Capitalism

Not a Needy Person Among Them

Derek Hatfield / Shutterstock

Derek Hatfield / Shutterstock

AN UNUSUAL TITLE recently caught my eye at the library. The book is called The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, by Paul J. Zak. An economist with obvious interests in biology, psychology, and religion, Zak’s numerous experiments demonstrate that when someone is shown a sign of trust or when one’s empathy is engaged, a certain molecule called oxytocin surges in the brain and blood.

“When oxytocin surges,” says Zak, “people behave in ways that are kinder, more generous, more cooperative, and more caring.” In other words, they follow the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated. Zak eventually demonstrates how oxytocin can work within economic systems, which reminded me of a children’s song we sang at a church I used to attend in Chicago: “Love is like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many they’ll fall all over the floor!”

And that reminded me of research I had done on the early Jerusalem church in the book of Acts. If there ever were oxytocin surges, it must have been at Pentecost and in the days and years of the shared economic community that followed!

Two summary texts describe the common life shared among these earliest believers: Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-37. The first tells of their daily life together, distributing possessions, worshiping in the temple, and eating a daily communal meal in various households. The second passage describes the renunciation of private ownership. Believers sold their land and homes and gave the money to the community to be distributed “as any had need” (4:35).

Why did they do this? Wasn’t it impractical and more trouble than it was worth? Didn’t they soon have to cope with cheaters like Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) or complaints from Hellenist widows (6:1-6)? Didn’t that radical idealism soon peter out and people go back to their former lifestyles?

Interpreting through middle-class mirrors

My research on how these economic texts have been interpreted throughout Christian history was eye-opening. Ever since market capitalism arose in the 14th century, many commentators considered the communalism of the Jerusalem church to be unrealistic. For example, John Calvin, a 16th century community organizer, writes in his Acts commentary that he had to “properly” interpret communal sharing in 2:44 “on account of fanatical spirits who devise a koinonia of goods where all civil order is overturned.” He especially criticizes the Anabaptists of the time, because “they thought there was no church unless all mens’ (sic) goods were heaped up together, and everyone took therefrom as they chose.” Instead, Calvin recommends that “common sharing ... must be held in check.”

The rise of historical criticism during the 19th century in the West led to much skepticism about the accuracy of biblical texts. Luke wrote decades later, scholars asserted, idealizing the early church in Acts. The Jerusalem believers were very poor and had to help each other out, so Luke turns this grim picture into a Golden Age of sharing. In his 1854 commentary, Edward Zeller maintained that Acts 1 to 7 was full of legends and fictitious stories that Luke himself created.

The conservative reaction to such skepticism was to affirm the historicity of the early chapters of Acts—but to see this as a socialist experiment that soon failed and was never tried again. Its failure was confirmed by the poverty of the Jerusalem church in Acts 11:27-29, where the disciples at Antioch decided to “send relief to the believers living in Judea.”

No doubt these notions about the community of goods in Acts 2 to 6 prevail in many churches today. But both perspectives get it wrong because scholars and laypersons alike read these texts out of their own economic situation—Western capitalism. For middle and upper-middle classes (from which most biblical scholars emerge), capitalism has worked well. As a political and economic system, it has staunchly opposed Marxist and other ideas of socialist communalism, often perceived as “godless.”

This hostility has made it almost impossible to view the socialism of the early Jerusalem church as a positive development or one that survived more than a few years. For example, G.T. Stokes’ 1903 Acts commentary in the English Expositor’s Bible series declared that the Jerusalem experiment was a socio-economic disaster that should never have happened. One of the evils it produced, according to Stokes, was the conflict between the Hellenist and Hebrew widows in Acts 6:1. Stokes assumes they were destitute widows fighting over poor relief. Reflecting Victorian class distinctions and paternalistic attitudes, he asserts, “No classes are more suspicious and more quarrelsome than those who are in receipt of such assistance ... Managers of almshouses, asylums, and workhouses know this ... and ofttimes make bitter acquaintance with that evil spirit which burst forth even in the mother church of Jerusalem.”

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Things You Can't Buy on Black Friday

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Black Friday sales have been advertised for weeks now it seems. Doorstoppers, insane discounts, buy 1-get 1 free, and other mega sales are coming at us whether we want them to or not. Some stores are opening before the crack of dawn on Friday morning and others are not even closing from Thursday morning to Friday evening. The pressure to shop and spend is pretty intense. My social media feeds are equally filled with people excited about shopping and those who are pledging not to shop at any stores that have chosen to open on Thanksgiving Day. The debate is pretty intense at times. There are major opinions on both sides.

I have both shoppers and non-shoppers in my family. My mother and my brother-in-law are two of the shoppers. They love to shop and I mean that they LOVE to shop. They are professional level shoppers. They relish racking up major deals on Christmas gifts. So on more than one occasion I have watched them spend Thanksgiving evening planning their shopping run for Black Friday. They get out maps and sale flyers to plan their early morning excursion to make the most of the sales and the most of their time.

