Guthrie's Gospel

Economic justice from a Christian perspective

Month: October, 2013

Small Wonders: Two women and the call of Christ

Yesterday was a gray, dreary day where I live, the kind that it’s easy to feel down on. The morning was foggy and the afternoon was rainy. Fortunately, I had the blessing to encounter two women who reminded me of God’s call to service.

The met the first woman at a gas station. She was bent over the hot engine of her car struggling to loosen its oil cap. I intended to walk right on by when she turned and asked me for help. Her oil cap was immovably jammed into place. I was unable to make it budge even with two hands. I wished I could have helped her more, but the encounter was not without its reward. It reminded me that we are always surrounded by those in need of our help and even when our help is ineffective it may still provide a spiritual good. In this case, it reminded me of Christ’s call to love my neighbor unconditionally.

I met the second woman while walking from the library to my car, which was several blocks away. It was raining fairly hard and I had forgotten to take my umbrella with me. I managed to keep somewhat dry on the walk by ducking under awnings and passing through a parking garage, but was still fairly soaked when I heard a voice say softly behind me, “How much further do you have to go?” I turned around and there was this woman I had never met holding out her umbrella to me. We walked the last block to my car both half under the umbrella. I thanked her and she continued on her way. I was truly humbled. Here was this stranger, who sought me out to offer me help. By sharing her umbrella she exposed herself to the rain when she could have kept dry. She loved me, a stranger, enough to inconvenience herself for my benefit, and in so doing provided me with an example of how I should act to serve my neighbors.

Both these encounters reminded me that God calls us everyday to love Him through our neighbors. Sometimes this call is great such as the call Dorothy Day received when she founded the Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin or the call Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. answered as he emerged as a major leader in the civil rights movement. Other times, the call may be something small, like offering an umbrella to a stranger.

Dear Christian conservatives

Dear Christian conservatives,

I understand that you fear big, secular government and that you prefer, in general, limited government and less regulated economics. I do not wish to discuss how the Bible makes no mention of a laissez-faire capitalism and libertarian interpretations of the Constitution or how Jesus said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and Paul tells us in Romans “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (13:7). What I wish to discuss is the reasons our government has grown so much in the last century and what Christians could have done and can do to stop it.

Jesus commands his followers to be charitable. To those who follow this commandment he promises eternal salvation, saying, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34-36,40).

When the Great Depression struck Christian groups gave aid, but they did not give enough to meet the needs of America’s poor. To meet this need the government had to step in and provide work and support for those who could find none.

Christian groups have done much to aid the elderly, who can no longer work or care for themselves, but again they have not done enough. To meet the needs of the elderly poor, the government instituted Medicare and Social Security.

As America’s poor continued to be unable to find work that would pay them enough to avoid eviction and to feed their families, government again stepped in where Christians had failed to provide and instituted various welfare and food stamp programs.

When Christians failed to heal the sick, as Christ commanded, the government stepped in to try and provide health care reform that would aid those who could not afford basic medical necessities.

I make no arguments that these government programs are necessarily the best solution to the problems they address. I am not even arguing that they are always successful. Nor am I trying to denigrate the work of the many Christians who have worked hard and given of themselves to help those in need. Many have done good work and many will continue to.

What I am arguing is that the government steps in when the needs of the people are not met. The easiest way to prevent government from stepping into peoples’ lives is not to protest and carry signs. It is not to succumb, as many of us (including myself) sometimes do, to un-Christian hate and rage against those we perceive as enemies. It is not to try and tear down government aid programs without offering anything to take their place. It is to heed the call of Christ and provide for the needy. More than two-thirds of Americans identify as Christians, yet at least 39 million Americans live in poverty right now. Those are 39 million hungry, desperate voices crying out for succor and we have not given it.

Instead of protesting the charitable actions of the American government, step up your own charity. Provide for the hungry, the thirsty, the strange, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Employ those on welfare with good wages, so they won’t have to rely on the government. Open hospitals to provide free medical care for the elderly and the poor, so they will not need to rely on Medicare, Medicaid, or Obamacare. Give money, food, and housing to the elderly so they will not need Social Security. Feed those who cannot afford to buy food so they will not need food stamps. If you want to stop big government, then you must step in and provide the services so many Americans rely on to survive. If you want to stop big government, you will have to act like a Christian, because if we perform our Christian duty, perhaps the government won’t have to.

