A Primer on Christian Economics

I almost forgot to post this–part two of my “Christianity and Public Issues” talk (see Part 1 here).  

Economics is perhaps the greatest issue on the political radar, particularly in the past couple years.  How should we as Christians approach economics and political economy?  Well, let’s return again to the passage from Philippians 3.  Paul contrasts us, the citizens of heaven, with those “whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things”–those who pursue desires of self-gratification, who seek to glorify themselves by how much more they can amass than others, those whose focus and chief goal is material prosperity.  It is not hard to see that this is the way that most of the world lives today–not just individuals, but corporations and governments.  How do companies in our world measure their success?  By how many people’s lives are enriched by their efforts or by how wide their profit margins are?  How do most governments measure their success?  By how much they have promoted justice or by how much GDP growth they can create?  Materialism and selfishness are nothing new, of course, but today Christians must confront the danger of an ideology that argues that selfishness is actually the best way to help people.  The premise of modern capitalism is that as long as you let people pursue their self-interest and remove any barriers to their satisfaction of their material desires, then peace, prosperity, and freedom will grow for everyone.  Paul here and almost any book of Scripture could warn us against the danger of this mindset, could remind us of what a treacherous tool wealth is, how easily it shifts from being a means to a good end to being an end in itself, could remind us that no society can succeed which puts individual self-interest above regard for others.  

And if we read the Bible attentively, we will see that it is constantly insistent–from Genesis right up through Revelation–on decrying the injustices done to the poor and calling for us to be like God Himself in attending especially to the plight of the poor and weak and working to lift them out of their suffering.  Christians have plenty of reason to join with many people in today’s world in decrying the scandal that so many selfishly pursue their own riches without regard to the needs of others, that billions struggle in unthinkable poverty, while others amass far more than they could ever need or even use,  that massive corporations have grown to the point where they are more powerful than most nations and regularly distort information or bend laws to boost their profits still further. 


But what do we do about this?  If we take Augustine’s skepticism regarding the City of Man seriously, his warning that all the structures of this world are distorted by the selfish desires of sin, we will know better than to expect that any system or institution will provide the solution to these problems.  Both the right-wing trust in the all-powerful market and the left-wing trust in the all-powerful government are naive and idolatrous.  True economic justice requires hard work and focused dedication on the part of God’s people to aid those in need, practice righteousness in the marketplace, and fight for justice.   True justice can only be found through a community of people bent on worshipping God, and receiving from Him the strength to give themselves for others as Christ gave himself for them.   Ultimately, it is the Church, not the State or the market, that has the resources to overcome oppression and greed.  To say this, though, is not to endorse the kind of pietism that imagines that all we need to do is give people the right heart, to convert them, and then we’ll have economic justice; the shape of Jesus’s ministry should show us the Church has a lot more work to do than that.  

Augustine, however, should warn us against a triumphalism as well.  Against all triumphalism, Christians should remember that the City of God is never complete in this life, in this age, that it too continues to struggle with sin and selfishness, and so we too will constantly fail in our quest for justice and charity.  We cannot approach the world with a mindset of “We’ve got the answers, we’ve got the solutions–your plans can go to hell.”  

A Christian politics thus recognizes that although there’s no such thing as a truly just worldly institution, there are some institutions that are more just than others, and we ought to recognize and encourage them, instead of simply writing them all off as equally rotten.   Remember that in Augustine’s paradigm, the earthly city, seen in political structures like Rome, was sure always to miss the mark of justice, but that didn’t mean that it could never come close, or that we shouldn’t try to help it become less unjust.  Economics then is an area ripe for “selective collaboration.”  

While the Church does its work of preaching the Gospel, helping the poor, and encouraging charity, in the meantime, juster laws can restrain injustice and help motivate good deeds in those for whom the impulse of charity is weak.  We have in the Old Testament a wonderful model of how God sought to encourage economic justice for his people–not only through moral exhortation and a call to worship and imitation of God, but through legal structures that recognized how easily the weak can be further marginalized and the strong can continue to grow stronger at their expense, and that tried to guard against this tendency.  While we cannot and should not press for laws that mandate Christ-like charity, we can at least support policies that discourage outright un-charity, or which try to ameliorate its effects.  We can support policies that seek to restrain the power and influence of money over our culture and societies, mindful of Paul’s warning that the love of money is the root of all evil.  When economic policies are debated in our cities or our national assemblies, we must of course insist that the needs of the poor are remembered and are favored over and above the desires of the wealthy to grow wealthier.  We must speak out against the lying narrative which insists that if we just leave wealth alone and let it do its work of creating more wealth, then poverty will disappear–usually this just means that, at best, poverty will be hidden away in some place less visible, like southeast Asia.  


