The Economics of Faith

by Hal Miller

It has been a year of celebration for the West. We celebrated with heroic Chinese student activists, martyrs now to the cause of political and economic freedom. We watched with no small amazement as Gorbachev's perestroika evolved from an intriguing concept into a tumultuous reality. And we popped corks with the peoples of Eastern Europe as one after another demanded and were promised sweeping economic and political reforms.

It's hard not to celebrate under such circumstances. But, with the champagne is still wet on the floor, perhaps we should reflect on what the West might offer in place of decades of repression and centrally controlled economics. As these peoples struggle to work out their future, should we hold up the political economy we have developed'democratic capitalism'as one they ought to pursue?

Yes, say capitalism's advocates. Granted its consumerism is excessive and its individualism is isolating, capitalism breeds economic freedoms that in turn can best ensure important political freedoms. Democratic socialism, they say, is like a fried snowball-you can talk about it, but you can't make it. Morally speaking, on balance we need to advocate capitalism, even with its faults and brutalities because the alternatives are more seriously flawed and more massively brutal.

Among Christians, the same questions are debated, but with a slightly different spin. We also want to know what God would have us think about economics. And one place we go to find answers to that question is the Bible.

PERHAPS MORE THAN any other book, the Bible is open to abuse by those who appeal to it. And when the subject is as hotly debated and close-to-home as economics, that abuse becomes a serious concern. In the last ten years we have seen impassioned arguments that the Bible instructs Christians to live simply by giving away anything beyond the necessary. We have read diatribes insisting that capitalism is the only "Christian" economic system. And liberation theologians like Josť Miranda have even argued that the Bible insists that Christianity is communism.

All these arguments, in their best forms, appealed to the Bible as an authority. All claimed to have somehow ferreted out what God would have us think about economics. And the Bible is called as a witness for each. If there are competing economic systems, God must surely have an opinion about which one is better. So the contestants amass their evidence: The first church in Jerusalem lived together as a communist society. The sixth commandment (do not steal) affirms the sanctity of private property. The prophets continually sided with the poor against the rich. Solomon was blessed by God with incredible wealth. Jesus said it was next to impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Paul said he knew how to live in plenty and in need.

The debate goes on.

What most of these partisans never notice is that the Bible doesn't share their assumption that there are competing economic systems. Nor does it share the assumption that God must prefer one over another. On the contrary, the witness of the Bible is that there are multiple economic systems, and God is ambivalent about each of them.

We often live under the illusion that we face a fairly simple economic choice: we can affirm capitalism or we can affirm communism, for there are no other alternatives. And yet there are many alternatives. Because the Bible was written over the course of centuries, it reflects many of these different economies. Sometimes the economic system is feudal, sometimes it is nomadic, sometimes it is agrarian, and some times it is a market system. Two economic systems which biblical writers know nothing about, however, are communism and capitalism. Both are distinctly modern economies; neither has a history longer than a few centuries.

This means that we cannot just compile biblical sayings and apply them to our modern economic systems. Rather, if we are going to use the Bible for thinking about economics, we need to take a more indirect route. Rather than trying to see if the Bible can support one or another modern economic system-communist, capitalist, or something else-let's look at some examples of what biblical writers said about their own economic systems. With these examples in mind, we might better understand what we should say about our economic systems.

THE MOST COMMON texts cited by writers who want to condemn wealth and luxury as against God's purpose come from the Old Testament prophets. Almost any chapter from Amos or Jeremiah will do, as will many passages from the other prophets. The denunciations of the prophets, however, are against wealth and luxury in a particular economic system. In order to see this, we shouldn't jump into the story in the prophets' time (fifth century before Christ); rather, start back in the time of the Abraham.

In the days of the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac lived in a nomadic economy. Both are portrayed as fabulously wealthy people, even by contemporary standards. Abraham had vast possessions in herds, silver, and gold (Gen. 13:2) and could even afford to raise a private army when necessary (Gen. 14:14). Yet nowhere is Abraham's great wealth condemned. The same is true of Isaac (Gen. 26:12-14).

