Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I had originally planned to entitle this little series of essays ‘restoring hope during a crashing economy’, but in the end I decided the double entendre was worth keeping in these ambiguous times. With a profound grasp of the obvious, I am here to say today that America, and indeed the world economy that is dependent on the American economy, is in deep financial trouble, trouble which Christians have contributed to in various ways.

How so? Well, in the first place, most American Christians simply mirror the values of the larger culture or a significant subsection there of, when it comes to economics. They are full partakers of the consumer society, and believe in ’free market capitalism’ as opposed to ‘bad socialism’ and ‘protectionism’, at least until it gets them into financial hot water, and they begin to read the fine print.

As it turns out, even free market capitalism isn’t free and in various ways, it certainly isn’t democratic--- the means of production, the type of production and all related facets of business are controlled from the top down by owners, CEOS, boards and the like, rather than there being shared decision making between employers and employees, which would be a democratic method of producing goods. There is hardly anything democratic about the enormously hierarchial, dictatorial, and ruthless top down way big business is run in the United States. And there is no point in complaining about CEOs taking million dollar bonuses when a company is tanking if you have approved of the corporate structure and philosophy of business that undergirds paying top executives this sort of money in the first place. This is like crying wolf, when in fact you agreed for the wolf to be paid handsomely to guard the hen house in the first place!

Free market capitalism of course is a many splintered thing, which favors a survival of the fittest approach to economics. Not merely a supply and demand approach, a survival of the fittest approach. What do I mean? The so-called law of supply and demand is only one economic factor which controls the economy. This was perfectly obvious when what mainly precipitated last fall's crashing of the stock market (still in progress), was not ‘supply and demand’, but rather the lack of regulation allowing predator banks and loan agencies the chance of offering sub-prime mortgages to people who could not afford them, and whom the banks knew could not afford them, thus perpetuating America’s new status as a debtor nation.

And Christians have simply been complicit in this whole system of doing things--- buying the rhetoric that regulation and protectionism is all bad, and free market capitalism all good, when in fact this is far from true. They have also bought the rhetoric that they have a moral and patriotic obligation to consume, and so support the American economy. This, as we shall see is a yes and no proposition. No Christian should commit herself to live well beyond their means, just for the sake of helping prop up an ailing economy. There is no Christian basis for living a life of conspicuous consumption, much less of greed.

Sorry prosperity preachers, your well just dried up. This bulletin just in--- believing God for a financial miracle after you have lived in a financially irresponsible way is treating God as if he were an overly indulgent parent who would continue spoiling an already spoiled brat. And God is not going to honor that sort of flawed belief system, especially not when he has a compelling concern for the genuinely least, last, and lost in this world. So, let’s see if we can’t do a rewind here and begin to rethink things economic from a Christian point of view, rather than just baptizing the financial rhetoric of the political right or left, and calling it good.


Christians ought to know that human beings ‘own’ nothing in this world, if we are talking about the ultimate owner of things. This is God’s world, and it belongs to God. He has given it to us to be good stewards of, not owners. We brought nothing with us into this world, and we shall not be able to take any of it with us. If you know your history of economics, in the last 2,000 Christians have lived through all sorts of economic trials and tribulations and systems, no one of which was ‘specifically’ Christian, though it is clear enough that some systems are less Christian than others (e.g. totalitarian dictatorial systems, including totalitarian communism seems much more at odds with Christianity and its values than some other economic systems).

Since Christians are merely stewards of God’s property, they are always ultimately accountable to God for what they do with it (see the parable of the talents). God expects responsible stewardship out of us, in fact God expects “a good return on his investment in us”. The recognition that the earth is the Lord’s must cut against either godless capitalism’s or godless communism’s basic assumptions— there is no such thing as purely private property from a Christian point of view, any more than there is any such thing as governmentally owned and controlled property either. It all belongs to God!


