In Which Alastair Takes The Inadvisable Step of Making Comments On Economics

Richard Beck has posted some rough and rambling thoughts on the subject of capitalism, socialism, and politics. Although I have some more serious posts planned for the future on other subjects, I thought that, rather than leaving the blog dormant for a few more days, I would post some initial rambling thoughts of my own in response to his. My aim here is not primarily to come down on one side or another of any debate, but to encourage a broader and more challenging conversation on the subject.

My thoughts are rough and unsystematized, but generally fall under a few headings.

The Pattern of the Jerusalem Church

The Jerusalem church of the early chapters of Acts is frequently presented as an example of ‘collectivist’ or ‘communist’ society, and taken as an example that we should follow. We should be more cautious about taking such an approach.

There is little evidence that the practice of the distribution of the funds obtained through the widespread land-selling of the early Jerusalem church was the general custom of the early church. Rather than reading the practice of the Jerusalem church as the normal pattern for all other churches, perhaps it is better to situate the practice more firmly in its particular context.

There are rather good reasons why Jerusalem believers would be liquidizing their assets. They were following Christ, who had taught that Jerusalem would be flattened within that generation. Jesus had taught that they would have to flee Jerusalem, and that there may not even be enough time for them to grab their clothes (Matthew 24:15ff). The floor was about to fall out of the Jerusalem market and so it made sense to sell quickly, as a matter of shrewd financial dealings, but far more importantly as a prophetic action, investing in the only venture that would survive the coming apocalypse (I suspect that much of the money obtained through such sales ended up supporting some of the early missionary ventures: the Jerusalem Christians seem to be financially struggling in later years).

Our ears should have already been alerted to the scriptural significance of land sales in Jerusalem by the description of the use of the money for which Christ was sold. The first property bought in the land of Canaan was a burial place for Abraham and his family, the Field of Machpelah (Genesis 23). This burial place was a guarantee of the inheritance that was still to come. Christ’s blood money purchases a burial place for strangers in the former land of promise – The Field of Blood. This is just one more sign that the whole city is to be rendered desolate, and as a declaration that the habitation of Israel will be given into the hands of strangers. In Acts 1, Judas stands as a figure representative of the Jewish society that rejected Jesus: the rendering desolate of his habitation anticipates the judgment awaiting Israel as a whole. As usual, Peter Leithart has some insightful observations on this subject.

More significantly, the description of the early Jerusalem church as ‘communist’ or ‘collectivist’ is quite misleading. The practice of the early Jerusalem church was not ‘communist’ but one of voluntary gift. Private property was still maintained, recognized, and honoured (e.g. Acts 5:3-4). However, those who were in need were readily provided for by those who had the resources. When we read the relevant passages more carefully, ‘having everything in common’ seems to mean something considerably less than the abolition of private property.

God builds his church out of willing human hearts: just as the tabernacle was built with money freely given by the Israelites, so Christ forms his Church with the willing gifts of his people. The concept of gift presupposes some sense of property, for one cannot truly give what does not in some sense belong to you. If we are going to take the example of the Jerusalem church seriously, I believe that it is in the analysis of the concept of gift that the most fruitful insights will be found. The biblical teaching concerning gift has the potential to transform our ways of thinking about property in several important ways, a point that I will touch upon again later.

The notion that the practice of the early Jerusalem church should provide a model for economies generally, and the economies of Western nations more particularly fails to recognize with the underlying problem of scale. An enthusiastic young church with about 3000-5000 members is a very different beast from a diverse nation of almost 60 or 300 million, and the sharing of property in common will necessarily take a profoundly different form.

The sharing of property in the early Jerusalem church was an aspect of a shared life. The members of the church had one heart (Acts 4:32), continued with one accord in daily meeting in the temple and in communal (and sacramental) eating (Acts 2:44-47). It was a witness to the Jews, who may not have been supporting the priests and Levites well (many priests joined the early church – Acts 6:7), and to the Greeks, representing the sharing and friendship of the ideal community envisaged by certain philosophical schools.

