Sunday, January 8, 2012

Greed, Charity, and Capitalism

The calendar of 2011 has unfolded with many Earth-shaking events.  Literally speaking, an earthshaking earthquake and tsunami traumatized Japan; another earthquake shook the Atlantic coastal states.  Meanwhile, socioeconomic tremors were registered in the European community while the Mediterranean region was embroiled in the “Arab Spring.”  Within evangelical churches, increased attention to social justice has coincided with the struggling economy and greater political and media attention to the apparent injustices of Wall Street financiers and corporate executives. 

Recently, the ire of many who are concerned about the growing gap between the rich and the poor was stoked by a comment from the golden microphone of conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh
“What has fed more people? ‘Freedom’ is not an option. This is a multiple choice question with two possibilities, greed or charity. That’s right.  Greed has fed more mouths than charity ever could.”
Limbaugh’s emphasis on greed expresses a way of thinking that makes capitalism an easy target for those who believe it is morally unacceptable.  After all, how can an economic system be moral if it is ultimately driven by the sin of greed?   But wait.  Does morality ultimately reside at the institutional level?

In a debate at Messiah College with Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, asked, "Is capitalism moral?”  Brooks answered his own question: “Of course not. Only people can be moral.  We're not asking the right questions."  Instead, we should ask what economic system is the most likely to produce moral behavior in us? 

Brooks is correct.  Greed is a flaw in the character of individuals, not in an economic system per se.  On the other hand, Jim Wallis views the American economy as “unfair, unstable and making people unhappy." He agrees with the Occupy Wall Street movement (What are they advocating?) and seems ready to throw in the towel on capitalism while turning to an even greater emphasis on wealth redistribution to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. 

But will wealth redistribution bring happiness?  Not according to Brooks who cited data from studies of lottery winners and welfare recipients, and concluded. "If you don't earn it, it won't bring you happiness. True happiness comes from earned success.”  Instead of rejecting capitalism, Brooks challenged his listeners to reexamine the moral basis of the American political system as understood and applied by our Founding Fathers.  They believed that all humans are created in God's image.  Human rights come from God; namely, the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as stated in our Declaration of Independence. 

Government’s role is not to insure “equal justice”, equal wealth, or happiness for all.  According to Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God, history is littered with the corpses of millions that have died needlessly under the tyranny of those such as Lenin and Stalin who had promised social equality.  Instead, a government’s role, according to Richards, is to establish and maintain the rule of law, limit the intrusion of government into the economy, and secure free and just participation in the production and exchange of goods and services.  In a free society with a free market system, each person has the opportunity to define and pursue happiness in a moral sense according to his or her perceived goals and purposes. 

Although I believe our free market economy is threatened by a government that has misunderstood its role and has overestimated its ability to deliver “happiness”, it seems to me that capitalism is also being threatened by two other elements—(a) those who consider themselves poor and/or disenfranchised, represented by “Wall Street Occupiers”  and (b) the financially successful who have forgotten their responsibilities, represented by “Wall Street.”  Both of these elements have a moral and legitimate place in a free society.  Nothing wrong with a public assembly and protest within the bounds of the law; and, it is not wrong to become financially successful if wealth is gotten ethically. But both rich and poor may possess virtues that can be perverted.

First, those who are poor and disenfranchised are prone to envy and covetousness which can lead to anger and a life of crime.  The Scriptures teach the importance of assisting the poor (Matthew 5:42; Luke 6:34-38), but assistance that is not aimed properly can be demoralizing.   In his debate with Jim Wallis, ArthurBrooks listed four kinds of assistance to the poor:  “immediate relief, reward for work, education, and an improved culture where people can talk honestly about moral issues like children born outside marriage.”  Notice the progression designed to rescue, encourage, and equip human beings so that they regain hope and aspiration to use their gifts and abilities.  History is filled with many accounts of men and women whose generous giving and mentoring have transformed poor, hopeless people into highly successful workers and leaders.   According to Ephesians 4:28, He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.

