Recently a friend of mine messaged me to ask me what I thought about this article.
Things got a little out of control so I decided to post it since I’d spent so much time on it.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe the scriptures endorse any economic system, and I believe a case could be made that it rejects all of them in some sense.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but I’m a little stunned at how terrible this article is. The author’s bio seems to indicate he’s a Jewish Rabbi who has lead congregations but I feel like this level of misunderstanding of scriptures is usually one seen only in publications that are overtly secular, with no understanding of scripture outside of a few verses casually read. Take for example, his use of the scripture “six days ye shall work”. The claim made is that this is an affirmation “that on a day-to-day basis work is the engine that brings about man’s inner state of personal responsibility”. However, this is the opposite intent of that scripture. Now, I don’t know precisely which scripture the author is referencing because that phrase is used approximately 9 times in the Torah. They are the commands concerning the Sabbath. And generally they go something like this: “You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed.”
What was unusual about this command was not the command to work, as the author claims, but rather the day of rest. The ancient world in which the scriptures were birthed wasn’t really filled with lazy people. For example, the Romans had a five day week, and you worked all five days. The command to take a day off each week was extraordinary. So extraordinary that in Exodus 31.17 God tells his people that this day off each week is “a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel” Not only was this an act pointing to God as creator, but also as provider. It was an acknowledgement that even when it would benefit survival to work all the time their faith in God is such that they will take a day off out of every seven for worship and rest, and God will provide for them. The claim that this command is an endorsement of work misses the point of one of the central commands of God to his people. Coming from a Jewish source I can’t believe this came from ignorance or only casual familiarity with scripture. I suppose I’ll have to be gracious and believe that it comes from being blinded by his commitment to an economic theory over and above his religious commitments.
You probably overlooked this statement (or I should say I overlooked it the first two times reading through): “Regarding mankind, no theme is more salient in the Bible than the morality of personal responsibility.” Frankly, this is such a misjudging of the scriptures its breathtaking. The story of the scriptures is of God working to free his people. From stories like God sending home most of Gideon’s army, to David defeating Goliath, to the work of Christ himself the theme is that God is powerful and God saves his people. A Bible that is thematically about personal responsibility is a Bible in which everyone is abandoned by God.
Let’s shift focus to the author’s view of money and power. The author takes as an assumption that the accumulation of money and power are desirable. Look at his endorsement of a powerful military, as well as the assumption that the best economic system is the one that produces the highest GNP. These assumptions are easy ones to make in our present day, however, they were also easy ones to make when Jesus burst on the scene. That was, after all, precisely what the Jewish people were waiting for. A king, a military commander who would make the streets run red with Roman blood, and bring about a larger GNP for the chosen people. We see this expectation run into the buzz saw of Christ’s goals in John 6.14-15:
When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.
What Christ continually teaches is that he came to establish an entirely new order. One that was based on servanthood, and denial of self, rather than building up the self as glorious, and powerful. What the Jewish people wanted was to out Roman the Romans. What Christ wanted was to be the anti-Caesar of a new Kingdom that would be the anti-Rome. In Matthew 20 Jesus teaches explicitly about it: “But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In light of this teaching, is it faithful to the scriptures to say that an economic system should be evaluated by the light of scriptures based solely on its ability to garner GNP, and produce a military capable of shattering rivals?
The author also makes a claim that capitalism is obviously Judeo-Christian because Judeo-Christians created the US, and the US is capitalistic. This paragraph is the one I refer to: “No country has achieved such broad-based prosperity as has America, or invented as many useful things, or seen as many people achieve personal promise. This is not an accident. It is the direct result of centuries lived by the free-market ethos embodied in the Judeo-Christian outlook.”
Is the Judeo-Christian outlook also overtly racist? You know where I’m going with this just by that question. The reality is that America has been a racist country from its outset. And the less Christian it has become overall, the less racist it has become. I would, personally, deny that racism and the scriptures go hand in hand, but if you accept that the state of America defines what is Judeo-Christian as the author does when it comes to capitalism, then it is consistent to reason in the same way when it comes to things like race.
While I agree that being made in God’s image means we are creative, and that work is good, I disagree with his characterization of entrepreneurial creativity as the norm for capitalism. Obviously, there has been some of that as we have things like sweet little coffee shops, Findley Market, Etsy, and a variety of other such endeavors. But the norm has been to treat humans as labor units. Coal miners, factory workers, assembly lines, and other such machines of economic activity all were focused on humans as labor units and nothing else. It took government involvement such as anti-trust legislation and the NLRB to get anything resembling fair treatment of workers. And, I would add, this has continued as much of what we laud as creative enterprise such as Apple is only made possible by viewing a massive Chinese workforce as units of labor and nothing more.
The author sneaks into his writing the idea that only a capitalistic society believes people should work. He spends a lot of time linking the idea of work to scripture and then through scripture to capitalism. However, a survey of collectivist oriented cultures would demonstrate that’s just not true. The only difference is the motivation. Working for family, city, and country is the motivation rather than for self through earning money is found throughout collective thinking cultures, many of which are found in the east and so are not Judeo-Christian in addition to not being capitalist.
One final point that I think caps off the view that this author has allowed his idealization of capitalism to overwhelm all other views, obligations, and scripture itself. The author states: “More than any other nation, the United States was founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific religious perspective.”
Really? So all those countries that rose to power and political independence in the wake of the Reformation like Germany, France, England and Spain are all less founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific religious perspective? Countries founded with state churches, where the churches wielded actual political power weren’t founded with morality with a specific religious perspective above and beyond that of the United States? The more I think about this the more absurd it gets. I can’t not think of countries that were founded with morality with a specific religious perspective.
There are certainly cases that can be made for an individuals’ participation in capitalism, but this isn’t a source for those arguments, in fact, I’m not really sure what this is a source for other than misguided application of scripture.