Christianity and Capitalism:
A look at the Bible, economics, and social justice
Christianity is a worldview. It seeks to answer the great questions of existence. Among them are; why are we here? And how should we live? Economics is a large part of life. We spend more time working (I.e. engaged in economic acts) than any other activity, other than sleeping. In addition, conditions in the world cry out for solutions to economic problems. Poverty abounds while others are fabulously wealthy. Christianity warns against the dangers of wealth. It also calls for believers to care for the needs of the poor and downtrodden.
What is a Christian to do? According to some non-believers, Christians are inconsistent with their beliefs if they support an economic system which, in their view, allows the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer. They call for a high degree of government intervention in a society’s economy and/or government redistribution of wealth to “make things more just.“ The liberal Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong represents this voice when we writes “I am distressed when Christian words are used to justify and to encourage violence against the poor and the weak under the euphemistic title of ‘necessary welfare reform.’” (Liberating the Gospels, p. 329) But it isn’t just non-believers making these charges. Some believers do as well.
Along Came a Sider
In 1977, the evangelical world, particularly the college campus, was rocked by the appearance of a book called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. The author, Ronald Sider, presented a vision for the world supposedly based on scripture. He called for the Western World to increase its foreign aid to the developing world. He called for the United States to establish a “national food policy” because its citizens ate too much unhealthy food. He also applauded Third World countries who followed the then-current practice of nationalizing foreign holdings. He even asked the provocative question “Is God a Marxist?” without answering the question. He held the developed world responsible for the poverty of the developing world.
On the one hand, Sider’s work was very popular with evangelical college professors and students. On the other, he had fierce critics. The most detailed treatment was by the reconstructionist thinker David Chilton, who answered Sider’s work with his own book, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. Many economists also chimed in. As an effort in economics, Sider’s work (and even he admits so today) was very weak. For example, he called for the United States to pay higher prices for Third World imported goods. But it was pointed out that this would actually be counter-productive. Higher prices would be noticed by Third World producers. The calculated profit margin would increase, and more and more resources would go into producing the good. This would result in those resources being wasted, since no demand existed for the additional production.
Sider dropped this argument in later editions. In fact, his work became progressively more friendly to free market economics. His fourth edition, published in 1997, he acknowledged that free markets had actually played a significant role in reducing poverty in Third World countries, especially Asia. He even acknowledged that the developed world was not totally responsible for Third World poverty. In 1999, Sider published another book, entitled Just Generosity. This book dealt specifically with the issues of poverty and wealth in the United States. Sider commendably made a good faith effort to understand the issues involved and steered a path that was fairly center-left in public policy positions.
Still, Sider’s current work suffers from many weaknesses. His understanding of the Bible makes him just as determined to make sure the rich (both individuals and nations) have less as he is to make sure the poor are lifted out of poverty, seeing the former as a necessary precedent for the latter (even as he cites data that shows otherwise). And even though Chilton’s labeling him as a “guilt manipulator” is not accurate (since “manipulator” implies guile), it is clear that he is trying to convince American Christians that they are the ones primarily (but not totally) guilty of perpetuating Third World poverty. He honestly believes it.
The purpose of this series of essays is to examine such claims, focusing on Sider’s work because he is both the most prolific voice of the evangelical left (as applied to economics), and the most representative.
The first essay will lay out foundational issues, both from the field of economics and from the relevant Biblical texts. The second and third essays will review Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, examining both the causes for the economic disparity between the Western World and the developing nations and what should be done about it. The fourth and fifth, and sixth essays will review Just Generosity, examining these issues as they apply to the American economic system. Sider is quite fond of the high-tax and extensive-welfare states of the continental European countries, and we will consider if this is a path that the United States should follow.
Even though I will be concluding that the Bible is generally friendly to profitable business activity, I do believe that God has much to say about the way business managers and employers run their businesses, and that there are many potential rewards to be gained, both spiritual and material, by abiding by His Word. This will be spelled out in the seventh essay.