Objectification in our fallen world

I’ve seen video “The Sexy Lie” by Caroline Heldmen, presented at TEDxYouth at San Diego float through my Tumblr feed a few times and finally took the time to check it out myself. It’s a very good and thought-provoking video that I recommend you check out. It does not come from an expressly Christian point-of-view and Heldmen never mentions religion, but she does a good job of describing the real ways that corporations seek to sate their avarice through exploiting the passions of everyday people, particularly lust and vanity. When we give in to sins like greed, vanity, envy, and lust, we reinforce the fallenness of humanity. This negatively affects the women, men, girls, and boys in our lives in real ways that decrease the quality of their lives and draws them further away from God.

On Faith and Works

St. Peter of Damascus once wrote:

The fathers … kept the commandments; their successors wrote them down; but we have placed their books on the shelves. And even if we want to read them, we do not have the application to understand what is said and to put it into practice; we read them either as something incidental, or because we think that by reading them we are doing something great, thus growing full of pride. We do not realize that we incur greater condemnation if we do not put into practice what we read … And we should remember what the Lord says about the servant who knew his master’s will but failed to carry it out (cf. Lk. 12:47).

St. Peter of Damascus (The Philokalia Vol. 3 edited by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware; Faber and Faber pg. 169)

Quoted from: Milk & Honey.

St. Peter makes clear the centrality of actions, of works in the Christian life. Too often our emphasis seems to be on personal, spiritual salvation, on faith and prayer. All these things are good and necessary in a Christian life, but we must not make idols of them or emphasize them so much that we forgot that Christ preached a religion of doing for the salvation of all Creation, not just for you or me.

St. Peter reminds us that it is easy to abstract what was written long ago in the Bible and in other pious works into mere words which we do not live out. We read. We declare our faith. But we do nothing. And that is the problem because our faith cannot and does not exist separate from our works. When we read the word of God, but do not do it, we become like the servant who does not do his Master’s will and heap condemnation upon ourselves. One who believes as a Christian must necessarily act as a Christian or deny Christ’s teachings. We all, of course, fall short (I most of all), but it is important to acknowledge that we must try to live by deeds of faith, to fulfill Christ’s commandments to act with love and mercy toward others. St. James the Just taught “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17) and our Lord Jesus Christ Himself tells us in Matthew 25:31-46 that we will be judged by Him for the things we do to others in this life, in this world.

Now, all this is not to say that Christianity is a mere set of actions, that one can curse God with each breath so long as they are charitable and kind. Good works may be done without faith, but faith cannot exist without manifesting itself in good works. This is what St. John the Theologian teaches when he writes, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18). When we have faith in the Lord, God abides in us, but when we do not act according to our faith, God does not abide in us. Faith is not merely hearing the word of God, it is doing the word of God, for as Christ Himself declared to his disciples in Luke 6:47-49, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” When we do not enact Christ’s teachings through actions, we build our hope for salvation on a foundation of sand.

Good works are the manifestation of faith and are an inseparable part of faith. Faith without works is not merely dead, it cannot exist. If we love Christ, we must feed His sheep (John 21:16) and offer up the fast to God that He asked of us through his holy prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
(Isaiah 58:6-7)

Music Monday: Arise, O God

“Arise, O God” by Panagia Koukouzelissa Choir together with Fr. Demetri Kounavis

“Judge for the orphan and the poor man. Do justice to the humble and the pauper…rescue the poor man and the needy from the hand of the sinner. Arise, O God, and judge the Earth for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations.”

A Christian Case for Socialism

Some Christians in America have taken to raging against the threat they believe socialism poses to America and to Christianity.  They see socialism as the antithesis of all things Christian and they are not entirely off base in their fears.  Some movements and countries that have called themselves socialist have been explicitly anti-religious.  The former Soviet Union is a clear example of this.  Religious people (as well as many others, it is worth noting) were oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their beliefs.  But even so, does it stand that Christianity and socialism must always be opposed?  No, it does not.  Christianity and socialism actually have much in common.