Second, the financially successful also have proneness toward habits that threaten capitalism. For the successful Wall Street financier or CEO, what may have begun with a well disciplined self-interest can become perverted to a life ruled by greed.  The Bible condemns greed as sin-- a rebellion against God’s righteousness.  The tenth commandment states, You shall not covet… (Exodus 20: 17).   Jesus warns in Luke 12:15, Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.  This is a warning to us all.  One preventive measure is to heed Philippians 2: 3-4: 
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
Notice that the passage does not condemn “self-interest.”  In fact, self-interest is an essential quality for anyone to observe the Great Commandment stated by Jesus Christ in Matthew 22: 37-39 as You shall love the Lord your God…and …love your neighbor as yourself.    Without “self-love” which Jeff Gates, my colleague at Cedarville University defines as “the proper attitude and behavior toward self in the Christian life,” it is impossible to properly love God or my neighbor.  Therefore, a person transformed by Christ’s sacrificial and unconditional (agape) love is free and empowered to love God and others.  He or she enters into a stewardship of the love of God by recognizing that love originates from God and is given freely as a trust to share for His glory.  “Stewardship of love” expresses itself in a reciprocal love toward God, a healthy love of one’s self, and a love for our neighbor.  This love, or “charity” can overcome selfishness and greed which are contrary to the interests of our neighbor.  

As Arthur Brooks noted, “what America needs is not less capitalism but better capitalists.”  The problem is not in the immorality of capitalism, but the immorality in the individual capitalists.  Perhaps Brooks would agree that people who are stewards of the love of God are “better capitalists.”  Such love overcomes the greed and selfishness to which all of us, rich and poor, are prone.  It helps us all to recognize that, at the very outset, it is God who is giving you power to make wealth… (Deuteronomy 8:18).

If you can understand and agree with my line of reasoning, you will agree that Rush Limbaugh’s claim that “greed has fed more mouths than charity ever could”, while well intended, is an inaccurate and unbiblical comparison.  Perhaps it is better stated, “greed that is overcome by God’s love which overflows in charity toward our neighbor has fed more mouths than…”[you name it] ever could.  Such an economy, an oikonomia, is invigorated by the stewardship (oikonomia) of love—it overcomes the envy and helplessness of the poor with aspiration to push forward, especially with loving neighbors and “hands up” assistance; and it overcomes the proneness to greed of those who have been blessed with wealth and power.   Perhaps you know of CEO’s who understand their stewardship responsibility to their company and employees, a perspective that can lead to real job creation and fulfilled employees.

Thank you God for pursuing and rescuing me as a lost sheep, for bringing me into your fold as your child, and enlisting me in a stewardship of your love, abilities, time, and opportunities.   Thanks for giving me a biological family; and a spiritual family, the body of Christ, your church.  Thank you for giving me the ability to work for the betterment of my neighbor and your creation; and to support a family. Thank you for resources to support the ministry of a local church as well as worthy organizations aiming to provide emergency assistance as well as long-term assistance in education, community development, and ecological restoration.  In all of this, thank you for a nation and freedoms that allow individual hopes and aspirations to be achieved.  Grant wisdom to our church and community leaders, teachers, and government officials at all levels that they may apply principles of your Word as a guide to proper enforcement of the laws of the land so that our freedoms and justice for all may be protected and enhanced.   Amen.


Jeff Gates said...


I agree that Rush Limbaugh is well intended, but unbiblical. And as you said, there is a big difference between greed and self-interest. Self-interest need not be selfish. Here is a great quote from Kathryn Tanner in her article "Is Capitalism a Belief System? (Anglican Theological Review. v. 92 issue 4, 2010, p. 617-635):
"All that free markets absolutely require, however, is individuals in pursuit of their own goals; those goals do not have to be selfish or greedy ones. Self-interested action becomes equivalent to selfishness only if' one cares only about oneself. Hunman beings typically pursue, however, often in part for moral reasons, goals that include the well-being of others—the well-being at least of the family and friends they love—and the market in that case becomes a way of achieving those ends. One works to support one's family, for example. Self-interested action is not simply the equivalent of benevolence, any more than it is the equivalent of selfishness. But self-interest is compatible with benevolence if, say, for moral reasons, one takes a personal interest in benefiting others. As the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop Joseph Butler reminds us in his sermons, hunman beings are characterized by self-love, an interest in furthering their own happiness, but that is no reason for thinking that acts of benevolence, in which we work for the good of others, cannot be part of what makes us happy."

Jeff Gates

John Silvius said...

Thanks, Jeff, for your critique and for adding further insight on the subjects of self-interest and greed. I will be returning to your manuscript on "self-love" soon. Thanks for sharing it; a perfect complement to my blog entry.