Sunday, June 26, 2011

Christian Theology and Political Economy (God the Economist, Part 4)

This post is intended to synthesize and contrast a few works I've recently read on the subject. The whole series is found here.

Theologian M. Douglas Meeks' God the Economist is primarily critiquing the classical liberal philosophical foundation of orthodox economics. Christian economists typically defend this foundation as being scripturally justifiable, with a few tweaks. They work to build a bridge toward God's preferred economy from the realm of classical liberal thought whereas Meeks and other non-economists try to build a bridge from theology to economic thought.

Two modern approaches written by trained economists that I'm familiar with are Shawn Ritenour's Foundations of Economics: A Christian View, and James Halteman's The Clashing Worlds of Economics and Faith. Ritenour's textbook (from the product description) has three goals:
to demonstrate that the foundations of economic laws are derived from a Christian understanding of nature and humanity; to explain basic economic principles of the market economy and apply them to various economic problems, such as poverty and economic development; and to show the relationship between Christian ethics and economic policy.
Ritenour, who comes from the Austrian Libertarian school of thought, believes that "economic law is part of the created order," so scarcity, individual liberty, and property rights of classical liberalism are certainly God-ordained and existed before the Fall. God's moral law, as outlined in the Torah, affirms this order in its prescriptions of property rights and freedom for dealing with scarcity. Societies that protect property rights are more prosperous than those that don't, which follows from ordering our activities in line with God's intended order.

Ritenour's view is controversial. Leviticus 25 is a crucial passage for looking at God's order for the Israelite economy. God prescribes property rights, forbidding the moving of boundaries, theft, etc. but places limits on what can be done with the property. Property is to be returned to its previous owner every 50 years because "it is Mine, and you are only foreigners and temporary residents on My land" (v. 23, HCSB). But God also allows the ownership of human beings by others (v. 44-46), with the reminder that Israelites are God's slaves (v. 55). If property rights are part of the created order, then even the bondage of one human being to another isn't problematic so long as one follows God's rules of ownership.

John Piper believes that elements of God's prescription are "not a reflection of God's ideal for His people; it was a reflection of the hardness of the human heart." In other words, God's prescription of things like property rights were necessary as the best way for sinful human beings to organize themselves after the Fall. These wouldn't be found in the absence of sin, meaning that scarcity and the property rights prescribed for dealing with it are not part of God's created order. Modern Christian economists tend to argue that, given sin nature and self-interested individuals exists since the fall, free market capitalism is the best way to order society.

Meeks, the theologian, disagrees and rejects the idea that "economic reality is determined by fate or unchanging laws" (Pg. 9). Likewise, while Meeks might acknowledge that God's law orders economic life in a fallen world, "sin cannot be made a justification for any economic system," because these systems "deny the...power of God the Holy Spirit to create human beings anew and transform the conditions in which they live" (Pg. 10).

The authors' differing views on slavery are a good example of the outflow of their theology. For Meeks, "domination" defined as "unaccountable power to command and control the behavior of others" is problematic (P. 58). For Ritenour, the domination isn't immoral whereas the owner's right to property is moral. He has no qualms praising Confederates for preaching and dying for their moral right to own slaves as the property right was threatened by a government who wanted to immorally steal that right by force.

In general, the beliefs about the extent of personal liberties and property are a reflection of one's belief about God's nature. On pages 66-69 of his book, Meeks delves into this with more detail and scholarship than I can quote here. Basically, peoples' changing concepts of God have changed their approach to exchange relationships and vice-versa, and now Christians look back and revise history in the new light of the God concept that arose in the time of Locke. For example, the definition of scarcity ascribing to humans as having "infinite" wants and needs served to replace the importance of the infinity of God. Pg. 68:
"The human being is now viewed as an infinite acquisitor,...appropriator,...antagonist against scarcity,...and consumer...this is human nature, which, according to the official doctrines of a market society, cannot be changed." As I mentioned in Part 2, arguing that scarcity, by its modern definition, was part of the created order or resembles any attribute of God is biblically problematic.

