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Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Was Jesus a Friend to Big Business?

To answer this question properly, we need to consider the historical context of the New Testament.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

The New Testament contains some of the harshest statements about wealth and the rich.

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24)

“[God] has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:53)

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” (James 5:1)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)

“There were no needy persons among [the Christians]. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:34–35)

That last one you might recognize from its adapted form in Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

With such strong statements against wealth in Scripture, it might seem like a contradiction in terms that a Christian could be a free-market capitalist. If even the New Testament sounds like Karl Marx, how can a committed believer in Jesus be a supporter of capitalism—the exact opposite of what Marx taught?

One of the hidden assumptions of this question is that “capitalism” describes the economic system of the world in which Jesus and the apostles lived. In point of fact, capitalism as an economic philosophy is only a few hundred years old. Its major contribution to the world of economics is its proposal that the market should be allowed to function on the principles of freedom, cooperation, and decentralization as opposed to centralized economic control exercised through the violent force of government.

In his Faith & Economics article “‘Ye Cannot Serve God and Mammon’: An Institutional Interpretation of the Gospels,” Walker Wright concedes that “wealth was largely seen as inherently evil in New Testament times,” but argues that when we ignore the historical context of those times, we’re only telling part of the story, with the result that our present day application “becomes either warped or virtually useless.”

The key elements of that first century context are:

  1. A zero-sum approach to wealth
  2. A coercive economic system wherein wealth was intertwined with “extractive imperial policies”

Under “‘an aristocratic empire’ in which ‘a small elite of about 2 or 3 percent of the population ruled… by hereditary control of the empire’s resources of land and labor,’ consuming ‘some 65 percent of its production’ and confiscating ‘an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the [peasantry’s] catch, crop, or herd,’” it should be no surprise that merely possessing wealth was seen as theft from the poor. Add to this exploitative picture the reality that a significant percentage of the non-wealthy were slaves, and it isn’t difficult to understand why the New Testament had such a negative perception of the rich. In such a world, every poor person was necessarily oppressed and every rich person was necessarily an oppressor or at least the willing recipient of the fruits of oppression.

Such systems of oppression are known for producing only a limited amount of goods because they obstruct innovation and dull the motivation for personal profit among the producing masses. In these societies, there is only so much to go around, and the powerful take the vast majority of it by force. Surviving and thriving without free markets really is zero-sum.

In contrast, modern capitalistic principles of private property rights, unbiased rules that don’t favor some over others, and free trade create the conditions for upward mobility wherein those at the bottom have significant opportunities to advance themselves economically. In these circumstances, the amount of wealth grows and is actually spread around, even to the poorest among us.

In the relatively short period of time that the advanced world has been even partially adopting these principles, the results have been beyond what any ancient person could have imagined. Bailey and Tupy, in their book Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, refer to this period as “The Great Enrichment” and detail its effects: “Since 1820, the size of the world’s economy has grown more than a hundredfold.” When compared to the largely stagnant growth of the previous 1,800 years, this number is even more incredible than it sounds at first blush. Despite what progressive critics of free markets might suggest, this growth has not only benefited the super wealthy. Bailey and Tupy contrast the estimated percent of the world’s population suffering in extreme poverty in 1820 (nearly 84%) to that same figure in 1910 (66%), 1950 (55%), 1981 (42%), and 2018 (8.6%). In short, capitalism has been a monumental benefit to the poor.

However, it is not enough for Christians to understand why being rich in the first century was tied up with the violent exploitation of the poor. We also ought to be able to diagnose this same moral sickness when we see it in our time and place. Economist Milton Friedman gives those in favor of free markets the language needed to distinguish ourselves from the backwards-looking proponents of industry working hand in glove with government:

You must separate out being “pro free-enterprise” from being “pro-business…” Almost every businessman is in favor of free enterprise for everybody else, but special privilege and special government protection for himself. As a result, they have been a major force in undermining the free enterprise system. Stop kidding yourself into thinking you can use the business community as a way to promote free enterprise. Unfortunately, most of them are not our friends in that respect.

Much like the Roman elites of Jesus’s day, corporations which lobby politicians for special favors are confiscating money from the rest of us (or otherwise rigging the market) to grow their own profits. They obstruct the free, non-coercive, and wide distribution of resources to all that free markets facilitate. How hard it is for such people to enter the kingdom of God!

Of course there are limits to what even free enterprise can do. Not every economic hardship is the result of bad policy. Illness, disability, disaster, and other unforeseen challenges place humans in need; Christians in particular should be a generous people looking for opportunities to help others—not only to heed Jesus’s exhortation to store up treasures in heaven where they will be of more eternal benefit to us, but because we desire to live in a society where neighbors love each other enough to help meet each other’s needs.

But if we’re serious about alleviating the hardships of others, one essential component for doing so—one which will cost us nothing but will do both ourselves and our neighbors a lot of good—is advocating for free markets.

Additional Reading:

Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus A Socialist? by Lawrence W. Reed

The Myth of Christianity’s ‘Socialist Roots’ by Lawrence W. Reed & Burton W. Folsom

  • Cody Cook is a theology graduate student living near Cincinnati, Ohio.