It is hard to discuss economics today, both inside and outside the church. You wouldn’t know that from the frequency with which it is debated, because by this measure it seems to be an almost constant topic for discussion. The difficulty becomes clear, though, if you actually pause to listen carefully to what is being said. There seems to me to be three barriers standing in our way.
First, not surprisingly, is the lack of civility. Start talking about economic policy or theory and depending on what we say, there is a chance we’ll be tagged by some label: “socialist” and “uncompassionate” are two favorites. If we face a lack of civility outside the church, well, we should try our best to learn to communicate as clearly and winsomely as possible, but we really shouldn’t whine about it. Facing incivility within the Christian community, on the other hand, is reason for concern. I could list lots of biblical texts dealing with economic issues that will take a lot of hard work to interpret correctly. The biblical texts that describe how we should treat one another—for example 1 Corinthians 13—are unambiguous and clear enough for a child to understand.
The second barrier to a thoughtful discussion of economics, both within and without the church, is that the topic has been politicized. By that I mean that almost as soon as the topic is mentioned, partisan positions, parties, policies or personalities are invoked. This should not be. For one thing, economics and politics are not coterminous. For another, as Christians faithfulness requires we figure out how to think about economics from a biblical perspective and only after that will we be able to figure out what that means in the political sphere of life.
The third barrier is that very few of us have seriously tackled the topic of economics from a biblical perspective. We have some texts we use to justify some of our beliefs on the topic, but truth be told we’ve picked those up somewhat after the fact, and they are pretty selective. If you are feeling guilty about this, that is not my intention. (Feeling guilty about incivility and politicization is a different story—for those repentance is in order.) We live busy lives and economics is a huge topic, richly nuanced and like all of life, constantly in flux. For topics like this, we can be thankful for thoughtful Christian thinkers who do the hard lifting for us. Which brings me to an article I am eager to recommend.
The article is free, online (www.cardus.ca) and is a wonderful introduction to thinking Christianly about economics. Even if you don’t discuss the topic much, you’ll have a better foundation for understanding the topic by reading this piece. “Capitalism, Religion, and the Economics of the Biblical Jubilee” is by Paul Williams, the Executive Director of the Marketplace Institute, and Academic Dean, at Regent College, Vancouver.
Capitalism as Ideology
Much of mainstream economics presents capitalism as a morally neutral economic system. It does so with two arguments.
The first focuses on the individual consumer (or firm or worker). Capitalism is morally neutral, it is argued, because it is designed to enable individuals to make their own choices based on whatever values they happen to have.
The second focuses on overall systemic outcomes: capitalism generates the largest possible economic pie and we can then choose what to do with the proceeds.
But are these arguments compatible?
Capitalism is not, in fact, morally neutral. The apparent neutrality of individual choice masks the underlying moral assumption that the individual is the final measure of good, and should always trump community choice, and that present choices should always trump those of our forebears. It also fails to account for the unequal nature of many actual transactions, so that frequently the choice of some undermines the freedom of others. My choice to shop seven days a week (or the choice of a superstore to open seven days a week) removes, or at least reduces, the freedom of the families of shop-workers to spend one day a week together, since the chances of both working parents getting the same day off recede and the influence of shop-workers on such economic outcomes is relatively small. The “good” of a family day of rest each week cannot be expressed in a system that only recognizes autonomous individualism….
Read the entire piece here.