Abstracting the sharing of property from the sharing of a common life and a common heart is problematic, and to aim for the former apart from the latter two is to put the cart before the horse. Free-riders are a problem in many shared property or welfare systems. In a society without a common heart or life, we will (not without a measure of reason) become paranoid about people ‘abusing the system’ and will tend to resort to increasingly invasive forms of official supervision to ensure that people are not. This is merely a version of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Commons can be incredibly successful, but their success relies upon a culture of voluntary conditional cooperation, and the close monitoring of free-riders. Where the majority are working primarily towards private and self-interested ends against the interests of the wider community, or no clear common ends can be established, and where free-riders are not closely monitored by a strong community, the commons will struggle to achieve genuine success.

Successful commons generally work because people need to cooperate to achieve sustainable success, and the cost of pursuing self-interested ends without respecting the common ends of the community are too high. The ‘commons’ of the early church were so successful because the community had such a clear common vision, and free-riders would find it hard to fly beneath the radar in such a thick fabric of communal life, and would be strongly discouraged by the high disincentives of possible alienation from the church of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Timothy 5:8).

Lacking the cooperative ends and substantial shared life that make the commons successful, both communist visions and modern welfare states face problems. In fact, one could even argue that the modern welfare state exists in large part as an alternative to the genuine commons that can be created by shared life in community ( while I don’t want to suggest that effective commons existed before the rise of the welfare state, richer structures of charity and family and community safety nets definitely did in many areas), and that the welfare state can often serve to absolve us of the sense of responsibility to share our lives with the poor, a biblical responsibility that is far more primary than that of sharing our wealth. I believe that many of our problems in this area arise from our inability to form effective commons in a society that operates according to individualistic assumptions.

We should also recognize that communal ownership and managed economies need not be bad things in principle. Very few families operate either as pure free markets or realms of pure private ownership. Families can often be examples of successful commons because free-riders are easily monitored, and clear shared communal identity, life, and ends exist. However, scalability is difficult, not least because it demands a level of knowledge that we cannot easily attain and becomes abstracted from the fabric of actual communities. These scalability problems lead governments to resort to the same sort of detached and impersonal technocratic and bureaucratic structures and systems that multinational companies tend to use, structures that tend to run directly contrary to some of the primary humanizing goods that they may have originally been set up to protect (on this note, a church that is too big to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together is too big: in such a context we shouldn’t be surprised if the language of business tends to supplant the language of communion). Perhaps this is where the Jerusalem church could provide a model: workable and humanizing government needs to operate on a human scale, and technical systems cannot easily substitute for the trust born of a shared life of fellowship.

This also highlights a more general problem with prevailing forms of capitalism, which have the (I would suggest intrinsic) tendency to become abstracted from any concrete community. Rather than being regarded as a no-man’s land of exchange, the market should be seen as a form of commons, a place for a society to practice a particular form of its communal life. This doesn’t mean that the market should achieve equal outcomes for all parties, just that the good of a wider society should always be served by it. Where the market becomes dominated by the operations of agencies that have no interest in the common good of the society, the market has ceased to function properly.

Gift and the Question of Anthropology

Addressing economic systems at the level of their basic anthropology seems to me to be exactly the right way of going about things. I think that the problem of dominant models of capitalism (not the only models) is precisely that which lies at the heart of much liberal thought in general. Liberalism thinks in terms of mature right-bearing individuals, who enter into social orders at a logically secondary stage. Within this vision, whether in its economic or political forms, liberalism has always struggled to deal with the place of families and children in particular, who bear testament to the fact that the primal fact is not the individual, but loving communions that transcend individuality (this is one reason why liberal governments have a vested interest in redrawing the definition of the family around the rights of autonomous sexual agents).

The basic anthropological reality is not self-interest, but the reciprocity of bonding in a shared life. Everything that we have – language, property, identity, etc. – grows out of communion. Looked at from a different perspective, our economic activity could be seen to not merely or even primarily be about self-interest, but to be about creating, participating in, strengthening, and sustaining community. Most people operating in the marketplace do not do so merely or even primarily out of self-interest, but out of far more complex motives, foremost among them being a desire to participate in the exchanges that form much of the shared life of our communities. The attenuated culture of the consumer society is in large measure concerned with a desire to share a life of some sort with others. Many of the problems that we have today arise from the breakdown or corruption of the communities that sustain our economies, to be replaced by mistrust and hatred. We don’t trust each other, because we believe that each person is ultimately only in it for himself.

