Back when I was a social work major at SIU-Carbondale, I believed that government spending, a higher minimum wage, and higher taxes on the rich were the answer to everything. Even in my years at Gordon-Conwell, I believed that capitalism was basically evil, thanks to Steve Mott, my professor of social ethics. I was never a socialist, but I have never been enamored with the capitalist system, either. I have never believed that the invisible hand of the free market could be trusted to restrain the injustice caused by human greed.
God has not endorsed any economic system. While the Biblical portrait of the early Jerusalem church (why is this story never alleged to have been a myth?) may appear to be an endorsement of a collectivist economic system, it can better be explained as a provisional exhibit of the reign of God. It required an ironclad commitment to the community on a level with the kind practiced at Qumran, where property of incoming initiates was itemized, communal ownership was practiced, and demanding oaths were taken to keep members from walking away. And the Jerusalem commune only functioned successfully for a short time (it had to be rescued by aid from Gentiles outside of Judea).
God has not endorsed capitalism, either, despite the default assumption of free enterprise that seems to run underneath the whole of Scripture. Israelites are commanded to provide for the poor in their harvest, and to give their farmland a sabbatical rest, and they are forbidden to make profit off the poor in personal loans to them. The rabbis of Jesus’ day viewed price-gouging as a form of stealing. Some rabbis said that to charge 18% higher than the current market price was price-gouging, and the customer had only enough time to get a second opinion on the price before bringing their purchase back for a refund, while Rabbi Tarfon (early second century AD) said a merchant could charge up to 33% above the current market price, but the customer had all day to come back and demand a refund (Mishnah, m. Baba Metzia 4:3).
For me, the real issue on capitalism versus socialism is which way really helps the poor, and which way kills jobs. We speak of the evil of exporting jobs overseas, and yet we implement government policies that accelerate the exporting of jobs. We shut down American oil drilling in the Gulf, killing thousands of jobs, then we help Brazil drill for oil in the Gulf. We create government jobs, but through the taxes needed to finance those jobs, we strangle the industries who pay them. How ironic that today the Chinese have to lecture us about the evils of socialism.
We are told that Wal-Mart is such an evil capitalist company, and yet Wal-Mart’s critics have nothing bad to say about China. Why are China’s low wages and minimal health care good, but Wal-Mart’s higher wages and better health care are so bad? Would Wal-Mart’s critics (such as the unions) prefer to work for the Chinese at Chinese labor rates under totalitarian rule?
I am all in favor of employee-owned companies such as Hy-Vee Foods and Huck’s (both Midwestern companies, for those who have never heard of them). We don’t need the crony capitalism currently practiced in Washington. Nor do we need the “lemon socialism” (privatize the profits, socialize the losses) such as bailouts of Wall Street, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. “Capitalism” isn’t so bad when seen from the perspective that most of us own a part of the “evil” oil, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies through our pension and investment plans; maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to vandalize them if we viewed them as belonging partly to us.
Jesus never bashes the man in the Parable of the Talents who expects a return on his investment. Granted, I am assuming that Jesus really spoke this parable (if you disagree, see my previous Outlook blog on “Making Up Words of Jesus”), and yes, it is not a parable about capitalism and economics. But yes, it is a parable about faithfully managing what God has given us.
In Leviticus 25, God gives all Israelites a slice of productive capital (land) to be kept in the family, and provides a system to safeguard that capital against loss due to debt. (Unlike most progressives believe, I believe this came from Moses, and was not invented centuries later.) It was Israel’s failure to keep this legislation that led to a class of landless have-nots in the 8th century BC, while the rich added field to field (Isa 10:1). God’s brand of capitalism sought to preserve everybody’s access to the means of production.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill and as adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill.