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.