In the book of Acts, Christ’s Apostles lived in a communal way.  The book states that “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” and “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32).  Holding things in common, giving to anyone who had need, that seems very similar to the radical socialist notion of mutual aid, often expressed in the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The accounts in Acts are born out in the Pauline and the Catholic epistles.  Paul, in 2 Corinthians, reiterates the egalitarian spirit of the early Christian commune, saying, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened;  but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality.  As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (8:13-15).  In 1 Timothy, Paul condemns greed, proclaiming “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” before exhorting Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.  Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (6:10, 6:17-18).

And Paul is not alone in his epistolary encouragement of equality and charity.  James says “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:15-18).  Peter writes in his first epistle, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.  As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (4:9-10).  In 1 John, we are again told “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (3:17-18).

From the Acts of the Apostles through the Epistles it is clear that the Apostles and the early Church believed that charity and a striving for material equality were requirements for being a good Christian.  However, this parallel between Christianity and socialism did not arise from Jesus’ followers, but rather from their faith in God’s teachings.  Christ himself is the wellspring for Christian socialists.

Christ, in His teachings, repeatedly condemns the rich and the accumulation of wealth.  In Luke, Christ declares “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation” (6:24).  In Matthew He states, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (19:23-24, 6:24).  In describing the final judgement, Christ tells of how He will deal with the greedy by saying, “‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’…And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-43,46).  Christ’s wrath against greed also takes tangible form when He drives the merchants from the Temple, crying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” and “Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (Mark 11:17, John 2:16).

By the same token, Jesus extols generosity and sharing throughout His teachings.  In Mark, He tells His followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (12:31).  In Matthew, He tells a rich, young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (25:21-22).  In Luke, He advises giving to those who cannot give back when He says, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:12-14).  He further promised eternal salvation to the generous, saying “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34-36,40).

Through His teachings and actions, Jesus made it clear that to be righteous the prosperous must distribute their wealth to the poor.  This teaching was not some new innovation, but a continuation of God’s teachings as given through the Prophets, David, and Moses.  Indeed, in declaring His mission, Jesus cites Isaiah, announcing “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). As Christians, we must strive to emulate Christ’s example.

God and Evil, Isaiah 45:7

In my attempts to better understand the teachings of the Lord, I often seek out scriptural commentaries. One that I’ve enjoyed for many years is Search the Scriptures by Presvytera and Dr. Jeannie Constantinou on Ancient Faith Radio. Dr. Constantinou is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and a Biblical scholar. Unfortunately, I often fall behind on her podcasts because either I get distracted by other concerns or she takes a long break between recordings and I forget to check to see when she releases new material.

I recently began making my way through a backlog of Search the Scripture episodes I’d missed and found her discussion of Isaiah 45:7, “ I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” to be particularly insightful. In it, using commentary from early theologians including St. John Chrysostom, Origen, and St. Basil the Great, she explains how God is not the source of evil in the world despite passages like Isaiah 45:7 and others that seem to declare God to be evil. It’s very worth a listen if you have about 45 minutes to spare while driving, doing chores, or sitting in quiet contemplation.

Give Isaiah 45:7 a listen, and if you like it, Dr. Constantinou has many more episodes to enlighten your understanding of God’s word.

Here is a direct link to the audio file of the podcast.

On the role of women in the church and 1st Corinthians 14:33b–36

As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

In this passage, Paul is saying that in every congregation women should be silent according to the law. If a woman does not understand something, she should wait to ask her husband until they are home. It is important to understand this passage in order to understand the role of women in the Jesus movement and in order to understand Paul’s views on women.

Taken on its own, the passage places women in a heavily subordinate role to men within worship. It also seems to place husbands as the supreme authority for wives, for it is through their husbands, and not anyone else, that wives are instructed to seek knowledge. Taken in historical context, though the meaning, or at least the authenticity of this passage becomes less clear.

