Hmmm. I was thinking earlier today, amid all the talk of recent months, is God a capitalist? Actually no, that’s not it. Let’s be more specific. Does God favor a free-market economy over against, let’s say, a socialist economy? “What a bizarre question, Mark!” you exclaim. I know. It is. This train of thought left the station Sunday morning in a Sunday School class. We are in the middle of a series that explores how Christians should approach thinking about various big topics. We have looked at philosophy, biology, politics, and other grand ideas through the glasses of a Christian worldview. Over the last couple of weeks, we have tried to tackle what the Bible says about the economy. Keep in mind that this series is part of a curriculum developed outside of our church. Up to now, I have been in large agreement with the material. Today, things changed.
I was struck how the subject was presented (particularly in a video that was shown) with an obvious political agenda. It was as if we were still fighting the cold war — the capitalist United States versus communist China and the USSR. Let’s face it, economics, at least in the macro sense, is inextricably linked with politics. The choice between a free-market economy and a socialist economy is, in practice, as much of a political issue as it is economic. It is, after all, the government that ultimately decides the model to be followed by the nation. The conclusion of the study was, predictably, that the Biblical view of economy is a basic free-market model.
I had real heartburn about this conclusion, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I had the afternoon to think about it. My heartburn is not that I think the Biblical view of economy is more socialist oriented than free-market oriented. The fact is, given these as the only two options, the free-market economy does more closely resemble the Biblical example, particularly with the Bible’s emphasis on personal property rights. My problem stems from the fact that we attempt to impose a secular human construct on a model of super-natural origin. Huh? Hang on. We’ll come back to that.
The very basic difference between free-market and socialism is this. In the free-market economy, prices are set by market forces and private property rights are zealously protected. A person’s potential for economic success is limited only by his or her abilities and work ethic. Many will fair better financially than others, but simply because their abilities and work ethic are more suited to achieving that success. Socialism, on the other hand, seeks to level the playing field. In its purest form, all property is held in common. There is more economic egality because resources are distributed in an equal (contrast with fair) way among the people. The problem with pigeonholing the debate about economy from the Christian worldview into one of these two models is that both are fatally flawed and FOR THE SAME REASON. Ironic, huh?
You see, a fair and just operation of a free-market economy assumes that its participants will deal fairly with one another. People will work hard and compete for business and competition will be based on the quality of product or service provided. Unfair business practices simply would not occur in such a system in its ideal form. Certainly, the Bible would frown on unfair practices. Similarly, Socialism, in its theoretical form, assumes that people with deal fairly with one another. All property (in theory) is held by the people (not the government). The assumption is that all people who are able, will contribute to the common good and all people will benefit more or less equally from this rather utopian arrangement (note that Socialism’s assumption that all people who are able will contribute is not necessarily present in a free-market economy which contemplates that some who are able will not work and, therefore, will not eat). Both systems fail because they assume something that simply isn’t true, that people will deal fairly with one another and that corruption will never be part of the equation. Free-market systems, in practice and as evidenced by many of the world financial woes of recent months, are rife with corruption leading to unfair business practices falling far short of the ideal. Practically, Socialism has proven to be a bankrupt system (no pun intended) in which innovation and motivation are killed and in which the elite few live off of the toil of the masses.
So now we have two systems which both fall far short of their promises. This is where my heartburn started. To equate something as perfect as God’s intentions for the way we live our lives with a failed system of human construct is deeply disturbing. Even though the Biblical view of economics shares more in common with a free-market system than with socialism, to say that our free-market system in practice follows a Biblical model borders on blasphemous (I say “in practice” because the usefulness of theory doesn’t extend much past the classroom door). Given many of the practices in the early Church that many today would consider “socialist” (holding property in common, for example. Note that this is a voluntary act in the Biblical accounts) and the emphasis on using one’s private property, not for personal financial gain, but to further the kingdom of God (a spiritual welfare system, if you will), equating the Biblical economic model with a modern free-market economy reeks of political ideology. It is an exercise promoting nations, not spiritual truth.
Finally, and before my fellow capitalist Republican friends show up at my door with torches and pitch forks, let me say that of all the flawed systems available to us, I think our free-market system is the best game in town and that it is most closely aligned with Biblical principles. I also realize the need to discuss tough topics in understandable and familiar terms. In the first five or so centuries of the church, many Christian evangelists and theologians couched the Gospel in terms of Greek philosophy because those were ideas and concepts their audiences understood. They used the familiar to explain the unfamiliar. These evangelists and theologians eventually discovered, however, that this method had a down side because many of the ideas they used were actually incompatible with developed theology when taken to their logical conclusions. Some rejected the approach out of hand. Others, perhaps more tempered in their thinking, retained the practice of evangelizing in this manner but with much more caution about what ideas they chose to use and the conclusions they sought to draw, recognizing that using the familiar to explain the unfamiliar is a tool that must be used with care. In the same way, if we must discuss God’s money economy in terms of free-market versus socialism, we need to be very careful that we use the experience of these systems as tools, not as conclusions. The truth is, the Biblical economic model probably falls somewhere between free-market (as it is practiced) and socialism (as it is practiced). It is free-market in the sense that property is held privately and people work for their keep. But the Bible also has a voluntary socialist system. Make your money but use it to help others.
So what’s my point? We must get away from the us versus them, our dad can beat up your dad, our system is better than your system mindset when talking about Biblical truth. If the familiar is not sufficient to explain the unfamiliar, then we must do the hard work to understand the unfamiliar. If neither free-markets nor socialism adequately explains the Biblical economic model, let’s do the hard work to discover what the Biblical model is all about. Let’s not cheapen the Bible by making it fit into our meager understanding, but let’s try to extend our understanding to grasp its truth.