Any contemporary consideration of the Bible, ethics, and capitalism must begin with the recognition of the global ascendancy of capitalism. Capitalism is the dominant global economic order, so much so that some declare the end of history as well as of any moral debate regarding its appropriateness. Whereas a generation ago, before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union with its communist economy, global economic diversity supported a lively debate among theologians regarding the merits of socialism, capitalism, or a “mixed” economy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and with China increasingly embracing capitalist economic practices, the global victory of capitalism has changed the character of the moral conversation regarding capitalism.

The old debate revolved around the question “Does capitalism work?” and empirical data and statistics regarding such matters as income levels and the distribution of wealth across populations featured prominently. Did capitalism increase aggregate wealth and was that wealth distributed in a way that enhanced the welfare of all? In these debates, dominated as they were by the tools and data of economics and the social sciences, the Bible played little or no determinative role.

In the wake of the global spread of capitalism and disappearance of socialism and communism as viable alternatives, increasingly the moral question put to capitalism is not “Does it work?” but rather “What work does it do?” With this shift, fresh opportunities have arisen for a biblically informed moral appraisal of capitalism. New visions of alternatives, beyond the old “capitalism versus socialism” debates, have also begun to emerge.

What is Capitalism?

Appreciating these developments begins with a basic understanding of what capitalism is. Traditionally capitalism has been defined in terms of the manner in which material goods and services are produced and distributed. Capitalism is an economic order characterized by the private ownership of the means of production, with decisions about what is produced and how it is distributed determined by the market. The market informs such decisions by means of the price mechanism, which communicates the preferences of individuals through changes in supply and demand.

The history of modern economy shows that capitalism has developed and changed over the centuries. Recent developments associated with the global spread of capitalism (and linked with the Chicago or neoliberal school of economics) suggest that the traditional understanding of capitalism is incomplete. No longer does capitalism function only as an economic mode of production and no longer is the market mechanism limited to economic goods and services. Rather, contemporary capitalism is characterized by the complete marketization of life. Increasingly, all of life, not just the economic, is subject to the logic of the market. For example, marriage, family, religion, education, and athletics are increasingly subject to the market’s price and profit calculations. Capitalism is no longer just an economy; it is a culture, a way of life that often goes by the name “consumerism” (see Miller, 2004; Cavanaugh, 2008; Clapp, 1997).

Morally Evaluating Capitalism.

Apart from a libertarian strand that is a distinct minority in religious circles, there is widespread agreement that concern for the plight of impoverished persons and alleviating the afflictions associated with poverty are indeed proper tasks of the economic order, and so are rightly used as benchmarks to gauge the morality of an economic order. Such agreement correlates well with the biblical image of God as one who seeks justice, hears the cry of the poor, and expects that those in need will be cared for.

Disagreement quickly emerges, however, when the focus turns to how the economic order is best organized to accomplish those ends. This is the point at which long-standing debates come to the fore: capitalism versus socialism, government regulation and planning versus deregulation and free markets, redistribution of existing wealth versus producing more wealth.

The traditional arguments against capitalism revolve around its purported failure to aid impoverished persons. In recent decades, in religious circles the most striking arguments to this effect have been articulated by Latin American Liberation theologians who have argued very pointedly that the accumulated wealth of the developed world is the direct result of the capitalist economic exploitation of the poor masses of the two-thirds world. Specifically, they argue that capitalism represents a form of systemic violence and oppression that fosters the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, increases social inequality, and encourages neglect of those in greatest need. Accompanying this critique is the popular characterization of capitalism as an economic system based on greed and “materialism.”

Antiglobalization movements, which have garnered much support from religious persons and communities, have emphasized both the antidemocratic nature of contemporary capitalism, as governments fashion trade agreements in secret that surrender the prerogatives of citizens to multinational corporations, and the ways in which the threat of unemployment via “outsourcing” is used to exploit labor in both developed and undeveloped nations.