Barr points out that the tone of verses 34 and 35 doesn’t seem to agree with his other letters. In Galatians 3:28 Paul wrote that neither male nor female existed for the followers of Jesus. Paul also acknowledges various women as coworkers in Christ with him. In Philippians 4:2–3, Paul refers to two women who “have struggled beside” him “in the work of the gospel.” In Romans 16:1–2, Paul asks those he writes to assist Phoebe, a deacon in the church of Cenchreae, in “whatever she may require” of them. Barr and the Harper Collins Study Bible both assert that Phoebe was likely the person entrusted to deliver Paul’s letter to the Romans. Barr further notes that Paul greets seven women as coworkers in Romans 16.

As Barr also points out, verses 34 and 35 also appears to contradict other passages in 1 Corinthians. In verse 11:5, Paul refers to women prophesying, but does not condemn them for such activity. Likewise, in verses 11:11–12, Paul seems to emphasize the interdependence of men with women and not the dependence of women on men. Viewed through the context of Paul’s other letters and even through other passages within 1st Corinthians, the meaning of this passage seems either unclear or contradictory to Paul’s views on women.

Barr acknowledges that some scholars view verses 34 and 35 as a latter addition to 1st Corinthians. The Harper Collins Study Bible also points this out, noting the verses’ similarity to the likely pseudepigraphal epistles to Timothy and Titus. Beyond the unusual viewpoint verses 34 and 35 put forward when compared to the rest of Paul’s known writing, there are certain textual ambiguities that appear to lend credence to this claim.

There appears to be some confusion in the syntax of verses 33 and 34. The New Revised Standard Version renders the last part of verse 33 as the first clause of the sentence that continues into verse 34. In contrast, the New King James Version and The Orthodox New Testament translation published by Holy Apostles Convent both treat the last part of verse 33 as the final clause of the first part of 33. If this latter interpretation is correct, the command for feminine silence and submission in verses 34 and 35 is not explicitly connected to the practice of all assemblies, though such a connection may be implied.

There is also a point of ambiguity in the rhetorical questions of the verse 36. While they may censure outspoken women in Corinth, this is not entirely clear. If verses 33 and 34 are viewed as a later addition to the text, the meaning of verse 35 seems to fit clearly with Paul’s admonitions for orderly prophecy in verses 26–33. Such a reading is supported by the Harper Collins Study Bible footnote that says verses 34 and 35 were placed after verse 40 by some ancient authorities. The confusion over where these two verses should be placed in the text seem to support the possibility that the verses were later additions to Paul’s letter.

Additionally, referring to women speaking as shameful (αἰσχρὸν) is harsher language than appears in the surrounding verses, even when discussing the denial of the bodily resurrection, where Paul addresses one who questions bodily resurrection as “Fool.” This could indicate that Paul considers women speaking in assembly as worse than denying what he sees as a fundamental belief or that verses 34 and 35 were written by a different author.

Due to the way verses 34 and 35 contradict what Paul writes elsewhere and the confusion over where the verses should be placed in Paul’s letter, I tend toward interpreting these verses as non-Pauline. As a believer, verses such as this one which seem to contradict the witness of Paul’s writings and of the Gospels, have always troubled me. The general message I take from Christianity is one of love, equality, and charity, and passages that seem as uncharitable as this one have always been hard for me to reconcile. I find some comfort that these verses may be viewed to be non-Pauline and perhaps of lesser authority, although I am not comforted to know that the sentiments of these verses are repeated elsewhere in the canon.

 

Barr in the above works refers to David L. Barr’s New Testament Story: An Introduction

Love

If I were asked to sum all of Christian faith in a single word, I would answer, “Love.” Love is the center of Christian faith, ethics, understanding, and life. As St. John the Theologian tells us in his first epistle “God is love” and only those who know love know God (4:8). St. Paul tells us in Romans that if we love others, we have fulfilled the Law of God:

8 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

To understand Christianity, to understand the most holy Trinity, to understand our faith’s ethical commandments, we must look always through the lens of love. Without love we walk in darkness, blundering and lost, but with love we walk in light with Christ as our guide.