Yet the economy in which they lived was far different from ours. Wealth was measured by herds and metals, but neither Abraham nor Isaac owned any land. They were nomads, who roamed to where the grazing was good. In such an economy, the land simply belongs to everyone, anyone, and no one. From this perspective, God's promise to give Abraham and his descendants a land (Gen. 15:18-21) is all the more remarkable: to his incredible wealth, God will add that which cannot be owned. It is as if God appeared to someone in a capitalist economy and promised them they could own the road or the air or the moon.

When Abraham's descendants finally settled in Canaan, their inheritance was indeed the land. They owned the un-ownable. Yet it was not like our modern personal ownership of property. The land was owned, but it was "owned" by tribes, not by individuals.

By this time, the economy had changed substantially-from being composed of nomadic bands of herdsmen to having a more settled agricultural base. The land was owned and tilled, and eventually, people bought and sold it. Over time, this process certainly rewarded the prudent and penalized the slothful (as the Proverbs dwell on again and again), which surely made for a divergence between wealthy and poor.

The laws of Leviticus, had they been followed, would have seen to it that this process could not go on unchecked. The Levitical Jubilee year returned all property to its original tribal owner every seventieth year. In effect, the Jubilee made land a rentable but not a saleable asset.

Whether Israel ever practiced the Jubilee year or not (and the Bible reports that it didn't), it was a divine critique of an uncontrolled impoverishment and enrichment. In effect, the Jubilee would have prevented an on-going impoverished class. You could mess things up for yourself, and perhaps for your children by being imprudent. But your children's children would receive their divine inheritance back again, as if you had never been so rash.

BY KING DAVID'S time, the economy had continued to change until it was no longer a simple agrarian culture where each tribe had a certain amount of wealth in land. Israel's economy had evolved into an essentially feudal arrangement where military and economic power became centralized in fortified cities ruled by warlords like Saul, David, and the Philistine chiefs. You can see this in the problems David had winning the allegiance of those outside Judah (2Sam. 2-4).

In such an economy, great power and wealth could be consolidated by an astute and cunning individual, and David certainly did so. Amidst all his wealth and power, the only time he earns divine condemnation is when he decays spiritually to the point that he thinks anything ought to be his. Nathan the prophet narrates the rebuking parable of the rich man stealing a sheep from the poor man to feed his guests. David agrees that such a man is worthy of death only to find out that it is he. His reasoning is flawless: "The man who did this deserves to die! He must make fourfold restitution for the lamb, for doing such a thing and showing no compassion" (2Sam 12:5-6).

Nathan agrees. Yet David's wealth and power are not themselves the problem. Rather, David fell victim to the arrogance that lays in wait for the rich and began to think he could have anything he wanted, even what belonged to another. Nathan reads out God's disapproval:

Again, the crucial point is that David's wealth is not condemned; on the contrary, it is God's gift. What God condemns is that David's political and economic power led him to believe his possessions knew no bounds.

Solomon consolidated David's victories over the surrounding feudal lords, and presided over the only period in which Israel could be called a nation in the modern sense of the word. He completed massive public works projects-his palace, the Temple, the Jerusalem wall, and an immense fill to level the ground between his palace and the temple (1Ki. 5:15-9:14).

Yet his regime was fueled by massive taxes and slave labor (1Ki. 9:15f). These excesses and brutalities never seem to have visited their ultimate damage on Solomon, but they did make it impossible for his sons to continue his reign. Within a few years of his death, the nation was fractured by civil war and degraded once again into a collection of warring feudal states, two of which we know as Judah and Israel.

In this context, the prophets rail again and again against the wealth of the feudal lords who were "kings" of Israel and Judah. Their wealth was a wealth gained off the backs of their vassals. They contributed nothing but inadequate military protection for the people they "served" and took everything they could get as compensation. The story of Israel in this time is not a happy one. The lords of Judah and Israel were mostly incompetent, self-satisfied dictators who ran their feudal economy right into the ground to support their own excesses.