But we must be wary when we advocate better policies in the political sphere.  The Bible tends to be pretty skeptical when it comes to rulers and central governments.  “Put no confidence in princes,” the 20th Psalm warns us, and the story of the Old Testament tends to bear this out.  In 1 Sam. 8, when the people ask for a king, God warns them that he will become an oppressor, amassing wealth and power for himself.  It’s not long before Solomon does just this, and despite the positive work of several godly kings, on the whole the prophets of the Old Testament denounce the royal administration as being on the side of greedy landlords and usurers.  Whatever their faults, conservatives are right to be skeptical of central government’s ability to improve economic justice and curb the power of wealth; after all, such large concentrations of power are difficult to hold accountable and easy to corrupt, and so they tend to aid rather than restrain the ambitions of large corporations.  Moreover, large unwieldy nation-states generally tend to resort to crude tools like coercion, which we as Christians know is rarely calculated to advance peace and justice.

The answer, I would suggest, is not laissez-faire, is not no government, but is a different kind of government.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the law of the Old Testament, most of the laws of economic justice seem to be the responsibility not of the king or of a state bureaucracy, but of local communities, governments on a more human scale, in which citizens take a great deal of responsibility for what happens in their communities and decisions about justice and injustice are made by people who actually know something about the plaintiffs and the defendants.  If the Church is to provide a model of a juster, truer kind of community, then perhaps we should seek political communities that are likewise organized on a manageable scale, which depend more on face-to-face relationships and not on bureaucracies or abstract legal ties.  Such political communities, it would seem, would not need so often to result to cruder tools of coercion but would be more able to negotiate conflicts via genuine dialogue and reconciliation, an approach the Church is also called to model for the world.  

Of course, it goes without saying that in our globalized world, with corporations like Wal-Mart that employ over 2 million people (just for perspective, that’s more people than you could meet if you met one new person every minute of every day for four years) in dozens of countries, not everything can be as local as it once was.  We’d be courting disaster if we tried to shrink our governments down to the local level while leaving massive multinational corporations just as they are.  As Christians, we need to also cultivate a more local, personal economics.  Most things we buy and sell are still made and sold by human beings, not just machines, and we have a responsibility toward human beings we meet and interact with.  We need to think about how to show Christ’s love to people in everything we do, which includes shopping for groceries or selling mortgages–and how can we do that if we don’t even know the name of the person we are buying from or selling to?  

I’d like to conclude by driving this point home with a theme that has become common in recent theology and ethics: the Eucharist is the model of true community.  In the Eucharist, God shares his life with us and we share it with one another.  Isn’t it fascinating that what unites us as one body in the Church is not abstract membership in some organization, is not being listed on the membership rolls of a denomination or the fact that we send in a check for our tithe every month, but is an actual face-to-face gathering and eating together?  In the Eucharist, we pass the bread and the wine to one another and we pass the peace to one another, speaking one another’s names.  This exchange binds us together, and through it we resolve conflict and renew our determination to live together and serve one another.  What would the world be like if we could make more of our lives that way?  The answers to this question are not simple or easy, but it’s a question I think we should ask ourselves every day.

14 thoughts on “A Primer on Christian Economics

  1. We’d be courting disaster if we tried to shrink our governments down to the local level while leaving massive multinational corporations just as they are.I think the conditional in this sentence is a little optimistic. We're already there and the disaster is unfolding around us.


  2. Donny

    "and how can we do that if we don’t even know the name of the person we are buying from or selling to?"I'm growing skeptical of this line of reasoning. I build websites and web applications, and in doing so, I'm building things for people whose name I will never know. Yet there's definitely love involved. Similar, I guess, to people who build bridges, office buildings, etc. Sure, there's something to localism and personalism and railing against "abstract" business, but I'm quite sure what that something is yet…


  3. Donny

    Oh, and btw, it was a good post. It's making me realize how much of this, in order to be practical, really ends up becoming business ethics. And that's one heck of a sticky area.


  4. Bradley

    Donny,I've been thinking about this a lot more lately as well, especially since I've been reading Wendell Berry more. I think personalism (and localism) are great, but they're not vital. Knowing your neighbor's name makes it much easier to love him, but it's not impossible to love somebody you don't know. Specialization across the globe is a good thing, and it's here to stay. If I want coconuts, I have to import them from some tropical region. If I want a laptop, I can't buy it from my local craftsman. I have to buy laptops and coconuts long-distance, but that doesn't mean those long-distance relationships have to be defined by selfishness and poor-quality work…though that might be a tendency we have to overcome.Here's how I look at it: local business just makes it easier to show love. There's 10x more accountability and 10x more motivation to love someone you have seen. But blessed are those who love those whom they have not seen! It takes more maturity and discipline to be loving in a global economy. Right now we don't have that love and discipline, and we need to cultivate it. So, yeah. Localism is good, but not *the* good.


