This past weekend I went to L’Abri in Southborough, MA, and spent some more time studying the intersection between Christianity and economics. I wanted to post a few of the things I learned while studying.
Firstly, to give credit to my sources, I got these ideas from listening to a few of Jim Ingram‘s lectures on Christianity and economics, and from reading parts of Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions. I’ll be adding one point, but for the most part all of the following comes from them in one way or another (and mostly Ingram). As a prefatory point: Ingram was a trained Keynesian economist before he converted to Christianity, so any lack of knowledge in economics in the comments below will most likely be due to my ignorance, not his.
Essentially, one of Ingram’s central points is that an economy will only successfully deal with the problem of scarcity if it is redeemed by Christ. He did this primarily by exposition and by deconstructing the three main economic ideologies: communism, free-market capitalism, and Keynesianism (he was lecturing around the time Reagan was elected). Moving historically, he starts by describing free-market thinking. Classical economics, he explains, developed the three laws of economics: the law of supply, the law of demand, and the law of diminishing returns.
The law of supply, that work is viewed by people as utility (as opposed to good in itself), means essentially that people see it as something they need to be compensated for. Further, it says that this is normal human behaviour. But Ingram points out a problem with this: while this is observationally speaking normal, it is not normal according to the Christian narrative. Rather, for Christianity, work is part of human nature because we are made in God’s image as co-creators, and thus work is not supposed to be viewed as strictly a utility. To view it is as such, only, is tantamount to what scripture calls “laziness”.
The law of demand, that people are non-satious (i.e., never satisfied), is similarly posited as a fundamental and obvious law of human economics. But once again Ingram points out that this is not normal for Christianity in the sense of being morally right; the biblical work for non-satiety is greed or “covetousness”.
The law of diminishing returns, that the more one invests into production, eventually it will provide less and less return, is also, finally, not normal according to Christianity, but equivalent to Genesis’ “curse on the ground”, once again the result of human sin.
Ingram points out that free-market economics, in believing that these laws operating on their own will eventually lead to equilibrium is essentially a rejection of the biblical narrative which says these are a result of idolatry and thus will never ultimately lead to social harmony.
On the other hand, Ingram criticizes those ideologies which posit government interference to solve this problem, because, in his way of explaining, these agree that the universe is essentially impersonal and mechanistic, only adding the qualification that the government has to step in from time to time to ‘tune up the machine’. In the end, these ideologies (like Marxism and Keynesianism) suggest that enough violence/revolution/interference will produce social harmony. At this point, I’d add one theological confirmatory point: the scriptures, especially in the New Testament, describe governments under the numinous term ‘the powers’, generally in a pejorative sense. For the most part, the powers are viewed as the enemy of Christ and the church in the current era. Thus, there is good reason to think that Ingram is right here: there is no reason to trust that free-market (or, greed + laziness) + interference by the powers (or, violence + dehumanizing manipulation) will result in social harmony. Rather, we would expect it to consistently fail to meet its goal. (To this point Ingram adds Keynesianism failed in the 70′s, and that Marxism was failing in many ways (producing totalitarianism, etc.).)
Thus, Ingram’s solution was this: the church must accept that the state will be necessary to solve some immediate economic problems (i.e., it should not be libertarian), but at the same time work morally and spiritually against the solutions of the state: i.e., the church should be doing its job as the redeemed human race, through mission and mercy, through bringing people out of economic bondage by alms, by education, and by evangelism, and that these solutions ultimately undermine and make obsolete the kinds of solutions to the failures of a free market made by the state using force. Only as the society is renewed, through the missionary work of the church, by the Spirit and Christ, will social harmony ever be reached. None of the modern systems will actually solve the problems they intend to, because all of them put their faith in something other than Christ as the redeemer of all human society.
A few more points I remembered learning:
- Both Blomberg and Ingram (and Douglas Jones in various ways at his blog) point out that in the NT, solutions to structural/systemic evil are generally not structural, i.e., the NT is not very concerned with what we would call “political” solutions to economic problems; rather, it follows the same lines that Ingram does (the work of the church is the way the church brings redemption, not lobbying/revolution).
- There is some prima facie circumstantial evidence for believing this general criticism, that none of the major ideologies will bring economic salvation: none have yet, and there are many well trained economists who are very good at pointing out the problems of the other side; I realize this is not an air-tight point, but it’s not entirely worthless, I think.
And one last thought that occurred to me today: if it is correct to interpret the Gospel/the kingdom of God/salvation holistically, not limited to but including economic restoration, then the biblical teaching that “there is no other name under heaven by which man can be saved”, or that Christ is the “only begotten”, etc., would together imply Ingram’s point, it seems to me: socio-economic harmony and flourishing cannot come from anywhere but Christ (and thus, because of how the NT sees Christ operating, mainly through the church’s continuation of Christ’s work).
(I should point out, in case some people are suspicious that I’m trying to slip pacifism past them without them noticing, that none of the people I quoted above are pacifists; despite that, I think the economic position is very consistent with a pacifism presented by the likes of Yoder, Hauerwas, Cavanaugh, etc.)