Biblical Economics by Jed Olsen (guest blog)
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
– Morpheus “The Matrix”, 1999
The directors, writers, and producers of the Matrix, the Wachowski brothers, chose to allude to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” primarily because Carroll and the Wachowski brothers’ work both stand as commentaries on the thin facade of contemporary human culture. We, as Christians, must pull back the curtain, clear away the smoke, and look earnestly at what our modern western culture has sold us. Two important questions to consider are:
- What does the Bible teach us about economics?
- How do we apply our faith in today’s economic environment?
Much like in “The Matrix”, the phrase ‘the world’ in the following passages represents the invisible forces that truly govern human social, religious, economic, and governmental systems. We are warned that the world is corrupt and can be a corrupting influence in our lives, so extra care needs to be taken while considering our relationship to the economy, the culture, the country, and the government. Too many modern evangelicals take the world at face value and never question the powers and motives behind our political and economic systems.
The Biblical View of “the World”
John 17:14-16 I have given them your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
Romans 12: 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I Corinthians 2: 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.
James 4:4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
1 John 2: 15-17 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
The Role of American Corporate Capitalism Within the Christian Community.
American capitalism is not the “free market” system as we have been told it is. It is not a Bible based system either, but a manmade system built on worldly values and fallen human nature.
James 5:1-5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
Consider the following example of a free market economy:
A traveler stops at a hotel, places a $100 bill on the counter and informs the clerk that he wants to tour the facility before he books a room. The clerk calls over the bellman who takes the traveler on a tour. Meanwhile, the hotel owner takes the $100 to the butcher shop to purchase steaks to serve in the hotel’s restaurant. The butcher, before he can deliver the steaks must first get his truck repaired, he gives the $100 to the mechanic. The mechanic uses the $100 to purchase a ring for his fiance from the jeweler. The jeweler decides to treat his wife to a steak dinner at the hotel restaurant, and spends the $100 at the hotel. Meanwhile the traveler returns to the front desk and says he is not satisfied with the facilities, he takes the $100, and leaves. In this small community, everyones needs are met, in an equitable manner. There is no gain, however no one is left wanting.
In the real world economy such equality is lacking. Two basic areas missing in the previous scenario illustrate why this equality is not present in real life. First is the individual tendency to want to create wealth for oneself. Second is government taxation of economic activity. I’m not suggesting that these practices can be done away with. I just want to highlight the effect they have on the local economy. At each stage of the $10 bill’s journey around town, a little value is removed by taxes and profit taking. Everyone now owes a little more to the next businessman than he has in pocket.
The difference is often made up with credit from banks. Eventually, all the original value of the $100 bill will be gone, and all the debt will be owed to the bank, plus interest.
“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”
– Thomas Jefferson, 1802
The two economies: Main Street vs. Wall Street
I chose to express these two economies with the conjunction “versus” because the two are diametrically opposed in their goals. Main Street is the closest we have to real free-market economics. It is a system that distributes resources equitably and efficiently to members of the local community. Wall Street, however, is designed to extract value from local community, on behalf of outside investors. Investors, by definition, exist not to supply capitol to Main Street business, but rather to invest with the expectation of extracting capitol from their Main Street investments. Wall Street is a parasitic economic system. In the current economic recession, stories abound of MainStreet businesses being forced to close, sometimes by the investors, while Wall Street investment banks continue to make millions in profits. With all respect to Ronald Reagan, “trickle down” economics has proven it doesn’t work at providing economic stability any better than a percolate up” economy would.
How we have been manipulated to accept this economy as natural
Marketing has played a bigger role in economic development than free market dynamics has. Individualism is one tool being used by corporations to manipulate the masses. (“You Deserve a Break Today”, “An Army of One”, “Because I’m Worth It”, etc.) Modern corporations have purposefully replaced community and family as the source of personal identity, usurping the role once held by family, community, and church. Examples are found in everyday marketing where corporate brands replace consumer’s personal identities, like Apple computers, Nike shoes, Fiji water, etc.
Our modern culture is obsessed with identifying self with an appearance of belonging. We seek to be members of the popular “tribe” by what we buy, wear, eat, and where we live. Corporate marketing strategies undermine family and community, the building blocks of true free-market local economies.
In addition to this, corporations themselves have been striving to acquire all legal, Constitutional rights as “persons”. From the time of the 1819 Supreme Court ruling that Corporate charters have constitutional protection (‘Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward’) to a case today (‘Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission’) that could overturn decades of campaign finance reform laws, corporations have been gaining power in the public and political marketplace. The goal of this power is, as always, to maximize corporate profits at the expense of Main Street economics.
“Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1864
The Role of the Church
Calvinism is often criticized for a perceived focus on the individual as opposed to church and community. However, as Christians we are called to die to self interests:
Romans 2:6-8 He will render to each one according to his works:… but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
Romans 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
Ephesians 4:22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,…
II Timothy 3:2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,…
James 5:5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
The Church has at times been too keen to use the same worldly mass marketing appeals as a crutch for social acceptance. The High Church had grand cathedrals that became the visual “brand” defining the Church’s role in society. For modern evangelicals, it is often a “socially relevant” message that becomes the “brand” identity. Both are extremes that push the Gospel aside in an attempt to gain “market share”.
Biblical socialism seems an oxymoron at first. The conservative movement has used the “S” word as a synonym for a godless tyrannical system bent on impoverishing the Christian Church. Such fear mongering has hidden the value of community (not communism) for the Christian. Yet in Acts we see the early Church acting as a community of believers with the good of the community as its goal.
Acts 4:32-35 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Conservative Christian capitalists have largely based their economics on ideas like “GameTheory” and philosophers such as Ayn Rand. Game Theory has as its presupposition, that all people will act in their own self interest, resulting in a ‘better’ society based on collective selfishness. The “Christian” part of the conservative capitalist ideology seems more of a label to protect the conscience than a practice based on Biblical ideas of community and church.
The Role of Government
Mark 10:42-44 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.’
The role of good government is to enforce the law and protect the safety and health of the local community.
Isaiah 1:10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers…
Vs. 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Romans 13:1-7 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Too often today, the government uses its position to help corporations and institutional Wall Street investors protect their profit margins, while ignoring the needs of Main Street. American consumers account for two thirds of all economic activity, yet when that economic activity is challenged by recession, it is corporate America that receives the government’s help.
Decentralized, bottom-up economics
What I am proposing is a new understanding of economics. One that isn’t tied to the fortunes of Wall Street.
Invest in the local community. Do business locally whenever possible.
Family, church, Christian community, and the local community at large are our primary concerns. Not 401k’s invested far away from where we live.
It won’t be easy, living in the Mohave desert, to find local sources of food and household products, but with effort and cooperation I think it is possible to start living with local economic values in mind.
Jed Olsen is a freelance graphic designer in Las Vegas. His website is http:/members.cox.net/jedart and you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org