Meeks is seeking to reclaim the God concept he sees as biblical-- "God as the promiser, as the one who makes covenants, as the one who deals with human beings and sides with the poor and oppressed, as the one who is immanently present in the creation and as the one who is God precisely by constituting God's power in these ways" (Pg. 70).

The basic difference between Meeks' view of biblical economy and others' is communitarian vs. individual liberty. Meeks is a Trinitarian theologian who sees God as a triune communal being, and therefore this communal aspect permeates all of His creation and order. "The biblical traditions...render God as a community of persons dwelling....among the creation and the people who are called into being by God's power of righteousness out of the powers of the nihil (Exod. 3, Genesis 1-2, John 1)" (Meeks, Pg. 9). Individual liberty was important for people to use their God-given abilities to work and to choose, but those rights were never to allow one to gain at the cost to the rest of society. Property rights were outlined but never exclusive--for the benefit of society. For example, the poor were given the right to glean from someone else's harvest (you see Jesus' disciples doing this in Mark 2).

Halteman's book likewise looks at the communal aspects of God's economy and contrasts it to the current neoclassical assumptions. Giving up one's liberty to use private property in order to benefit the community is illustrated in practical examples of making purchasing decisions with the advice and blessing of fellow believers. In 2 Corinthians 8:12-15, Paul stresses the importance of fostering equality of material resource among the church, but does so in a way that encourages voluntary action. This seems to be in line with what Meeks says is "found in the older Christian tradition: hold all things in such a way that they may be common for all" as espoused by Thomas Aquinas (Pg. 209).

How the writings of early church fathers wrestled with the issue during Roman dominance is rather controversial, however. For example, Ritenour holds Augustine up as a defender of exclusive property rights in the created order, whereas others argue he had different criteria for the right of ownership. (Meeks' notes contain a comparison of various early church writers, including Augustine.)

How the authors deal with taxation is also an interesting contrast. If property rights are part of the divine order, than no authority has the right to acquire property by force. Ritenour's textbook clearly espouses the classical liberal idea that only voluntary transactions are legitimate and that taxes are forced. He does not acknowledge the existence of public goods, which separates him from the classical economists. His view is the more extreme Austrian Libertarian position, as even Charles Murray refuses the "taxes are theft" argument and argues for some redistribution in order to assist the poor (a negative income tax as espoused by fellow classical liberal Milton Friedman).

I think it is worth noting that we have two clear places in the Gospels where Jesus pays taxes. One to Rome, and the other to the Jewish authorities based in Exodus 30:13-15 (the "two drachma tax"). Jesus was openly critical of Jewish authorities and the structures they had erected or changed, but still paid the tax, voluntarily giving up what he saw as his apparent right not to do so.

Meeks spends almost no time on government and taxation. He notes that market forces may cause some "necessary social goods" to be kept from some, a shortfall that can be made up by the community of believers, but redistribution seems to be implied. All the authors above rule out socialism or autocratic rule as legit.

My Conclusion:
The presentations above differ in their take on the the nature of man and markets.
Option 1: Scarcity, individual liberty, and exclusive property rights were part of the created order and societies that follow this order will be the most prosperous.

Option 2: Scarcity is a result of the fall and individual liberty with exclusive property rights are the best means for organizing a society to be most productive.

Option 3: Option 2 might be correct but it ignores the ability of God to transcend scarcity and transform sinful human beings to where classical liberal assumptions of human nature no longer apply.

I reject Option 1 for reasons I spelled out in Part 2. And I find the intense focus on productivity troublesome for reasons I explained in Part 3. I believe in Option 2 with the understanding that we should work to see Option 3 as often as possible. In a tight community of Spirit-led individuals there is no reason why Option 3 can't be exercised on a daily basis.

I think that many modern Christian economists (and Christians who want to teach economic principles) accept philosophies and terminology developed by classical liberals of the 1600-1800s and then search back through Scripture and church history to find support. Being economists, they lack theological, philosophical, and historical understanding and therefore present intellectually weak arguments. Their arguments may be correct but they are poorly made.

