Christianity vs. Capitalism

1 Timothy 6:

10. For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.

(NET Bible®)

Atlas Shrugged II:II

Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper's bell of an approaching looter. So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another—their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun.

Ayn Rand

If the love of money is the root of all evil, should Christians be communists? St. Peter apparently thought so. He ran the church in Jerusalem as a commune [Acts 4:32]. Some of the churches that Paul wrote to were at least partially communal as well.

The United State of America has communist roots. The Pilgrims were communists. The Plymouth Rock colony was a commune – and the people starved. Jamestown was also an attempt at a communist utopia. All the harvest went into the common store. And they starved.

Communism is a difficult discipline. A few slackers can create an epidemic of laziness. St. Peter had the Holy Spirit serve as KGB in order to keep his economy going [Acts 5:1-11]. St. Paul backed away from pure communism when he wrote, “if any would not work, neither should he eat” [2 Thessalonians 3:10]. The early American colonists cited Paul’s words as they gave up on communism, and proceeded to create one of the most capitalistic nations in human history.

Obviously, the Puritans of old figured out how to reconcile Jesus’ anti-wealth admonitions with capitalism. But did they do so correctly? Was the pure capitalism we once had compatible with Jesus’ teachings? Modern mainline Christian denominations seem to think not. Neither does the new Pope.

This disturbs me. Communism may be a good spiritual exercise; it works in monasteries. But as a system for a general economy it stinks. I confess that I prefer the Ayn Rand quote above. I love money. I love the ideal of money. I love how it helps people cooperate beyond their immediate family and village. I love how it enables people who dislike each other to cooperate to mutual benefit.

It takes wealth to cure poverty. Capitalism creates wealth and lots of it. Contra Rand, I admit the need for charity, and even some wealth redistribution using the might of the state. But without wealth there is little to give. In part because I care about the lot of the poor, I love money. Does this make me unchristian?

Not of this World

Romans 12:

2. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God — what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

John 17:14

14. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

(NET Bible®)

Perhaps capitalism is the best system for sinners, but the truly devout should not stain their souls grubbing for money – in the world but not of the world, so to speak. This interpretation fits the behavior of the early churches, and during the Middle Ages much of the economy consisted of communes run by monks and nuns. Maybe Christians should advocate a measure of capitalism for the world in general, but true Christians themselves should not do capitalism. Or perhaps they should stick to doing capitalism in only the most humble fashion, never aspiring to rise above middle class.

This interpretation, though far better than a general call for communism, still disturbs me greatly, for reasons both selfish and altruistic. Ask yourself this: Who has done more for the world’s truly poor: Mother Theresa or Bill Gates? Bill Gates has harnessed billions of dollars for his charities with negligible fundraising costs. He has applied his technical and management skills to develop solutions that actually work. Now have a look at the many criticisms of Mother Theresa’s efforts [1] [2] [3]. From what I read her asceticism--her hatred of money--got in the way of doing good works with the money she raised. Finally, if money is evil, why corrupt the poor by giving them money?

And what about the middle-class-aspiration-only attitude I find among many conservative Protestant Christians? Ask yourself this: is the world better off if most of the world’s wealth is in the hands of non-Christians? Do we want only non-Christian CEOs, celebrities, and political leaders?

Economic power translates into political power. Given how the powers that be are turning the United States into a bankrupt police state, I’d like to get back into the political game with enough resources to make a positive difference. Since I am not a charismatic fundraiser, this means taking the path of Bill Gates or Elon Musk in order to get things done. Does this make me a non-Christian?

If I look through most of the rest of the Bible, the answer appears to be “No.” Like the Puritans of old, I can find plenty of passages of scripture defending capitalism and personal wealth. Let’s take a quick tour.

Capitalism in the Old Testament

Deuteronomy 28:

1. "If you indeed obey the LORD your God and are careful to observe all his commandments I am giving you today, the LORD your God will elevate you above all the nations of the earth.

2. All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the LORD your God:

3. You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field.

4. Your children will be blessed, as well as the produce of your soil, the offspring of your livestock, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks.

5. Your basket and your mixing bowl will be blessed.

6. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

Malachi 3:

10. "Bring the entire tithe into the storehouse so that there may be food in my temple. Test me in this matter," says the LORD who rules over all, "to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until there is no room for it all.

