Friday, February 19, 2016

What does the Bible say about economic structure?

A few nights ago, my wife and I found ourselves doing what thousands of other couples across the nation do this time of year:  Scarfing down dinner, packing up the diaper bag, and wrangling pajamas on the kiddos so we could get the family out the door and down to H&R Block.

However, something unusual happened. We realized we were running early. So, not quite sure what to do with ourselves, we all sat down and flipped on the TV. Scanning through the channels, I settled on the Democratic debate. Not our usual cup of tea, but I thought it might be a reasonable use of five minutes. Upon tuning in, the moderator asked Bernie Sanders something along the lines of, "In your vision for our country, how big does the government need to be?" Sanders was quick to respond, "Well, the problem is that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. But I will tell you this... healthcare should be free! College should be free!" to which there was much applause. I think this was his indirect way of saying "Very."

Anyway, all of this lead me to ponder what is probably a timely and relevant question:  What does the Bible say about economic structure?

When it comes to economics, the Bible can seem somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, it says things like “If you don’t work, you don’t eat" (1 Thessalonians 3:10). On the other hand, the Bible says things like “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Even when you step back and look at the broader context, it's easy to be left with the impression that the Old Testament portrays traditional capitalism while the New Testament lays the groundwork for a more progressive socialism.

So what's the deal? Which is it?

Well, in my fallen, over-simplistic, public-school-educated brain, I think the Bible has two primary principles at play here:  1)  Sowing and reaping, and 2) loving your neighbor.

Sowing and Reaping

The principle of sowing and reaping is addressed, referenced, and alluded to a lot throughout both the Old and New Testaments. As I'm sure you've deduced, the term itself is agricultural in nature (duh):  In order to get wheat, you have to plant wheat (again, duh). Not complicated. No debate. Speaking more broadly, the Bible uses this as a general principle that describes how the created order functions. As Newton said, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." In other words, according to God (and yes, I'm one of those crazy people who believes God actually wrote the Bible), this is how the universe works. It's natural law, and one that can easily be seen in daily life (overeating produces obesity, practice makes proficient, and being a jerk costs relationships).

It's no surprise, then, that this is the default structure for economics. When a person does x, they will get a return of x. When an employee works, they get a paycheck. When a person works well, achieving high results, they get a bigger paycheck. When a person doesn't work, they don't get a paycheck. The same principle applies to employers as employees. In economic terms, this is called capitalism. And without intervention, this is what societies do. Capitalism happens by default.

Now, assuming I've managed to convince you that capitalism is natural, we still haven't answered whether it's good or bad (body odor is natural, but it still stinks). So, how about it? Well, Jesus certainly seems to take no issue with it. In Matthew 25, Jesus uses the principle of sowing and reaping multiple times in explaining the coming Kingdom of Heaven. Sowing and reaping is also heavily used in Old Testament wisdom literature (Proverbs in particular), often displaying dichotomies between those who are wise and foolish, or righteous and wicked. Furthermore, while there are many social and economic injustices that God calls out against the nation of Israel, their use of fundamental capitalism is never one of them.

All-in-all, the Bible appears to support the the principle of sowing and reaping in general, including it's application to economics (i.e. capitalism).

Loving Your Neighbor

But what about the poor and oppressed? Doesn't the Bible say we should take care of those in need?

Yes. Very, very yes.

Throughout all of scripture, God's people are called to care for others, particularly those who can't take care of themselves. Jesus said that the entire Old Testament law could be correctly be summarized as "Love God and love your neighbors," (Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37). When asked to define "neighbor" (because even then, people were looking for loopholes) Jesus made it clear that meant everyone (not just the people we like).

So, naturally, the early church became a community defined by love. And not just any kind of love, but the real kind of love. The kind that, like God's love for us, results in action:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Tell me that doesn't sound like socialism...

Putting the Pieces Together

Here's the thing:  The church is part of God's plan to establish his heavenly kingdom on the earth. If the endgame is universal love, peace, and prosperity, the church is a sort of beachhead - a community in which everyone cares for and meets the needs of one another. A Utopia, if you will.

That sounds like socialism, because that's exactly what socialism seeks to accomplish. The problem is that Utopia can't be forced; it has to be chosen. In socialism, you are required to give what you have to others. There is no choice in the matter. And, as they say, if you take away choice you take away love. Instead of a community whose members take care of each other out of genuine desire, you have a community in which people give away what they've worked for out of fear of punishment. That's not very Utopian. In fact, it kind of sucks.

So, going back to the Biblical model, what you see in the early church is a group of people that work to obtain a wage, then freely give away what is rightfully theirs. Because it is theirs to give, and there is no requirement to give, what is given is given out of desire. In other words, capitalism creates a platform from which loving one's neighbor can be exercised. Thus it's not that these biblical principles are contradictory or mutually exclusive. They are complimentary.

So, where does that leave us? What does the Bible say about economic structure?

Sorry, Bernie. While people should seek to distribute their wealth out of the goodness of their hearts, they should be free to do so of their own free will.

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