Commentary

Where Christianity and capitalism collide

Let me be clear from the start. I am a capitalist. My father began investing in the markets in the 1950s and that relationship served him, along with millions of other Americans, well throughout all of his life. Looking around the world at other economic systems, one has to conclude that part of the wealth and prosperity of America is solidly linked to our free markets and our free enterprise system.

But we also know that everything good in life can be pushed to excess and capitalism is no exception. Capitalism is a great blessing to a point, and that point is greed. America has just lived through two full years of deep recession, much of which was caused by arrogance, shoddy oversight, and a woeful lack of regulation that led to levels of greed and avarice seldom seen before in our nation’s history.

Emmanuel Saez, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, calculates that from 2002 to 2007 the richest one percent of American families accounted for 65 percent of all income growth. Robert Reich, a former Secretary of Labor, says that “it is estimated that 20 percent of all Americans now control over 85 percent of our nation’s wealth.”

Paul Harrington

You and I own nothing. It all belongs to God.

CEO’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001! And those numbers are still climbing in some sectors of our economy.

Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest one percent. As Timothy Noah of Slate magazine noted in his excellent series on economic inequality, “the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Guyana.” This does not bode well for our nation.

As a loyal American and a devout Christian, I find all of this to be quite disturbing. Have we sold our souls to the god of personal gain? Has the pursuit of wealth blinded us to what is truly important in life? Do we no longer care about the greater good for the masses? And, what would Amos or Jesus say about these obvious inequities?

A biblical economy

The Bible has much to say to capitalistic nations that are driven solely by greed and selfishness. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has sobering implications for our lives. Jesus soundly rebuked the Rich Man for his total lack of concern for the poor. There is no mercy offered anywhere in this story.

Similarly, the man who built bigger barns to hold his wealth was given a real wake-up call: “This very night shall your soul be required of you!” The steward who buried his master’s wealth in the ground is also shown no mercy.

And, it is the Good Samaritan who freely gives of his wealth to care for a man whom he should have despised. I have often wished that this parable ended with this line, “and when the Inn Keeper saw the generosity of the Samaritan, he too was moved to charge the poor man nothing for his services.” (It didn’t happen that way, but when Christianity trumps capitalism and self-interest, it is a beautiful thing to see.)

As a nation, we need to be reminded once again of some very basic biblical truths. One, you and I own nothing. It all belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24)

Two, we are only managers or caretakers of our wealth, and even that is for a fairly short period of time. We enter this world with nothing and we leave it with nothing; the only thing that matters is what we do with that wealth in the meantime.

And, three, we can be good managers or bad managers. A friend of mine likes to say that good stewardship isn’t about how much am I going to return to God but how much will I be stealing from him! It’s all his to begin with.

I want our nation to remain healthy, and that can only happen when wealth is distributed more evenly. We never want to lose our middle class for that is the key to maintaining any sort of democracy. Lose your middle class and you are soon ripe for revolution as we have seen many times before in other nations of the world.

Christianity, with its emphasis on a radical generosity that grows out of a truly thankful heart, is the best antidote I can think of to counter the kind of obscene greed we have witnessed in recent years in this nation. Christianity and capitalism are good for each other when both are seeking to serve the greater good of all people. Anything less is just not acceptable.

Paul L. Harrington is pastor emeritus of Shepherd in the Valley Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, Minnesota. He is president of the board of directors of Metro Lutheran.

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