St. John Chrysostom outlined beautifully some of the practical effects of true Christian love acting in the world in his 32nd homily on 1 Corinthians:

Wherefore also He saith to Peter, “If thou lovest Me, feed My sheep.” (John 21:16.)

And that ye may learn how great a work of virtue [love] is, let us sketch it out in word, since in deeds we see it no where appearing; and let us consider, if it were every where in abundance, how great benefits would ensue: how there were no need then of laws, or tribunals or punishments, or avenging, or any other such things since if all loved and were beloved, no man would injure another. Yea, murders, and strifes, and wars, and divisions, and rapines, and frauds, and all evils would be removed, and vice be unknown even in name. Miracles, however, would not have effected this; they rather puff up such as are not on their guard, unto vain-glory and folly.

Wherefore, having said, “The first and great commandment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” he added, “and the second—(He leaves it not in silence, but sets it down also)—is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” And see how with nearly the same excellency He demands also this. For as concerning God, He saith, “with all thy heart:” so concerning thy neighbor, “as thyself,” which is tantamount to, “with all thy heart.”

Yea, and if this were duly observed, there would be neither slave nor free, neither ruler nor ruled, neither rich nor poor, neither small nor great; nor would any devil then ever have been known: I say not, Satan only, but whatever other such spirit there be, nay, rather were there a hundred or ten thousand such, they would have no power, while love existed. For sooner would grass endure the application of fire than the devil the flame of love. She is stronger than any wall, she is firmer than any adamant; or if thou canst name any material stronger than this the firmness of love transcends them all. Her, neither wealth nor poverty overcometh: nay, rather there would be no poverty, no unbounded wealth, if there were love, but the good parts only from each estate. For from the one we should reap its abundance, and from the other its freedom from care: and should neither have to undergo the anxieties of riches, nor the dread of poverty.

Therefore Paul saith, that the love which we are speaking of is the mother of all good things, and prefers it to miracles and all other gifts. For as where there are vests and sandals of gold, we require also some other garments whereby to distinguish the king: but if we see the purple and the diadem, we require not to see any other sign of his royalty: just so here likewise, when the diadem of love is upon our head, it is enough to point out the genuine disciple of Christ, not to ourselves only, but also to the unbelievers. For, “by this,” saith He, “shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35.) So that this sign is greater surely than all signs, in that the disciple is recognized by it.

Such is a world ruled by Christian love. It is a world without wealth or poverty, without rulers and laws, without oppression, injustice, or violence. In short it is the Kingdom of God. It is a far cry from the world in which we live, because to our shame, too few Christians practice Christian love. We are easily beset by our own daily cares, by personal differences, by sectarianism, and strife. Often we fail even to show our dearest loved ones true Christian love. We are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world, but Christ gave us his example of perfect love and perfect humanity. It is our duty as Christians to follow his example, to love everyone with our whole hearts, to love even to hardship and death. Only by giving of ourselves to our neighbor, to the destitute, to our enemies, can we put an end to suffering and sin. Only by giving of ourselves can we hope to be worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Only by giving of ourselves can we express our love for God and His creation just as God expressed His love for us when He became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazereth, was crucified, and then raised Himself from the dead, thus freeing us from death. Let us not merely love in word or in tongue, but let us love in deed and in truth, for St. John wrote:

20 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1 John 4)

On the Christian Condemnation of Capitalism

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”—1 Timothy 6:10

Alan Greenspan wrote in The Assault on Integrity that “Capitalism is based on self-interest and self-esteem.” Ayn Rand, a strident advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness that her “Objectivist” ethics “proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness.” If we look to present day America, we see many Americans out of work while those at major corporations still receive large bonuses and government aid. We see the wages of the vast majority of Americans stagnate while the earnings of America’s richest 1% continue to increase dramatically. By looking at the writings of capitalists, who advocate self-interest and the accumulation of wealth, and the practices of American capitalists, it becomes apparent that capitalism and greed are synonymous. As Christ spoke of false prophets in Matthew 7:16 we will know them by their fruits.