The more that we gear our system around the false anthropology of self-interest, the more that we will encourage the very practices that cause our present problems. However, what would happen if we took seriously the primacy of man’s desire for communion, both with other persons and with the world? What if we didn’t assume that all ends and ‘goods’ are private, but believed that people actively desire to pursue shared ‘goods’? What would a firm constructed on such an assumption look like? This false anthropology also leads us to create economies that don’t truly serve to satisfy people’s deeper desires, but leave them frustrated and alienated.

It seems to me that the concept of property would retain a very important place in such a vision. The concept of property is important, because it recognizes the manner in which the human self extends its reach to invest itself in the world and other people. Without the concept of property, the reach of the human self is restricted. While this would prevent certain evils, it also hinders numerous goods.

What scriptural thought does, it seems to me, is challenge the notion of absolute power and ownership that is often bound up in our notions of private property. Property can rather be construed in terms of gift, as something that we have received from the hands of others, and must in turn minister to others. The gift is not alienated from the giver, and in receiving the gift, a communion is established between giver and receiver. In working for a boss, I give the products of my labour to him, and he gives me remuneration. However, this does not absolve us of our duties to each other. Quite the opposite: this exchange of gifts should be regarded as the assumption of those duties, the formation of a new relationship. The products of my work now belong to my boss, but in the manner of the ownership of gifts, rather than absolutely private possessions. Our goods, in such a vision, cease to be purely private possessions held against all others, and, though remaining at our personal disposal, become sites of communion with others.

The biblical teaching concerning the Church speaks of it as a place of differentiated individual spiritual gifts – each a participation in the common Gift of the Spirit – exercised for the benefit of the whole and the blessing of everyone. The gifts are ‘possessed’ in some sense by the gifted one, but they are the minister of a common good, which is possessed by all. This unsettles the notion of the absolute power and autonomy of the private property owner, upon which much capitalist thinking relies. However, the biblical celebration of differentiated and unequal gifting (and honour associated with gifting) and the fact that the gifted person actually has genuine stewardship of and discretion in the exercise of the gift stands opposed to much anti-capitalist thinking.

Inequality and Fairness

Our individualistic ways of thinking about fairness can lose sight of the biblical emphasis upon larger intergenerational movements of wealth. Accustomed as we are to thinking of ourselves as individuals, we can lose sight of the biblical emphasis on the management and passing on of legacies. Against the orthodoxy of individualistic Western culture, we are born into stories, rather than with a blank slate on which to write a story of our own choice.

Capital is something that is accumulated over longer periods of time. Moral capital, social capital, financial capital, and other means of production are things that are developed by investment over many generations. The indolent and wicked wrong both their ancestors and their offspring, squandering the capital that has been passed on to them. Conversely, families that are careful in their accumulation and management of their wealth can be blessed for many generations.

When we start to think in the generational terms in terms of which God operates, rather than the individualist ones of Western evangelical culture, perhaps we will be less inclined to think that the fact that the fruits of diligence in the present can result in exponential growth of one’s descendants’ wellbeing represents a ‘flaw’. Why shouldn’t God bless the descendants of the diligent man to several generations (even those who may not be personally worthy of it)? If I work to invest in the future of any children that I might have, why shouldn’t God bless my labours with a bountiful harvest? Why shouldn’t my children have a huge advantage over kids with limited parental investment in their upbringing? Conversely, the reason that we find it so hard to accept the justice of the fact that many are hobbled by the wickedness, abusiveness, unfaithfulness, improvidence, and indolence of their parents lies in large measure in the fact that we perceive ourselves purely as detached individuals, rather than as in significant part the legacies of our parents, and as gifts to our own children. If we started to reckon more seriously with the way that God has created the world to work, perhaps we would be a better means of bringing his healing to it.

God is a God who encourages long term thinking that looks several generations down the line, and does not focus merely upon the present state of affairs. This is one reason why the playing field is never ‘reset’: God wants to teach us to think about the long term too. Corrupt and lucky ‘winners’ don’t tend to hold onto their wealth very well, whereas the diligent and shrewd losers don’t tend to remain poor for so long. I believe that we probably have several millennia (at least) left before the final coming of Christ: we can afford to be patient in our digging of deep foundations, and not be distracted too much by the shallow-based towers shooting up around us.

The ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’

Although not without biblical basis, the notion of a ‘preferential option for the poor’ is generally overstated, and tends to lose sight of other aspects of the biblical picture. Obviously, there is a lot of biblical teaching on the subject of God’s concern for the poor and oppressed, and criticism of the oppressive and unjust rich. However, the poor are not regarded as automatically morally superior (the Bible is prepared to make the sort of distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor that run contrary to many liberal sensibilities), nor are the rich universally demonized (although in certain contexts of oppression, riches can be a sign of complicity). Poverty is occasionally presented as a consequence of wickedness, foolishness, or laziness, and riches frequently presented as a blessing upon faithfulness and wisdom, even in the New Testament.

We should also remember that the majority of the great heroes of the faith came from the privileged classes, and many of them were insanely rich. The biblical evidence would seem to suggest that Abraham came from the ruling classes of Ur. He had a private army of 318 men and a sheikhdom that probably had more than 2000 people in it. His descendants needed huge territories to graze their animals. Moses had a ruling class upbringing of immense privilege. Job was a king with over 20,000 animals. Solomon was mind-bogglingly wealthy. These guys were the billionaires of their day. Much of the Bible was written by and about the 1%, and God doesn’t seem to judge these guys for being as privileged as they are, though responsibilities to take concern for the poor comes with their wealth.

Being wealthy when other people are poor doesn’t mean that you should feel guilty, or serve as proof of injustice. God gives different gifts to each person and we should be faithful in what we have been given, rather than being envious of those who have been given more than us. The Bible openly condemns systemic injustice and riches obtained unjustly through oppression and exploitation of the poor, but riches per se are not a smoking gun.

Even the people who were poor and persecuted in Scripture generally had great connections (if we look carefully, we see these connections all over the New Testament: the disciples had connections at the temple, Jesus had wealthy and influential supporters among the ruling classes, Paul was quite happy to pull strings of privilege in certain situations and benefited from family and other contacts). Biblical characters also seem to exhibit a preferential option for evangelizing the rich and influential. Although the gospel was preached to the poor, the New Testament has a lot more to say about the way that the gospel was brought to the movers and shakers of Jewish and Roman society, before members of courts, kings, governors, wealthy members of society, the military, and the aristocracy, etc.

While the above is obviously only part of the picture and the ‘preferential option for the poor’ has important truths to it, my purpose here is to challenge a rather popular one-sided picture. The Bible presents us with a vision of society that is more ‘top-down’ than ‘bottom-up’: if you want to change society, you must focus on prophetically addressing its leaders, influencers, and most gifted members. Could part of our problem be the fact that the church so focuses on evangelizing people as individuals at the point of existential weakness, that it has ceased meaningfully to address the movers and shakers of society as movers and shakers (although some churches will speak generally about unjust systems, the personal responsibility of those within these systems is seldom pressed), and thus encouraged the development of an amoral culture in politics and cultural, business, and financial leadership?

In fact, borrowing a point from Slavoj Žižek, a privatized faith in such a culture can be a means of sustaining the structures that it should be challenging. It allows us inwardly to disassociate ourselves from the structures that we are complicit in, while remaining embedded and involved in them, now with a decreased sense of discomfort. The rich Christian, addressed solely as a spiritual pauper, can become numbed to the fact of his material wealth and the moral duties that this might place upon him. A church that thought more seriously about addressing itself to the influential, the rich, and the powerful in society, precisely as rich, influential, and powerful, and not solely as spiritually poor individuals, might have more of a social impact.

The Middle Way?

As regards the answer lying in the middle (and which thinker out there doesn’t like to present his answer as lying between two gerrymandered extremes?), the sweet spot between capitalism and socialism, why should we believe that splitting the difference between two wrong answers will give us a right one? Is this not just an assumption that the prevailing framing of our political, social, and economic questions is the correct one?

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Economics, Society, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In Which Alastair Takes The Inadvisable Step of Making Comments On Economics

  1. Andrew says:

    It depresses me, how coherent your “rambling thoughts” are.

  2. Pingback: How the Liberal Market Revolutionized our Understanding of Humanity | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

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