The Common Good

What the Bible Teaches About Capitalism

Rabbi Aryeh Spero, President of Caucus for America, has a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “What the Bible Teaches about Capitalism.”

"Moses mit den Gesetzestafeln" via Wylio [http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/35
"Moses mit den Gesetzestafeln" via Wylio [http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/3542205854]

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He makes the argument that while the Bible is “not a business school manual.” Ultimately, “Nations that throw over capitalism for socialism have made an immoral choice.” Capitalism, he says, is more in line with the basic values of the Judeo-Christian tradition and consistent with conditions for human flourishing then socialism.

Now, if what he means is that the United States has done a better job than the U.S.S.R., East Germany, and Cuba in creating a free and just society then I would agree.

But, does this mean that every capitalist policy as practiced in China is moral? 

Does it mean that our country took a decidedly immoral turn with the advent of universal public education, Social Security, Medicare, or the interstate highway system?

I don’t think so, and I doubt Rabbi Spero would argue that either.

The primary political conversation that is happening in our country isn’t a dualistic battle between a “free market” system and a “statist/socialist” one. It is determining which mix of institutions and organizations are best equipped to meet societal challenges and achieve collective goals while allowing for individual freedom and human flourishing.

There aren’t many people who would argue that we need a new federal bureaucracy to run all of our grocery stores. But, you will find people who have varying views as to the government’s role in ensuring that those in need have basic access to nutrition, or what information the government should mandate that growers, producers, or sellers of food disclose to consumers.

Rabbi Spero makes some important scriptural points as to the importance of personal responsibility, human creativity, and freedom, but fails to deal with any passages that might temper or balance his views of capitalism. (You can read about Gary Bauer’s recent problem with scriptural accuracy here.)

Spero argues “The Bible’s proclamation that ‘Six days shall ye work’ is its recognition that on a day-to-day basis work is the engine that brings about man’s inner state of personal responsibility.” That’s all well and good but what about the command for a Sabbath? While the Sabbath serves a much broader purpose, one end it accomplished was protection for workers. It was an early mandated intervention into the world of commerce.

The command to leave fields fallow one year out of seven was a legally required conservation effort (Exodus 23:11). Gleaning (Leviticus 19:9; 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-21) required field owners to leave some of their crop for the poor. The “Jubilee Year” was intended as massive redistribution of wealth and forgiveness of debts (Leviticus 25).

Spero writes that the Bible doesn’t deal directly with many of today’s economic realities but, “What it does demand is honesty, fair weights and measures, respect for a borrower's collateral, timely payments of wages, resisting usury, and empathy for those injured by life's misfortunes and charity.”

This list highlights important Biblical teaching but also shows Rabbi Sperro’s reluctance to grapple with what scripture actually says. Hebraic law didn’t call for “resisting usury.” It forbade it. One Israelite could not charge interest to another. “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (Exodus 22:25)

The language used surrounding those who did charge interest wasn’t pretty. In the book of Ezekiel the prophet makes a list of sins for which one “shall surely die” and it includes murder, idolatry, rape, and robbery, those who oppress the needy, and finishes up with… those who charge interest. (Ezekiel 18:13)

Personally, I’m glad I had access to a line of credit to take out student loans and it was well worth the interest I was charged. But, certainly the strong Biblical language and strict laws concerning the charging of interest would suggest that those coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition have great concern for the role of debt, credit, and loans in our society today.

Rebbi Spero’s final argument is, “Many on the religious left criticize capitalism because all do not end up monetarily equal—or, as Churchill quipped, ‘all equally miserable.’”

I’m not sure who the “Religious Left” barb is aimed at. I don’t know of any serious scholars, theologians, or public leaders from the Judeo-Christian tradition who are making an argument that a just society mandates every person end up as “monetarily equal.”

It’s true that the early Christian church, as described in Acts 2, practiced a form of complete economic sharing. But many do not consider this to be a requirement for faithful Christian practice, but rather as a profound and challenging expression of some of the values central to the faith of early Christians.

Some Christian groups (like monastic orders or the rise of “new monastic” communities) practice various forms of voluntary economic sharing, but I don’t know of any who would advocate for the federal government to impose a system of complete economic equality on the general population.

Taking a serious look at the Bible means acknowledging that it has a lot to say about responsibility and work. For example, as a Christian I look at what Paul told the Thessalonians when he said the one who will not work should not eat. But, we also need to take seriously all of the laws, teachings, and admonitions that show the limits of any human institution or system. That means not skipping over what the Bible has to say about usury, gleaning laws, or the year of Jubilee.

Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” (4:12) As such, it is appropriate to look to Scripture for values and principles that we can apply today. But when it comes to our economic systems it’s a blade that can cut both ways.

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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