This is part of the reason why it is relatively easy to comb the writings of the prophets to find condemnations of wealth and luxury. The luxury they condemned was bought at the price of the decay of the economy as a whole and the ultimate enslavement of their people. It was an excess that enslaved their people to decades at the mercy of marauding armies and "royal" tax-collectors.

BY THE TIME the New Testament opens, we see a full-fledged market economy, though not a capitalist one. That economy was based in local markets where people could barter for or purchase goods. Middle-eastern feudal character has been overcome by Roman domination over the known world.

Jesus is oddly ironic about the wealth and poverty created by the economy of his day. He insists that the poor (not just the poor in spirit) are blessed of God (Luke 6:20). Jesus chooses poverty and homelessness for himself and his disciples and maintains that the spiritual dangers of wealth can hardly be avoided (Luke 6:24-25). On the other hand, his ministry is bankrolled by certain wealthy followers who supported the itinerant band's needs (Luke 8:1-3) and eventually buried their leader (Luke 23:50-56). It seems that Jesus didn't mind using wealth, but was mindful of its spiritual perils.

Jesus says virtually nothing about the economic forces that made people wealthy or poor. The closest he comes is when he deals with taxation, one of the ways wealth was shifted in that economy. When asked if people should pay taxes, he slyly contends that since Caesar made the coin, Caesar could have it back as taxes. When Peter was asked if Jesus paid taxes, the disciple guessed that he did. Later, Peter found out that Jesus hadn't paid, but Jesus told him to go catch a fish where he would "miraculously" find payment for the two of them (Matt. 17:24-27). In both cases, his attitude toward an economic force like taxation could best be described as "disinterested."

The early churches lived out their community life in a variety of ways. In Jerusalem, they shared their goods and sold their wealth to pay for their common sustenance (Acts 2:42-45, 4:32-35, 5:1-11). There, the Christians lived communally, selling off their family assets as they were needed to support their common needs. In Corinth, by contrast, no such common purse existed; there were clearly degrees of wealth and poverty (1Cor. 11:22) as there were in the groups the letter of James addresses (James 2:1f).

These letters do not simply tell people to equalize their wealth (as if wealth in itself were a problem). Nor do they insist that God wants degrees of wealth eliminated. Nor is there any provision for a renewed Jubilee system. They do insist that the spirituality of wealth (haughtiness, pride, arrogance) be avoided by the wealthy. In the same way, they work to see the spirituality of poverty (hopelessness, desperation, and self-loathing) be avoided by the poor.

These are but examples that could be multiplied. In general, we have in the Bible a whole variety of economic systems: nomadic, tribal, feudal, mercantile, communal. Condemnations of unjust wealth and poverty are frequent, but each depends on its economic situation. Wealth and poverty, per se, are not criticized; in fact, in some cases wealth is clearly a result of God's blessing while poverty is a result of slothfulness.

In the Bible, we have neither capitalism nor communism in the modern sense, because neither could have existed in any of the times in which the Bible is set. Both of our two competing economic systems require engines of production that have only existed in relatively recent times. To say that the Bible supports capitalism or communism is as foolish as saying it supports baseball or football.

IS ONE SYSTEM of political economy, then, as good as another? Clearly not. Solomon's and those of the petty tyrants who followed him were as brutal as any modern totalitarianism. No one else in the Bible rival's Solomon's commitment to public works like the Temple, but the public costs of those works were defrayed only by plundering his people and making their children slaves.

The prophets routinely condemn the excesses and luxuries of the ruling class and take sides in deadly economic war-on the side of the poor. But even so, like the people of all other times but ours, they treat the economic system as part of the woodwork. If the economy was feudal, the word of God came against the brutalities of feudalism. If it was mercantile, against the pettiness of mercantilism. If it was tribal, the Jubilee system was a protest against unrestrained accumulation. If the Bible is any indication, God does not favor or oppose any economic system; God opposes the injustices and excesses of every economic system. As far as the Bible is concerned, the systems themselves are simply "there."