(NET Bible®)

The Ten Commandments imply private property. Thou shalt not steal is meaningless if there is no private property. Well, I guess it could refer stealing from the common store until we look at the 10th Commandment: Thou shalt not covet. This commandment explicitly refers to things that belong to someone else: livestock, land, wives, etc. Forcible communism is theft and envy enshrined as law.

Moses was a borderline anarcho-capitalist. The laws he handed down from the mountain are designed to work without paid officers of the state. It had no provisions for professional police, politicians, or prisons. Even armies were ad hoc affairs, much like the posses in the Wild West. The closest thing to paid bureaucrats were the Levites, but their only civic functions were enforcing public health laws and administering the cities of refuge.

The Bible promises prosperity in return for righteousness. The latter chapters of Deuteronomy are a series of blessings in return for obeying the Law and curses for not obeying. We’re not talking a few verses here; we’re talking entire chapters. And then there is the promise in Malachi 3:10, which pastors around the world cite when the congregation gets too stingy.

God blessed the righteous with wealth. Job was rich. Abraham was rich. He had enough personal servants to field an army. His immediate descendants were rich. The righteous kings of Judah were described as rich. Solomon was very, very rich.

The Bible includes wealth-building advice. The book of Proverbs is chock full of financial wisdom. There’s a reason why there are so many wealthy Jews out there, and it has nothing to do with sinister conspiracies or whatnot. The “secrets” are available in plain view.

Capitalism in the New Testament

Ah, but all those promises of wealth and wealth-building advice were part of the Old Covenant. The New Covenant promises forgiveness of sins in return for generosity, forgiveness to others, and putting up with persecution in this life. Right?

Yes, but consider these things:

Jesus frequently used economic metaphors. Many of his parables used money as the metaphor for spiritual blessings. Good works result in treasures in Heaven. Discipleship is frequently likened to managing a rich person’s wealth while he is away. His parables do not use a communist utopia as a backdrop.

Jesus did have wealthy disciples. True, you had to quit your job and ditch your possessions to travel in Jesus’ inner circle. Such an exalted position came at a great price. But Jesus did visit the homes of the wealthy, and it was a wealthy disciple who provided his tomb. Jesus did not shun the wealthy.

Jesus even promised wealth! He did so less frequently than Moses, and there is some ambiguity as to when the blessings are to arrive, but the promises are there. He spoke of those being “great” and “least” in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not a portrayal of an egalitarian utopia.

Beyond Glib Rationalizations

Jesus’ admonitions against wealth seem to run up against economic reality and scripture. It is thus tempting to hand wave around them, and many do.

Libertarian Christians often cite 8th and 10th Commandments and build a law code on this foundation alone. They overlook the fact that these commandments were in the context of a rather extensive welfare system.

Then there are the sleazy preachers who run with the wealth promises in the Bible. Perhaps the most sleazy was Robert Tilton with his comically criminal Success-N-Life infomercials, where he promised the down-and-out prosperity if they would make a vow to send $1000 (or more) to his ministry. Today, there is the possibly-less-sleazy Bible Money Code being advertised all over the Internet. (The product being sold may have some legitimate financial advice; I have not bought it to find out. The commercial video, however, is extremely uninformative, a waste of time.)

Finally, there are the millions of conservative Christians who condemn welfare programs and taxation of the rich while being sanguine with other violations of liberty.

I confess that I love money, but I won’t dismiss Jesus’ admonitions so handily. Jesus may have been exaggerating, but even if he was exaggerating he was exaggerating to hammer in a major point. Casually dismissing such emphasis is dangerous business – especially dangerous for an advocate of a market economy who has wealth aspirations above upper middle class.

So over the course of time I want to dig deeper and try to reconcile Jesus’ admonitions and the promises of wealth found elsewhere in scripture – and with my knowledge of economics. We will look into:

  • What, exactly was Jesus condemning the wealthy Pharisees for?
  • Which aspects of a capitalist economy are acceptable and which are not?
  • What are the Biblical restrictions on wealth building?
  • What are the additional duties that the Bible demands of the rich?

And we’ll look at the actual “Biblical money code”; i.e., the wealth advice found in the Bible. (Hint: it is very unmagical.) I’m thinking of undercutting the sleazy pastors. You won’t have to pay me anything, and I won’t put any sales pitches on the pages either.