  5. Bradley

    And on the other hand, it still might be possible to cultivate some sort of long-distance relationship in a global economy. It's harder to do, but not impossible. Maybe I can know the family who grows my coconuts. I've toyed with inter-Church commerce as a way of maintaining personal contact with people worldwide, but I'm not sure exactly how it would work… one Church congregation bartering goods with another… hmm…


  6. Bradley

    Yes, I do believe globalisation is here to stay, And not only globalisation, but possibly exploration and colonisation of other planets (though it's too early for anyone to say for sure). Yes, globalisation is dependent upon affordable energy. Oil doesn't appear to be a reliable source of energy in the long-term, but there are plenty of other energy sources waiting to be tapped—some of which have already been invented, and some of which haven't yet. Most of them are more expensive than oil (which is why we're still using oil), but as soon as it becomes economical I'm sure we'll figure out ways to exploit them better. Never underestimate human ingenuity. (Just so you know some about my background, I work in the oil business and personally own an oil well. I'm also something of an agrarian at heart, and I'm planning on becoming a farmer, so it was emotionally difficult for me to admit that intergalatic exploration is likely).


  7. Bradley – With respect, I'd love to know what these energy sources are that are going to replace oil. And given even the Pentagon is now saying "By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," I'd also love to know how these alternatives are going to be rolled out on that kind of scale within that kind of timeframe.Forget colonising Mars, the challenge of the next two or three decades is going to be avoiding massive political instability, resource wars and expanding food production in the face of rapidly declining soil health, water stress and an increasingly unstable climate, all with ever increasing shortfalls in energy production. Current rates of oil field decline mean that we need to bring a new Saudi Arabia online every three years and current rates of growth in the developing world mean demand growth requires another Saudi Arabia every seven years. Put them together, and I don't see how widespread unrest, price shocks, rising international tensions, increasingly desperate grabs at remaining resources are not going to be the likely storyline of the next few decades.


  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Ah yes, let's debate the imminent demise of Western civilization–this is one of my favorite kinds of conversation. I'm sympathetic both to Byron's concern about Peak Oil (my dad was for a brief stint a couple years ago a Peak Oil doom-caster, and very convincing while it lasted), however, I also share Belschner's skepticism about overly confident prognostications, whether positive or negative. For the past couple centuries, confident predictions about breathtaking leaps of progress mankind was about to make or massive abysses over which the race was about to fall have often proven false and quickly gone out of fashion. So I'm in a wait-and-see mode. Perhaps we can make a bet–if, within 25 years, civilization isn't on the brink of disaster from lack of oil, then I'll buy Bradley a bottle of Scotch, and if it is, I'll buy Byron a bottle…though I probably won't be able to afford one if the dire predictions come true.On other comments, I agree with Bradley's first comment, in reply to Donny. Localism and personalism are not an absolute necessity, but I would say that those should provide our model of normal business relationships, and we should work harder to show love in the abstract relationships that we have to engage in, rather than making the abstract relationships the normal ones and then increasingly making even our personal face-to-face business detached and impersonal, which is how we do things now. Also, Byron said, "We’d be courting disaster if we tried to shrink our governments down to the local level while leaving massive multinational corporations just as they are.I think the conditional in this sentence is a little optimistic. We're already there and the disaster is unfolding around us."Sure, we already have disaster unfolding around us, but not because we've tried to shrink our governments down to the local level. Most western gov'ts, especially the US and UK, have become far more centralized in the past forty years, which has, of course, helped encourage the over-centralization in business, which is presumably you think the root of the disaster. I was just saying we'd have a different kind of disaster–or a worse form of the same one–if we left business just as it was and went about dismantling the public sphere.