Where does this leave us today? As Josť Miranda points out, we are not really in a titanic struggle between communism and capitalism. What we call "communism" is really state capitalism and is quite apparently (to all but a few aging demagogues) inadequate to the realities of the world. In general, we are in a struggle between the thing-orientation of every economic system (capitalist, communist, feudal, or nomadic) and the fundamental people-orientation of the gospel. Things, when treated as an end in themselves, end up destroying the people who have them.

This thing-orientation is at the root of the spirituality of wealth. Acquiring and possessing many things has a way of orienting you to things. Unfortunately, thing-orientation is not simply a problem for the wealthy. It is a basic problem with all economic systems, whether communist, capitalist, feudal, or whatever. They are invariably based on the assumption that "things" are what really matter. Surely they do matter, and their importance dare not be minimized. The mistake economic systems make is treating things (whether cars, GNPs, or pet rocks) as if they mattered in themselves. Things matter because they can help (or hurt) people. What is required of us, in any economic system, is to deal with our things "as if people mattered." The phrase is E.F. Schumacher's, but the idea moves in every critique and affirmation of economics in the Bible. It is at the root of the economics of faith.

Put a different way, every economic system lures people to put their faith in that economics. The economics of faith insists that such an idolatry is impossible. Some economic systems, and capitalism is one, are quite successful on their own terms. And yet God's ambivalence toward them is rooted in their pretensions of god-hood. They want us to trust in them and orient ourselves to their values. Perhaps this is why the spirituality of wealth is nigh to inescapable. The rich find it so difficult to enter the kingdom of God because their faith is really in their wealth. We are prone to think that, ultimately, things matter because things are what will pay the mortgage and send our kids to college. We are, all of us rich, tempted to put our faith concretely in our wealth, living as if our things are what matter.

The poor are not as subject to this idolatry. Many of them know that the economic system works against them, not for them. They are in little danger of putting their faith in the economy and so are more open to the economics of faith. They too, however, run the risk of trusting a dream of an economic system that will free them from the current one. This, too, boils down to treating things as if they were what really mattered because it believes that if "things" were just distributed differently, the kingdom of God would be at hand. It would not. Things might be better, but God's ambivalence about the (replacement) economic system would be no different. The new system would still oppress some and still reward others unjustly. And it would still seek the worship of those it claims to serve.

Whenever things are treated as what matters, an economic system brutalizes those it is supposed to serve. To treat them as ends in themselves is spiritually deadly to both the rich and the poor, and the economic critiques in the Bible point this out again and again. For the rich it is spiritually deadly, for all they can see is their own wealth and power; they fail to see the needs of those around them. For the poor it is deadly, for all they can see are their own real needs; they cannot afford to give thought to the rightful claims of others. For the communist it is deadly, because of the illusion that changing the system of ownership will change the people who do the owning. For the capitalist it is deadly, because it is so easy to treat the "game" of accumulating wealth as the only game in town and ignore the struggle to provide decent work to all who want it.

Ultimately, whoever controls things in a given economic system is under divine mandate to utilize them as if people mattered. This may mean giving to the poor. It may also mean amassing capital to create jobs. It may mean sharing your possessions. It may also mean carefully working to make something beautiful for yourself and your neighbors, even at great cost. The specific answers are not so easy, even if the overall orientation is clear.

SO, ULTIMATELY, WHAT does the West have to offer those struggling out of decades of repression? Not the greatest economic system in the world. Not the only game in town. Not God's own way of dealing with things. Rather, the West has a way of dealing with things that is successful but must be moderated by those of us who know that, in the long run, things only matter for what they can do for people. The past excesses of Western capitalism are adequate warning that those who do not heed the prophets' insistence that wealth be put to use for people violate God's orientation toward any economic system-capitalist or communist.