The Lord’s prayer is very basic, and as part of the Sermon on the Mount it reinforces the values of sticking to the basics. If you have decent food, shelter, and clothing, you should not be longing for more, and more and more, nor should you be worrying about such things. It is noteworthy that in the Lord’s prayer we are encouraged to pray for daily bread. ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ says the Scriptures. Christians are called in this culture to de-enculturate themselves and live a life of unfettered simplicity. In most cases, it is precisely because so many Christians have bought the lie that it is o.k. to live well beyond their means, participating in ‘debtor nation’, that they find themselves in so much economic trouble now. Tear up most all your credit cards, pay off your bills, and start living frugally. God is not a venture capitalist who rewards Christians behaving badly.


Both of these principles are fundamental to what the Lord is calling us to when it comes to ‘making a living’--- a very odd phrase indeed, which seems to usually mean in this country ‘making a killing’. There is an integrity to good hard work, and a worker should be paid a living wage to do it. The basic definition of a living wage is providing basic food, shelter, clothing, and health coverage at a minimum.

Christians who hire people and then pay them less than the minimum wage for full time work are not merely breaking the law, they are breaking their covenant with God to follow his principles of treating workers fairly, indeed treating them with respect and kindness (see the parable of the day laborers and how the vineyard owner gave even those who worked an hour a full day’s wage because their families needed it to survive).

The other side of employer ethics is employee ethics. There is plenty in the Bible that heavily criticizes the sloth, the sluggard, the slacker, and in general the lazy person. Paul puts it this way, each one should carry his own load, to the degree he can, and when he cannot we should all pitch in and bear one another's burdens. Work, is not the curse, toilsomeness in work is the curse according to the Genesis story.


The reason Christians should work hard is not merely so they can ‘get ahead’ or ‘pay off their debts’, though these are good reasons, but so they can save some money for an uncertain future, and so they can be generous in helping others in the future--- living self-sacrificially.

As John Wesley once stresses “the person who makes all they can, without both saving and giving all they can may be a living person, but they are a dead Christian”. By this he meant, that we are called to follow the self-sacrificial example of Christ, not the self-indulgent example of Donald Trump, Bernie Madoff (with the loot), prosperity preachers, and in general all those consumed with consumption. We live in a self-centered culture and so it requires conscious effort and activity to swim against the cultural flow.

Paul sets a good example when he says “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and all situations, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want. I can endure all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4.11-12—noting the proper translation of the ‘superman verse’ vs. 12 which literally reads “I am able…. all things”. The context suggests we must fill in the blank with the word ‘endure’ not ‘do’).

If one will begin to live on the basis of these principles one can begin to find one’s way out of the economic wasteland we find ourselves in. We must live within our means, and having said that, we need to drastically downscale our expectations about our lifestyles. We are not called to lifestyles of conspicuous consumption or lifestyles of the rich and famous. Those lifestyles are not Christian, they are just fallen people behaving badly.

In the second part of this post we will talk about how trust and hope are in fact the basis of any sound Christian approach to economics---but those in whom we invest our trust must be truly trustworthy……Do you know who is and isn’t trustworthy these days?


Nick said...

Ben, I can't find a way to contact you, but was wondering what your thoughts were on the historical/archeological evidences for St. Peter. I watched a PBS documentary today and they made it sound like the bones and gravesite beneath the Vatican were Peter's. One thing that was new to me (I hadn't heard it before) was that they found an insciption in Latin above a tomb where the bones were found and it said: "Petros Anni" or "Peter is Here". The scientific testing on the bones placed it exactly as described in the Bible: Peter was old (70) and a very physically strong man (bones showed higher than average strength).

Do you have any knowledge about this find and what are your thoughts? Thanks.

TheThinker said...

I definitely wouldn't suggest a lack of government regulation to be a problem here, if government regulation was what you meant. A good book to read regarding Christianity and Capitalism, though having a few dated-portions, is Ronald Nash's, "Poverty and Wealth: Why Socialism Doesn't Work."