Local View: Capitalism’s free market has become our god, our golden calf

Capitalism has been overdone, increasing wealth and power in the pockets of only a few. At the same time, poverty has been growing. Is that moral? Is that “do unto others?”

The cry we hear so much is that capitalism’s free markets lead to a free society. That has not been the result for people on the lower poverty rungs.

Is Capitalism Compatible With Christianity?

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When Jesus called the first disciples, he totally disrupted their economic lives. Simon and Andrew, James and John were working for their family business, as they were raised to do. Their fathers were fisherman, just like their fathers’ fathers, stretching back beyond memory. Fishing was a way to make money, but it was also much more than that. The family business provided a sense of place, of meaning. It was a social order that allowed each member of the family to know exactly where they fit.

Only when we understand this can we begin to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ invitation to his first followers and friends: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Jesus offered an entirely different economic and social order. His was an invitation without safety nets, justifications, or guarantees. The first disciples immediately abandoned their nets, their livelihood, the whole social order that gave them a place to stand. They left everything, even their own worldview, to follow Jesus.

Why Pope Francis wants us to stop worshipping capitalism

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the U.S. next week is generating huge interest and expectation.

Part of that excitement is rooted in the different tone the pope has taken on a number of issues, from marriage to the role of women in the church. But he has also issued a tough critique of capitalism and called for more action on climate change.

We kick off our coverage of the pope’s trip, which will continue all next week, with a look at those issues from our economics correspondent Paul Solman.

The Economy Kills

SINCE HIS ELECTION IN 2013, Pope Francis has been widely praised. But in this interview, conducted by Italian journalists Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi before the release of the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis speaks about the environment and economic justice; his perspectives on these topics have elicited harsh criticism from some.

How important is it for Christians to recover a sense of care for creation and sustainable development? And how do we ensure that this is not confused with a certain environmentalist ideology that considers humanity the real threat for the well-being of our planet?

Pope Francis: For the protection of creation we must overcome the culture of waste. Creation is the gift that God has given to humanity so it can be protected, cultivated, used for our livelihood, and handed over to future generations. The vocation to take care of someone or something is human, before being Christian, and affects all; we are called to care for creation, its beauty, and to respect all creatures of God and the environment in which we live. If we fail in this responsibility, if we do not take care of our brothers and sisters and of all creation, destruction will advance. Unfortunately, we must remember that every period of history has its own “Herods” who destroy, plot schemes of death, disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation.

But when humanity, instead of being custodian, considers itself to be the master, it ... moves toward destruction.

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Once Pope Francis Knows U.S. Capitalism He Will Love It, Says Catholic Theologian-Economist

Photo via giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Photo via giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

The Rev. Martin Schlag is a trained economist as well as a Catholic moral theologian, and when he first read some of Pope Francis’ powerful critiques of the current free market system he had the same thought a lot of Americans did: “Just horrible.”

But at a meeting on May 11 at the Harvard Club, Schlag, an Austrian-born priest who teaches economics at an Opus Dei-run university in Rome, reassured a group of Catholics, many from the world of business and finance, that Francis’ views on capitalism aren’t actually as bad as he feared.

Turning Money Into Media

AS ICE CREAM entrepreneurs, Jerry and I have been on a journey that has led us squarely to the conclusion that, while there are many ways that a business can use its power to improve people’s quality of life, the most effective lever for economic and social justice is the government.

Business can use its voice to influence government for good. But too often big corporations use the system of unlimited political “donations”—a system that John McCain calls “legalized bribery”—to skew the government in favor of their own narrow self-interest. That’s why I’m devoting my time and treasure to hacking at a root cause of injustice: big money in politics and crony capitalism.

A nationwide poll of small-business owners commissioned by Small Business Majority found more than three-fourths (77 percent) of small employers say big businesses have a significant impact on government decisions and the political process, whereas a mere 24 percent say small businesses have a significant impact on the process.

The same poll shows 85 percent of small-business owners (the real “job creators”) support efforts to get big money out of politics. This is consistent with other polls that say 80 percent of Americans—Republicans, Democrats, and independents—agree there is too much money being spent to influence elections and lawmakers.

People are right to view their representatives askance. A recent study affirmed that having money does, in fact, lead to increased access and influence in Washington. Researchers found that representatives were more likely to meet with people donating money than with a regular constituent, and laws were more likely to reflect wealthy special interests rather than the public interest.

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COMMENTARY: Free Market Compensation or a Rigged System?

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

In a marketplace unfettered by ethical restraint, a sense of duty, concern for others, or even basic shame, 25 hedge fund managers gave themselves a 50 percent pay boost in 2013.

Never mind that hedge funds’ performance, on average, tanked for the fifth consecutive year.

These 25 men wanted big bucks, so they took them: a total of $21 billion. All for managing wealth that someone else created and, except for a few, not managing it particularly well.

The top earner paid himself $3.5 billion for 2013.

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