Economics from a biblical perspective  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,


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.

This entry was posted at Thursday, July 25, 2013 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

5 comments

I appreciate you tackling this, and beginning the, as you say, heavy lifting. It's true, I feel so ill-equipped sometimes to have these discussions and know what to do. I am often labeled a socialist, but I struggle to paste together my heart and knowledge.
I read this article recently, and found it very interesting. I don't know anything about the magazine or author, but hope it is okay to share with you, just to add another layer of understanding.
http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-07-24/the-brief-tragic-reign-of-consumerism-and-the-birth-of-a-happy-alternative

I look forward to delving a little more deeply into the Cardus article.

August 4, 2013 at 1:49 PM

Cassandra:
I am sorry you've found yourself labeled, but sadly, there will always be those who want shortcuts to having to thoughtfully discuss something.

The piece for which you provided the link is an interesting example of someone who, like me, is concerned about the limits of consumerism yet seems to not share the Christian worldview that shapes my concerns. I have not read anything else by him, but judging from this piece I would say he is correct in his diagnosis (there is a fatal flaw in consumerism as a driving force for a societal economic system) but weak in terms of prescription (a happiness index leading to a sufficiency economy generated by a crisis of peak oil). The strength of the position explained in the Cardus article is that it provides an alternative basis for thinking about economics that is realistic in terms of market realities in a fallen world. One more reason I am pleased to be a Christian.

I hope the church is willing to listen instead of continuing on in its present addiction to right/left political agendas.
Thanks for commenting, Cassandra.
Warmly
Denis

August 8, 2013 at 4:48 PM

Thank you! I've been anticipating a response! I knew you would. Your response was very succinct and helpful. I shared the Cardus article with friends and was hoping someone would discuss! Perhaps I should have just shared your blog directly!
So blessed by your discipleship from afar.

August 8, 2013 at 11:03 PM

Cassandra:
You are very welcome.
Blessings as you discuss.
Warmly
Denis

August 9, 2013 at 4:05 AM

I was glad to see this post because capitalism seems to be the 'elephant in the room' when it comes to the church, a poisoned chalice that no pastor wants to touch. That's really unfortunate. imho capitalism is a highly flawed system which systematically and unequally destroys future environmental and personal wealth for the 'winners' of the present, as you remarked. Speaking about even a fraction of this destruction is necessary, at the minimum starting with the classic first step, admitting there is a problem. But I think we also miss the chance to reveal our limits, our lack of a long-duration, sustainable solution to this crisis, and a kind of acknowledgement of the malaise of our moment. Ideologies work best when they're invisible, and this was certainly the case when we all exited the church on Sundays, driving en masse to restaurants in SUVs with worldviews firmly intact. ;-)

December 15, 2013 at 3:30 AM

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