Robin Dugall said...

Ben - your sentence,

"Sorry prosperity preachers, your well just dried up. This bulletin just in--- believing God for a financial miracle after you have lived in a financially irresponsible way is treating God as if he were an overly indulgent parent who would continue spoiling an already spoiled brat"

was absolutely brilliant and prophetic! thanks for the reflections today!

You are smarter than the average bear!


Ben Witherington said...

To Robin:

As Yogi would say "Thank you boo boo, shall we go wrestle us a pic-a-nic basket"?


Christian said...

It is interesting that government interference in the free market economy is the specific cause of the housing collapse. The government PRESSURED the "predatory" lending companies to offer loans to subprime borrowers, which companies tend to avoid doing on their own. It seems that the primary regulation needed in this case was regulation on the government's power to interfere with safe corporate lending practices.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Christian I would call that not even quite a half-truth. Predatory lending practices went on for right years during the Bush administration, and even before in some cases. The Bush pressure just exacerbated the problem which already existed. It is clear as well, that American banks and savings and loan institutions have far looser rules than do British banks when it comes to lending money to normal customers. Me thinks we could use some tightening up. It is far too easy to mainly blame the government for what went wrong. There's plenty of blame to go around.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Nick:

This is a very old store, about St. Pete, and I don't know any NT archaeologist who takes it very seriously. Peter, even according to Christian tradition was crucified outside of Rome and likely buried nearby, and it is hardly likely that there was a Latin inscription over his grave saying "peter's here'. That's surely a much later addition.


Greg Johnson said...

Very well said Ben. Thanks so much.


Stanford J. Young said...


Didn't know you had a PHD in Econ!

I've had this conversation with N.T. Wright - it's always a mistake when theologians start talking as though they are experts in Econ as well as theology. Better to stick to theology.

Your basic principles from the texts of Scripture are generally very well said. Your thoughts on the economy and the "blame game" you've entered into are evidence more of ignorance of economics mixed with some truth, to be perfectly honest.

On the mini-debate with "Christian" about government - your argument is that "predatory lending" went on during the Bush administration is correct but it misses the point entirely. Going back to the Clinton administration in 1999, regulations were passed and were re-emphasized (especially so by Barney Frank and Harry Reid) - that essentially forced banks to give a certain percentage of housing loans to lower income households - hence, a significant increase in sub-prime loans.

However, the deeper issue is this - free market capitalism does not mean no rules around the game being played. Indeed, there need to be rules (which includes some regulation - but most importantly - enforcing those regulations which the Bush admin did not do). But, one can still allow market forces to work and function. And, in fact, if you know something of the history of economic thought (the history of Macro-Economic thought was my major in grad school) - you will discover that many proponents of market capitalism throughout history have been such because they realized this was the best of all the alternatives. And, it is not purely survival of the fittest.

One of the other related problems with your analysis of capitalism is that you've put your own definitions on what it is, basically a straw man that you then proceeded to knock down.

Love your blog - but stick to theology; or get better educated about market ideas (but that would take several graduate courses in econ if you really want to discuss it thoroughly - and with market economists not just anti-capitalist ones).

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Stanford:

You don't have to be an economist to intelligently talk to those who are and learn from them.... so enough with the silly 'get another degree' stuff. I've learned a lot from Greenspan and others.

You are absolutely right however that one of the unintended consequences of something Clinton did (making more loans to lower income folk mandatory) was what we now see.

I trust you do think Alan Greenspan understands economics, and he agrees with me on the major points I have made to explain what happened to our economy.

More to the point it is quite impossible to 'stick to theology' when the Bible is full of economic ideas and principles about money and work.

While I would agree that probably the free market system is the least flawed we've got, democratic it certainly is not, and survival of the fittest it is-- unless of course someone intervenes in a time of crisis.

