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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Godless, Atheistic Capitalism

Let me say that I do not believe capitalism in and of itself is godless or atheistic.  Capitalism is a human economic system and as such it is like all other human economic systems, neither inherently good or evil, but broken and complex like the human beings who devised the system, with the capacity of spreading both good and ill.  For a Christian, this statement should not be controversial in any way, but a self evident fact.

Unfortunately, many Christians today are influenced by a godless and atheistic strand of capitalism, that has set the free market up as an unaccountable absolute, and dispenser of ultimate truth.  In this kind of religious capitalism, the unfettered free market will deliver prosperity fairly and justly, the market will rightly determine the worthy and the unworthy, private property is sacred, and in pseudo-Darwinian fashion, human beings given full economic freedom, will make the ideal world.  This view or some version of it is often passed off as a conservative Christian (or the Christian) perspective.

Where to begin?  Let's start with idolatry.  In the same way that godless, atheistic communism idolized its own ideology, godless, atheistic capitalism has set the free market up as an idol to be trusted and venerated above all else, and accountable to no one, God included.  It is infallible.

How about justice?  The free market creates its own standard of justice and fairness, refusing, in rebellion against God, to recognize any other standard but its own.  That standard is simple, almost beautifully so.  The market gives people what they deserve without fail.  If they act wisely and responsibly, work hard and well, the market will reward them.  If they do not, the market will punish them.  The same rules apply to everyone.  The people who are low-skilled should get skills.  It's nobody else's fault but their own if they don't.

This is not biblical justice.  In biblical justice, people should be paid a living wage.  God determines a fair wage, not the free market.  We are all accountable to God for treating people justly in the marketplace according to God's standards, not the market's.  In God's justice, the community takes responsibility to ensure even its weakest members are cared for.  In the purest and most pseudo-Darwinian form of free market justice, the weak are left to fend for themselves.  And, as Scrooge said, "If they wish to die they better get on with it and decrease the surplus population."  For biblical justice this is an outrage.

Closely linked to justice is worth and value.  According the the free market, people have worth and value as the market demands.  The market decides that baseball slugger Albert Pujols is worth $260 million dollars per year over ten years, and someone who cares for children at the local daycare is worth $8 an hour.  Who are we to question such a decision?  In contrast to the market, Christian faith teaches that each human being is of infinite worth in God's eyes.  The child care worker glorifies (magnifies the Lord, in Mary's words) God as much, and probably more than Albert Pujols.  Yet in the most significant measure the market (and our society) has to discern worth, the childcare worker is virtually inconsequential.  As a Christian, I am offended by the term unskilled labor, because as a Christian I believe all laborers have skills.  I don't believe in unskilled labor.  The unfettered free market does.

How about private property?  In Kansas, water is a big deal.  Farmers who have water under their fields will get a much greater yield.  But water is a precious and scarce resource found mainly in diminishing aquifers deep under the prairie surface. The farmer who says, "the water is mine, I can use it as I please, and nobody is going to tell me I can't," blasphemes according to biblical thinking.  The water, the earth, our houses, cars, 401k accounts, indeed all we own belongs to God.  It is given to us as stewards to use for God's purposes for creation: a just and prosperous community and world.  The words of the scriptures ought to echo in our minds.  The earth is the Lord's...  The land is mine and you are but tenants on it.  The Christian response to property is not "this is my sacred right and nobody can touch it."  Nor is it, "This is mine, how can I make more."  But rather, it is, "I am grateful God put these resources in my care, how can I use them to glorify God."

Finally, the deified view of the free market has an astonishingly naive view of human nature.  No matter what you might think of Saint Augustine, I think Christians could agree that human beings, left without any accountability in the marketplace and elsewhere would not make the ideal world, but rather make a mess of things.  History, including recent history, gives us plenty evidence to remind us that we need ways to be accountable to God and each other for how we engage the market.

I have said before and I will say again that I am not an economist, and have no expertise to evaluate the functions of our complex economy.  But I am a minister of the gospel, and the scriptures have plenty to say about money, wealth, treasure, land, water, labor, and justice, all of which are relevant to how we live our lives.


Dan Koop Liechty said...
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