved.  Especially important is the preservation of families, for there is, as Sara McLanahan reports, this inescapable truth:  “‘The more single parents, the more poverty’” (p. 121).  Indeed, “Children in one-parent families are eleven times more likely to experience persistent poverty than children in two-parent families” (p. 121).  From every measurable standard, illegitimate children suffer from their parents’ irresponsibility.  Fatherless boys have an especially dismal prospect—failing in school, behaving violently, serving time in jail.  Churches as well as families can help eliminate poverty.  Sider cites successful efforts of various inner-city congregations, where it is obvious that faith-based programs effectively help the poor in their neighborhoods.  

There is no question that Sider seeks to help the poor.  His compassion is most evident.  His commitment to those biblical texts that call for “social justice” is also transparent.  But though his economic analyses and prescriptions merit consideration they amount to little more than a reiteration of the “progressive” ideology that has invested trillions of dollars to “solve” poverty without significantly eliminating it.  

# # #