Of course, the question is what does Christ say about self-interest? If he doesn’t contradict Greenspan, than I am wrong to conflate greed and capitalism. In Luke 12:22–32, Christ admonishes his followers not to have any concern for their own well-being, that is not to exercise self-interest, but to simply have faith that God will provide them with everything they need. In Luke 12:33–34 he tells them to sell all they have and give to the poor. By giving to the poor, they have given themselves wealth in God, but if they keep what wealth they have, they reject God, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This last statement is a repetition of the point Christ makes in Luke 12:15–21. Here he gives the example of a rich man who profits from his farm and instead of sharing his excess wealth he reinvests it in his farm, building new store houses, and when he dies God calls the man a fool because he who lays up treasures for himself is not rich toward God.

In Matthew 19:21–22 Christ tells a rich young man that if he wishes to be perfect then he should sell what he has and give it to the poor for he will have treasure in heaven. He immediately follows this advice up by telling his apostles, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:23–24, 30).

The implication in Christ’s words as drawn from Matthew and Luke is that if those who accumulate wealth cannot enter Heaven, then they will be condemned to Hell. But I may be reading too much into His sayings. Perhaps Christ meant to imply no such thing. Maybe when He said it was hard for the rich to enter Heaven He did not mean they would go to Hell, but some other place. Maybe I am wrong. Surely Christ never said “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” nor would He have said “You cannot serve God an mammon,” that is riches (Luke 6:24, Matthew 6:24). Surely Christ never commanded His followers not to accumulate wealth (Matthew 6:19–21). If He had said such a thing surely such a statement would condemn those who do accumulate wealth, like American capitalists, as sinners against God. Surely, if God did not condemn the rich then Mary never would have exalted Him saying “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53). Nor would the prophet Amos say that his God “rains ruin upon the strong” (Amos 5:9) since many of the powerful today are also wealthy capitalists.

Of course these condemnations seem to be primarily against the rich, but what of struggling capitalists who do not possess great wealth? John the Baptist and prophet of God, told his followers that even those of modest means must share and not work to accumulate wealth, saying, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11) just as Christ told his own followers, rich and poor alike, to sell all they had and give to the poor.

But these are all mere sayings. What of Christ’s actions? While capitalism did not exist in the time of Christ, there were merchants. Some of these merchants changed money and sold sacrificial cattle and doves at the Temple for the benefit of those who wanted to enter without unclean money or to make a sacrifice to God. This seems the closest correspondence to capitalists the Bible offers, so surely Christ will have treated them kindly. Yet in Mark 11:15–17 he drives these poor merchants from the temple, overturning their tables and seats, saying they have made the Temple “a den of thieves.” In John 2:14–16, Christ makes a whip of cords to chase out these merchants commanding them, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!”

But perhaps Christ was only angered because they were selling goods in the Temple. Maybe the pursuit of profit was not against his teachings. If this is the case surely we must see it carried out in the example of his followers. Let us turn to Acts and see what sort of economy his followers practiced among themselves. Luke wrote in Acts 2:44–45, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” and again in Acts 4:32–37, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” Far from pursuing wealth, the earliest Christians sold all they had and shared with one another. The churches in Macedonia behaved likewise, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 8:1–6, giving gladly beyond their ability to give even though they experienced deep poverty. In verses in 8:13–15 of this same letter, Paul tells the Corinthian church to give to those who are in need so “that there may be equality” and that all the churches of Christ may not pursue wealth, but be like the ancient Israelites of Exodus 16:18 who shared all they had gathered so that none had more than they needed and none had less than they needed. This seems a far cry from modern American capitalism where the most successful 1% of capitalists earn far more than 99% of Americans and where the richest 20% of Americans have accumulated far more wealth than the bottom 80% combined.

Christ commanded His followers to love their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:31). He commanded them to sell all they had and give to those in need. He commanded them not to follow self-interest but to trust in God that their needs were met. He told them plainly and repeatedly that the accumulation of wealth was a sin against God. His followers understood this and shunned wealth. His true followers still do.