Are Capitalism and Christianity Compatible?

It so happened that as I was reading something this morning about the requirements Jesus asks of those who love and follow him that a thought struck me…and stayed with me.

What Jesus asks of us seems fundamentally incompatible with the principles of capitalism.

As I read and study, it seems clearer and clearer that Jesus got in trouble, yes, because he riled church leaders, but more so, or at least equally so, he got in trouble because he got in trouble with government officials.

Jerusalem and the Jewish people were under Roman rule and Roman oppression. The Romans ended up destroying the Jewish temple in 70 AD because the Jews had tried to lead a rebellion against the Romans. While Jesus was alive, he noticed the disparity between rich and poor, the “haves” and “have-nots” and he spoke against that…and in so doing, angered the government.

Jesus was in alignment with Hebrew scripture, which asked the Israelites to take care of the poor, of the widows. Yes, the God of the Hebrew scriptures was angry at the Israelites for breaking covenant and for following false gods…their apostasy seemingly grieved Yahweh enormously. But this same God was furious at the Hebrew children for forgetting their role as His “chosen” ones. In the Book of Isaiah, the very first chapter, the prophet writes, on Yahweh’s behalf, “Stop doing wrong! Learn to do right.  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

It is a motif which appears throughout the Hebrew scriptures. In the Book of Deuteronomy, part of The Law, Moses says to the Israelites, on behalf of Yahweh, “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset because he is poor and is counting on it…Do not deprive the alienor the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of widows as a pledge…(24:17) In the 15th chapter of that same book, it reads, “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardh

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earted or tight-fisted toward your brother. Rather, be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs…”

In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet writes, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.

Jesus, the reason for Christianity, asks followers to take care of  “the least of these,” and says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to  the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

None of what I just quoted seems to be in alignment with the principles of capitalism. The free market system is such that the acquisition of profit and possessions are the prize, the goal, often at the expense of the poor, who are exploited so that profit margins may be larger.

Indeed, the tension between government and labor seems to be partly because unions ostensibly work to protect the poor and the laborers, who would be mercilessly exploited without such protection. What capitalism aims for the the biggest gain for its buck. That in and of itself is not bad…but I am just not sure that it is in alignment with principles of Christianity.

I wrote a paper which I presented at Oxford University several years ago, saying that there seems to be a real tension for some American Christians between the Bible and the United States Constitution. Both documents are important, but they are used and manipulated in order to accommodate the desires of people at any given time, and for some, the Constitution is a document more worth defending and quoting than is the Bible.

Why? Because where the Bible admonishes followers of God to treat each other fairly and with dignity, the Constitution seems to make it OK to treat others the way one wants…because we have the freedom to do so.  The Bible talks about the way God works, giving, for example, the same amount of money to a person who has worked for one hour as to the person who has worked a full day. (Matthew 25) The Constitution, written to define and protect the idea of republicanism, wrote of the “inalienable rights” of people – but those people were primarily property owners, white male property owners, at that.

Capitalism, or the ideas of capitalism, were written into the Constitution, along with the omission of the need to treat all people fairly, including blacks, women, and whomever else might join the new republic. And so, at the outset, it seems that the Constitution was in direct conflict with the Holy Bible.

All that being said, it seems highly unlikely that the division between rich and poor will ever go away, no matter what the Bible says. There is resentment against the poor in this very Christian nation; the “victims” are too often blamed for their predicaments and the fact that this is a “free country” is thrown up in our faces as proof that “anybody” can make it. Hypothetically, that is true, but in reality, that is scarcely the case. And no amount of Christian mouthing off about the unfairness of capitalism is going to change that reality.

If Jesus were to visit this nation, this world, today, I wonder what He would say? So much of the world lives in abject poverty, while the rich squander money and scramble to make even more. The very rich make money and stash it, against Biblical principles, but perfectly in compliance with the working of capitalism. The poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed…are scorned, used, manipulated…and too often, forgotten.

It seems that capitalism is really held more dear to hearts than is Christianity, except in certain instances or as applies to certain issues…like contraception or homosexuality. The Bible is cast aside in its call for fairness, for example, as all-male Congressional committees listen to the conditions of women, or all-white juries serve in trials involving black and brown people.

As I watch and read, it just doesn’t seem that capitalism and Christianity are compatible; they work against each other. There is definitely an issue here. And it’s a serious one.

A candid observation …

2 thoughts on “Are Capitalism and Christianity Compatible?

  1. Well, I definitely agree that if Jesus were to come take a “tour of society” today he would not be pleased. The thing is, people don’t use the bible as guidelines on how to live. They use it instead as a weapon, a way to say “what I believe is right and what you believe is wrong because the bible says so”. And when you use weapons, they are only useful “as needed”. No one (except maybe soldiers) walks around with their guns cocked ready to shoot at any moment. Similarly, very few people walk around with the MANY biblical principles in their hearts. Instead, they pull them out when they need to justify their point (which by the way can be a myriad of different points)…”God says this…and that’s why I’m right”. I think because of this, it is quite hopeless to think that society as a whole will ever conform to biblical principles of love for everyone. But, it is an interesting debate to consider.

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