Monday, January 28, 2013

Capitalism and Christianity – II

Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners
  In our last blog post we began our consideration of an essay entitled "Ayn Rand and Capitalism: The Moral Revolution," written by one of Ms. Rand's disciples, David Kelley. We noted that Mr. Kelley proposed a moral revolution that would rid Western culture of the principle of altruism, which he sees as a threat to individual liberty. The principle of which he speaks, of course, is rooted in Christianity. Today we venture a biblical response.
    There seems to be several underlying assumptions to Mr. Kelley's (and Ms. Rand's) philosophy. They tacitly assume that we exist as autonomous individuals, and that we create wealth by the dint of our own efforts. Therefore, presumably, we are entitled to keep what we have thus earned. We enter into economic relationships with other individuals in which we freely trade value for value.
    Significantly Mr. Kelley suggests that the right of property includes the right "to appropriate unowned goods from nature" (The Morality of Capitalism, p. 73). But where did "the goods from nature" come from? And how do we acquire the ability to produce value? "The earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness, / The world and those that dwell therein./ For He has founded it upon the seas,/ And established it upon the waters" (Ps. 24:1,2; NKJV). "And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth . . ." (Dt. 8:18). It is God "Who covers the heavens with clouds,/ Who prepares rain for the earth,/ Who makes grass to grow on the mountains. /He gives to the beast its food,/ And to the young ravens that cry" (Ps. 147:8,9). In short, everything that we possess, every natural resource, every talent and ability, we owe to God.
    And how did God intend for all of these things to be used? For the benefit of a few talented overachievers? "For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality not takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing" (Dt. 10:17,18). Not surprisingly then, He expects the same kind of behavior from us: "Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (v. 19).
    The basic moral principle here is love for one's fellow human beings: ". . .you shall love your neighbor as yourself. . ." (Lev. 19:18). What this means in terms of our obligation to the poor is stated in Dt. 15:7,8: "If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates of the land which the Lord you God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut you hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs."
    Interestingly, ancient Israel did not have an elaborate state bureaucracy that administered extensive social welfare programs. Rather the burden for caring for the poor was placed directly on the shoulders of private citizens, viz., relatives and wealthy landowners. Farmers were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor could come and take what they needed. Debts were forgiven every seven years, and every fifty years land was supposed to revert back to its original owners.
    In other words, the Bible does not recognize an absolute right to private property. Assets are basically held in trust. There were disparities of income and wealth, but the basic needs of everyone are to be met. Thus, while Israel did not have what we would think of today as a "welfare state," the Bible does enjoin a form of social justice that Mr. Kelley criticizes as "welfarism."
    The system did not always work as it should have, and the later prophets in Israel were stern in their denunciations of abuses. "Hear this, you who swallow up the needy,/ And make the poor of the land fail,/ Saying:/ 'When will the New Moon be past,/ That we may sell grain?/ And the Sabbath,/ That we may trade wheat?/ Making the ephah small and the shekel large,/ Falsifying the scales by deceit,/ That we may buy the poor for silver,/ And the needy for a pair of sandals -- /Even sell the bad wheat?' The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:/ 'Surely I will never forget any of their works . . .'" (Amos 8:4-7). (An ephah and a shekel where weights and measures, the shekel often used to measure out gold or silver by weight. What is in view here is commercial fraud.) God, speaking through His prophet Isaiah, condemned the religious hypocrisy of Israel, saying, "Is this not the fast that I have chosen:/ To loose the bonds of wickedness,/ To undo the heavy burdens,/ To let the oppressed go free,/ And that you break every yoke?/ Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,/ And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;/ When you see the naked, that you cover him,/ And not hide yourself from your own flesh?" (Isa. 58:6,7).
    As we have seen from our study on the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was especially concerned to emphasize the underlying moral principles of the Old Testament law, including our obligations to the poor. Perhaps the most memorable example of this was His famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37. A Jewish legal scholar had asked Jesus what was meant by the word "neighbor" in Lev. 19:18, quoted above. Jesus replied by telling a story about a man who had been robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. A couple of religious officials passed by and did nothing. Finally a Samaritan, a member of a despised neighboring ethnic group, came by, and seeing the man lying there by the road took care of him at his own expense. Jesus then asked the lawyer, "So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?," and the lawyer replied "He who showed mercy on him." Jesus said, "Go and do likewise" (vv. 36,37).
    Yes, Mr. Kelley is right. The principle of altruism and social justice are deeply rooted in Western culture. They come from the Bible. But who is right? Moses and Jesus? Or Ayn Rand? Let the Libertarians argue that no one is morally obligated to share his wealth with anyone. God's Word says otherwise. And what will we say when we meet our Maker?

Other blog posts in which you might be interested -- just click on the links:
Jesus and the Torah 
Wealth Management 
Capitalism and the Sabbath

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