Finally, capitalism faces criticism on the grounds that it cannot work. Specifically, a variety of “internal contradictions” of capitalism are identified whereby capitalism’s success actually undermines its perpetuation. Such contradictions are said to include such phenomena as the tendency for the rate of profit to decline, the depletion of resources, and the degradation of the life-sustaining environment.

Theological Defenses of Capitalism.

In defense of capitalism, several points are often made. First, capitalism’s theological defenders argue that capitalism does indeed work, that no other economic order in history has proven so productive of material wealth. Thus, in response to empirical critiques, defenders and advocates offer counterevidence in the form of statistics and reports showing that capitalism has enhanced human welfare.

Second, notwithstanding its material success, capitalism’s theological defenders are quick to agree that capitalism is not perfect. It is not to be confused with the reign of God on earth nor does it match up perfectly with a biblical ethic. Moreover, it is subject to abuse and corruption, and so requires robust moral institutions in civil society—like churches, mosques, and temples—to encourage moral values and behavior by participants in the market.

Third, one of capitalism’s strengths is its moral realism. That capitalism is not a perfect economic system is not a weakness, according to its defenders, but a strength. Capitalism does not presume or require human beings to be better than they are. Rather, it recognizes the inescapable reality of sin. This is one of the qualities that elevates capitalism above socialist visions, which are unrealistic and utopian in that they expect too much of morally flawed, fallen human beings. In other words, capitalism is a system well suited to humanity as it is; it is a system where less-than-perfect persons can do the least harm and through the invisible hand of the market actually accomplish some good.

Finally, several positive cultural contributions encouraged by capitalism are identified and extolled. It is argued that capitalism accords well with the biblical vision of the dignity of the individual. Specifically, capitalism encourages and respects the independence of the individual from coercive and enslaving authorities. In this regard, capitalism nurtures human beings who are agents of their own destiny and “free to choose.”

Capitalism is also extolled for how it actually transcends the mere material. Those who caricature capitalism as crassly materialistic fail to recognize or appreciate the profound importance of the creative human mind and spirit in the capitalist order. Capitalism cannot succeed in a miserly culture that accumulates and hoards instead of invests and risks in pursuit of a vision as expansive as the human spirit. Capitalism’s success requires and encourages persons with the entrepreneurial spirit to risk in the imagination and creation of novel and better goods and services for human welfare. In theological terms, capitalism builds upon the notion of humans as “co-creators,” who take what God has provided and creatively unlock its hidden potential and productivity.

Capitalism is also lauded for the ways in which it makes connections between peoples. Capitalism’s promotion of the individual should not be mistaken for a kind of solipsistic isolation. To the contrary, as economic globalization shows so well, capitalism actually draws people together, be it in collaborative efforts of the modern multinational corporation or by the markets that the connect people around the world.

Capitalism and the Biblical Economy of Salvation.

As noted above, the triumph of capitalism on a global scale has coincided with the expansion of the moral evaluation of capitalism beyond the empirical and pragmatic question—does it work?—to ask “what work does it do?” This approach is compatible with recognizing the profoundly productive force of capitalism and opens new vistas for the Bible to inform a moral critique of capitalism.

Put simply, the emergent moral critique of capitalism suggests that capitalism is wrong and to be resisted even if it were capable of making everyoneon the planet a millionaire tomorrow. It is wrong because of how it distorts human relations to others, creation, and God even where (perhaps especially where) it is successful. This newly prominent critique bears a family resemblance to the old dismissal of capitalism as fostering greed, materialism, and conspicuous consumption—now fully and carefully developed and applied not to capitalism’s failure but to its success.

The specifics as well as the role of the Bible in this emergent critique of capitalism’s success vary according to the author (see Bell, 2012; Cavanaugh; Clapp; Long, 2000; and Miller, 2004), but they share a starting point in the economy of salvation narrated in the Bible that is marked by divine generosity and abundance (see Brueggemann, 1999). Central to this divine economy is God’s generous provision of material goods for the sake of nurturing and renewing communion, not merely for supplying self-sustaining individuals in the struggle for survival.