  9. Bradley

    Byron,What energy sources will replace coal and oil? In the short-term, probably some form of nuclear energy. And that doesn't just mean huge nuclear power plants. I'm a big fan of NuScale's micro-nukes. They're surprisingly safe, and awesome for off-grid rural towns. (Isn't it strange how modern technology makes it more and more convenient to live outside cities?) The transition to nuclear shouldn't be terribly complicated, and the cost isn't that bad. Electricity from NuScale's micro-nukes costs about 7-9 cents per kWh to produce, which is only a little higher than the national average for electricity (you can check out the averages for different states here). Here's a great magazine article that summarizes the technology nicely. You know how plastic is made from oil? Well, it's possible to heat plastic and dissolve it back into oil again. Here's an awesome video that explains it a bit. A couple companies are already doing this commercially. If I recall correctly, it takes about 1 kWh electricity to produce 1 litre of crude oil from plastic …..not bad. It's conceivable that we might be “mining” our landfills for plastic over the next couple decades. It wouldn't be very sustainable, but it might help cushion our transition to an oil-free economy.Artificial photosynthesis also looks very promising in the long-term. What if we could build a synthetic leaf that would convert CO2 into energy? Just imagine it—the leaves would literally drip alcohol, perfect for use in today's transportation systems. That would be nice, wouldn't it? Well, we're already halfway there. We already have working models of such “leaves” in labs across the world. Now all that remains to be done is ironing out a few kinks and mass producing it to make it available to the general public. But that's easier said than done, which is why I personally believe this is more of a long-term technology.Forgive my rambling. The bottom-line is, I'm sympathetic to the “peak-oil-will-collapse-modern-society” storyline. I think it's very romantic (for lack of a better word). I would be very pleased if modern society collapsed. But unfortunately, modern society is not so simple. Technologically speaking, the global economy isn't built on a foundation as narrow as fossil fuel. I believe it's built more generally upon a foundation of energy (not necessarily oil) and information. This is the thing that characterizes our global economy the most: detailed knowledge and technological capabilities have spread to every nook and cranny on the globe. The internet is far more important than oil ever will be. You can do practically anything if you look up the right website. If you tried hard enough, I bet you could even build a nuclear reactor yourself (a boy scout almost succeeded in doing so back in 1994, and that was before the Internet!)Don't get me wrong. I agree we'll hit peak oil pretty soon, and I expect oil prices will skyrocket. But expensive oil won't be the end of the world as we know it. It'll just make us use our oil a lot more efficiently, and it will give us the financial incentive to switch to other forms of energy. Consider this, Byron: you mentioned the Pentagon report on oil, and I suspect you also know about the German military's report on oil. Are such reports evidence of the inevitable collapse of society, or are they evidence that these governments are becoming better prepared to prevent such a collapse?


  10. Bradley

    P.S.–Just for the record, I'm not claiming that modern society is perfectly safe from collapse. I'm only claiming that lack of oil over the next 5-10 years won't cause a collapse. But debt might. The state of our finances is a heck of a lot worse than the state of our technology. But that's a different topic entirely…P.P.S–And also just for the record, I love Wendell Berry, organic farming, localism, and stuff like that. But I also love modern science and technology (*coughblogginginternetcough*), and I sell oil wells as investments. Think of me as a barefoot scientist. It results in some pretty unique viewpoints. For example: most organic farmers don't know the first thing about chemistry, but on the other hand most scientists are too foolish to know that spraying pesticides on your food is a Bad Idea. The organic farmer therefore rejects all chemicals wholesale, whereas the scientist promotes every chemical willy-nilly. I prefer to analyze each chemical and method thoroughly and to only use those chemicals which have a positive effect on the soil and environment. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer will kill your soil, whereas ammonium sulphate might help build up your soil fertility. The scientist and organic farmer both fail to distinguish between them, one promoting both and one rejecting both. We must look at as much information as possible before we make a decision. For example, I'm against burning coal, because it releases unsafe levels of mercury in the atmosphere. But I see no environmental problem with burning oil and gasoline. I'm not afraid of CO2, but I'm terrified of mercury. So as we interact in the future, please don't try to place my viewpoints in either stereotyped camp, because they just won't fit. (That sounds prideful, but I only mean it in a helpful sense, to give you a better idea of where I'm coming from.)


  11. Bradley – Thanks for the clarifications and background info.I never said "collapse". I said instability (economic, social and political). Dreaming of the sudden and complete end of civilisation is a lazy intellectual pursuit. As you point out, things are more robust than that. I don't think peak oil spells the end of industrial civilisation this decade. But I do think that combined with debt, it presents a very significantly bumpy road ahead. None of the technologies you mention are ready to be rolled out on the scale needed and in the timeframe required if the Pentagon report is in the right ballpark (for instance, even NuScale's (presumably optimistic) timeframe sees the first plant being ready in 2018) . When combined with ecological degradation on an unprecedented scale and the structural problems in global finance to which you allude, I'm not particularly optimistic that the global economy will follow anything like the trajectory of the last sixty years over the next thirty.Where does your optimism about carbon come from?Are such reports evidence of the inevitable collapse of society, or are they evidence that these governments are becoming better prepared to prevent such a collapse?I simply note that such government preparations to prevent collapse include recommendations about shifting geopolitical priorities (e.g. in Germany, less standing up for Eastern Europe in order to not rock the Russian gas giant). And in the US, concerns about energy security are met from some quarters with "drill, baby, drill".The panicked fear of collapse is part of the problem. Not because collapse is impossible (as you point out), but because there are things worse than death. I note for instance that the German document speaks of situations in which "In the medium term the global economic system and every market-oriented national economy would collapse [… making] room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government." Bradford – Yes, you're right about government and growth in complexity. My (somewhat hyperbolic) point was that corporate growth has exceeded governmental growth, so that relatively speaking, we have handed over far more of the public realm to the corporation, which, as you point out, lacks even the government's veneer of being concerned for the common good. Are you familiar with Joseph Tainter's work on societal complexity? This interview gives a good sense of his thesis.


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