The dogmatic insistence on property rights by Ritenour strikes me as the opposite of what is exhorted of Believers in the New Testament (Matt 5:38-42, 1 Cor. 6:7) and the reality of property outlined by God for His people (Leviticus 25:3). The exaltation of liberty echoes the classical liberal notion that "Each person owns himself," (Murray, paraphrasing John Locke, Pg. 6) but is directly contradicted by Paul: "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body" (1 Cor 6:19-20 emphasis mine of course).

In general, I find it problematic that so many Christians unquestioningly build their economic foundation on philosophers who did not see God as the primary life-giver or reason for existence. David Hume, Adam Smith, or Murray Rothbard did not espouse anything resembling today's evangelical orthodoxy and would probably cringe if they knew their ideas were held up as inherently Christian. I cringe when I routinely see Christian pastors encouraging congregants to read non-Christian works as a way to understand "God's desired political economy" (Wayne Grudem the latest example).

The attempt to tweak or reconcile the philosophies with biblical teaching has led many to ignore history, particularly church history. Where one adopts Rodney Stark's position that Christianity was the inspiration for classical liberalism one still has to dance around various contradictory positions of early church writers and the clear example we have of God's economic outline in Leviticus.

The problem becomes compounded when the economic arguments are turned into political dogma which fosters a political activism that uses the resources of Christians. This isn't a problem in communities where Christians are openly excluded from the market, as early Pauline Christians were. Those early heavily persecuted Christians had to create their own economy. Paul doesn't seem to express his wishes that Caesar would free his hand so that the market could produce more. They expected that Jesus would one day return and restore God's created order but until they would submit to authorities and work hard to take care of one another.

In a future post, I will look at a couple examples of the American church's preaching of classical liberal tenets and point out some problems that creates for non-believers.


Rodney Reeves said...


I've enjoyed very much reading your blog. I'm going to be a regular!

Be careful: using Jesus' teaching re: "Render to Caesar" to support paying taxes is problematic since getting at Jesus' meaning is debated.

I think Jesus was neither condemning Caesar's tax nor condoning--rather, he was critiquing the Pharisees/Sadducees idea of "economic purity." They were the ones who produced the coin forbidden in the temple. Notice, Mark says Jesus was aware of their hypocrisy.

JDTapp said...

Thanks, Rodney. That means a lot.

Thanks for the comment about the tax. I would like to hear more about the Pharisee/Sadducee view on "economic purity."

Rodney Reeves said...

The whole idea behind the money changers was to prevent the desecration of the temple with idols (the image of Caesar on the coin would be verboten). Thus, only "pure" money would be acceptable in God's economy.

When Jesus was asked the question, "Do we pay the poll tax," they were in the temple, where (hypothetically) no one would have a Roman coin in their possession. Jesus, obviously, knew different. When he asked for the coin, they produced one. Lifting it up and asking the question, "Who's image is this?" was brash and shameful. (Besides, I think they didn't answer his question correctly. They should have said, "God's image," because we all bear the imago dei.) Thus, all belongs to God (a point you make in the previous post).

In other words, I think Jesus was declaring "all things clean" in this story, even money.

JDTapp said...

That is an interesting take on that passage that I had not heard before. I'll have to ponder that a bit.

How about the double-drachma tax in Matthew 17:24-26? Jesus seems to object that they would tax "their sons," but pays the tax anyway "so we don't offend them." I see this as an acknowledgement that they have the authority to tax and a submission to that authority, even if Jesus says they shouldn't be using their authority in that way. Is that a defensible position?

Rodney Reeves said...

Defensible, perhaps. But, not a strong argument.

I don't think it should be used as a proof text for paying taxes. There's too much going on in that story, i.e., Jesus is the "new temple," the problem of economic hegemony in the temple, the temple-destruction prediction, eschatology, etc.