Let's take an example. Various of the very conservative Republicans on the Hill have argued--- just let all those banks fail, survival of the fittest, 'this is the way the free market ought to work'.
Even George Bush realized the disastrous consequences of this sort of do nothing survival of the fittest strategy.

My exhortation to you would be--- do a careful job of reading what the Bible actually says about God's economics and its interface with theological principles.

If this doesn't lead to a rather serious rethinking about free market capitalism and the like and a Christian's endorsement of all its aspects, then something is badly wrong.


Ben W.

Dave said...

Kudos to Stanford J. Young, you beat be to the punch.

Let's also not forget that with a fiat currency controlled by an agency with close ties to the government, there is no "free" market to begin with. One of the root causes for all of the necessary regulation in our markets is due to the inherent stacking of the deck in favor of government and banks.

Paul Long said...

It's great to discover your blog. Thanks for presenting sensible biblical perspectives

Dave said...

BW3 said: "Let's take an example. Various of the very conservative Republicans on the Hill have argued--- just let all those banks fail, survival of the fittest, 'this is the way the free market ought to work'.
Even George Bush realized the disastrous consequences of this sort of do nothing survival of the fittest strategy."

The reason they need to fail isn't survival of the fittest any more than supporting their bad decisions by using taxpayer money is the same as taking from the poor. They must fail to clear out the toxic "assets" in the system so a true price discovery can be found for the financial and housing markets. The other issue is that with an estimated $700 Trillion (yes, thats trillion with a T) in outstanding derivatives, the government will never be able to print even a fraction of the money necessary to cover those debts without runaway Weimar style hyperinflation (which we are well on our way to).

I would humbly suggest you stop reading Greenspan/Bernanke (who are directly responsible for this mess) and start readin more from the Austrian school of economic theory. The Keyenesian policies of Greenspan, et al have been shown false over and over again throughout history. They keep coming back because it is a very covert way to tax the public without actually taxing them using inflation of the money supply.

Try mises.org for some truly enlightening info. Keep in mind, you don't have to be a libertarian to appreciate a lot of what they say (personally, unlike libertarians, I believe you need some government and regs to keep things in check because we are in a fallen world).

Just my $2.34 ($0.02 adjusted for inflation).

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. Stanford I did do econ at Carolina, low these many years ago.

Stanford J. Young said...

Been 'out of dodge' a while - so sorry for this delayed response.

The fact is, Ben, Greenspan has been wrong about a ton of things - just trusting his views is what got us in to part of this mess. Second, there are a number of exceptional economic minds who disagree with Greenspan.

As to the whole, "Economics of the Bible" discussion - the Biblical message is not one of governmental action (unless you are living under a Theocracy like Israel - which we aren't). The "economics" of the NT is about individuals and churches. It is about voluntary decisions of Christians to 'seek the welfare of the city' - not about governmental, socialist action.

Under the New Covenant - name the apostle who calls for Rome to engage in socialistic policies?

In fact, what you see is a call to help the whole person - not via government agencies or policies (which never can work in the way the NT will help it work) - which involves individual responsibility as well as mercy and forgiveness and assistance to the poor; and sharing the gospel. This is what changes individuals. And, change takes place, individual by individual. You simply don't realize the bad unintended consequences of your policies - nor do you seem at all willing to entertain an alternative position - as evidenced by the above response and the original post.

Indeed, you are correct that one does not need a degree in Econ to discuss the subject. But, what was your econ degree at UNC? BA? MA? PHD? What do you mean by "I did do econ at UNC" (studied it or majored in it?)? Just curious.

Lots of folks have studied economics. Karl Marx did. So did Lyndon Johnson (whose policies have been a plague on this culture for decades now - creating countless unintended consequences). So did Milton Friedman. Hayek. Buchanon. But, they often disagree.

Finally, I am not a Republican nor do I agree with Republican policies per se. They are politicians. That should say enough. So, citing their views is a straw man. This is the biggest problem with your arguments about government and even about what the Scriptures say about economics.