Viewed in light of the biblical economy of salvation enacted through Israel, Christ, and the church, capitalism appears deficient, first in the way it conceives of and forms the human person. Whereas capitalism celebrates the autonomous individual who is an interest maximizer plagued by an insatiable desire for more, the economy of salvation traced in the Bible calls forth and nurtures a dependent creature whose personhood is nurtured in communion with others. These persons in communion are not self-interest maximizers but rather pursue a shared or common good in the communion of love (of God and neighbor) where all desire finds its rest in God.

Capitalism is also revealed to be deficient insofar as it perpetuates human relations in the modality of conflict and struggle. In the absence of a common good, capitalism encourages self-interested individuals to struggle and compete against one another in the hopes of securing private interests and goods. Thus, capitalism encourages a kind of commercial war. Likewise, everything and everyone are increasingly treated like commodities, while relations become instrumental, subject to a cost/benefit analysis. In contrast, the divine economy posits a human worth that is not dependent upon our instrumental value to one another and it posits human relations in a nonconflictual, cooperative mode of mutual giving. Such a mode of human relations does not rule out markets, business and trade, investing and profits—the Bible prohibits none of these practices—but it does put them on a very different footing than capitalism.

Capitalism also encourages a distorted relationship between God and humanity. While many leading defenders of capitalism are avowed atheists, capitalism’s theological defenders offer a vision of God that is at heart Stoic or Deist. The celebrated “realism” of capitalism is indicative of just such a flawed vision of God, for that realism is actually little more than resignation to sin, which is decidedly unbiblical and much closer to Stoic or Deist visions that hold God is not acting here and now to redeem humanity from sin, that transformation and redemption from the sin of self-interest maximizing is not possible here and now. Instead, like the watch-maker God of the early modern deists, capitalism’s God leaves us in the misery of our sin, merely establishing the “invisible hand of the market” to manage sin and its effects. Furthermore, and again in direct contrast with the divine abundance narrated in the Bible, this capitalist God did not create enough, insofar as it is asserted that scarcity is a natural condition that we cannot avoid. Thus the commercial war that is the capitalist market is blamed on God, who presides over creation like a lord over a gladiator contest, where the gladiators are entrepreneurs competing for scarce resources in the hopes of securing their interests and survival against their neighbors.

Compare this with the biblical narrative, which from start to finish is the story of a God who gives without end so that creation may be redeemed from the civil war that is sin and renewed in the communion of love for which it was created. The consistent witness of the Bible is to a God who has, is, and will continue to act in history, giving enough (Brueggemann, 1999) so that the people of God are being set free from sin and are thus able to renounce self-interest, love their neighbors, and join the divine economy in giving to others for the sake of the renewal of communion.

A Third Way: Divine Economy and the Church.

When the focus of the moral evaluation of capitalism shifts from the question “does it work?” to “what work does it do?” it quickly becomes apparent that the decisive question is really about God and what God is doing now to redeem humanity from sin. Whereas theological defenses of capitalism rest on a problematic vision of a stingy God who manages sin through the agony of the capitalist market, the emergent critique of capitalism hews closer to the biblical vision of a God who is currently active in history, bringing about the reign of God that is marked by economic practices such as the condemnation of unjust markets and exploitative trade, the rejection of interest, the forgiveness of debts, advocacy of a living wage, and the use of property and material possession for the sake of the common good.

The question remains, however, where is this reign, this divine economy, visible now? This emergent critique eschews the older arguments between capitalism and socialism in favor a third way, namely, the people of God and specifically, the church. Like diaspora Israel among the nations, the church enacts the divine economy in the midst of the world’s economies as a foretaste and witness to the reign of God already but not yet fully present. Retrieving the church’s ancient practice of the works of mercy as a full-bodied instantiation of the divine economy in excess of both philanthropy and welfare, advocates of the church as an economic third way point to developments such as church-supported agriculture, the Jubilee campaign, and the fair trade and civil economy movements as concrete exemplifications of an alternative to capitalism that correlates with the biblical witness of the circulation of material goods for the sake of the building up of human communion.




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Daniel M. Bell Jr.