Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

Pope Francis has made liberation theology popular in recent days. It’s not that it was neglected before, but now bloggers and political commentators have reason to read up on it and compare it to what the pope has to say.

It is important to note that Francis himself is not a liberation theologian nor does he staunchly prescribe to it. But he does sympathize with it. He has made visible efforts to alleviate the tense relationship between the Vatican and liberationists, and it would be silly not to assume he was influenced by this method of interpretation during his time in Argentina.

This theology (or hint thereof) espoused from the mouth of the pope is worth noticing not simply for its popularity, but because liberation theology attempts to refocus Christendom on issues of poverty. It takes into account the well known fact that money and possessions are the most frequent topics of Scripture. It understands that the law of Moses protected the poor, the prophets condemned those who oppressed the impoverished, and Jesus taught concerning the difficulties of riches (some even estimating that around 15% of what he spoke dealt with money). Clearly, it should be a priority of the faithful.

I once had a teacher that told the class that Jesus did not favor those who were poor and marginalized for their own sake but only those who were pushed aside and persecuted because their righteousness.

I can’t accept that. Too often Christ reaches out purely out of compassion. And if he didn’t, all that Scripture that deals with the poor would be deemed obsolete. It is against these tendencies that liberation theology strives.

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Now concerning capitalism, a lot is going on. Particularly, many have become disenchanted with it as seen through the pope’s critiques, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the success of Senator Bernie Sanders (#FeelTheBern), and racial tension derivative of both systematic and unintentional oppression. People are beginning to point to capitalism and call for someone to be hanged.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with capitalism as an economic system. That simple fact has oft been forgotten. There are, even, many virtues for the system such as its efficiency which leads to unparalleled economic growth. Economists like Milton Friedman have noted that it creates more prosperity than any other system, and that it typically benefits the working class. It certainly contributes to an increase in national GDP per capita, which according to some leads to less hours worked by the younger and the older.

On the other hand, capitalism has some weaknesses. While some praise it for inspiring work ethic, as a system capitalism is susceptible to inherited wealth, and it also tends to ignore externalities (factors not directly relevant to profit, like potential pollution). It is prone to income inequality, which in turn leads to wage slavery and social division for those at the bottom. And for those at the top, there is a diminishing marginal utility of wealth (their second billion isn’t as useful as their first). Lastly it is worth mentioning that, while this is not inherently evil, capitalism has opportunity for monopoly and boom-and-bust cycles.

In regards to everything mentioned, both good and bad, there is disagreement. There is also the idea of utility, that some problems are acceptable for the greater good. But there is no doubt and no disagreement that capitalism does encourage materialism and runs on greed.

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I was a part of a discussion recently where the question was raised, how much money is too much for any individual to have? Most of those involved in the discussion quickly concluded that there is no definite amount, and that rather it is a matter of the heart.

That conclusion is hard to argue. These “matters of the heart” remain elusive, and because of their vagueness, stone walls are built up around people that make rebuking invalid. No one can be called out, for who are you to judge the heart? Who are you to draw the dividing line?

We have a similar attitude regarding Scripture. Anytime the issue of riches is raised, we say the sin in question is actively cheating someone or lying to someone. That’s what we say Amos and Micah are concerned with when they rebuke those cows of Bashan. Well yes, they are in fact condemning actively cheating or lying, but they also condemn a passive lack of generosity, mercy, grace, and compassion. They know love does not exist in high towers or secured safes. When Amos and Micah look at Israel, they do not need to witness active wickedness to know that no one can serve two masters.

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How Christians understand and use wealth is the most important ethical decision we can make. Outside of orthodoxy (and some may debate that), there is no clearer, practical manifestation of the Christian worldview.

Again, this is not about capitalism. Nor is it about liberation theology. This is a matter of unmistakable Christian ethics—a certain way we are designed to live and coexist. For some, this mode of living will take on political manifestations that seep into how they vote or view the economy, and I can’t disagree with that. But they must first take account of their own lives. What does amassing wealth look like? What does generosity look like? What does the forgiveness of debts look like? How did that traveling rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, live?

The answers to those questions are not as subjective as we often make them. The answers lead to an outflowing of justice, righteousness that flows like a mighty stream. It is that sort of reaction that we must seek, one shaped by the Scriptures and by compassion for those who are hurt (whether by injustice or by their own foolishness). We always seek righteousness.

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  1. Can’t say that the associations made with capitalism are not actually correlated with unethical behavior that are brought into the system. You are correct about what Christianities goal should be. In the same way we question how much is too much money, we can also ask when does someone become poor? Helping the poor should not be limited to helping those in the church and can also be a gateway to those who need to fill a void in their life.
    The harm that would be done to many families and individuals by enabling them by governmental right to monetary values would be exponentially worse. The Bible definitely speaks to working to care for ones needs. If the range from middle class to 1% want to refuse to help the poor, whether it be radically or modestly, they make that choice… Just like those who choose not be baptized. They will be held accountable.

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    • I have 3 paragraphs above giving characteristics of capitalism (positive, negative, and unquestionable negative). It’s good characteristics (e.g. unparalleled growth) derive from its efficiency; its efficiency is not inherent (i.e. a perfect form of mercantilism or socialism would be just as efficient) but is made so by relying on human selfishness. Turning to its negative traits, ignoring externalities is completely based in capitalism’s efficiency (so you can choose if that makes it inherent or not). Because there is nothing “built in” to prevent the following, there is an inherent susceptibility in capitalism toward hereditary wealth and income gaps (of which, wage slavery and social unrest are natural consequences). The rest of the negative characteristics mentioned are self explanatory as to their (un)inherency. For the unquestionable traits, I am a little unfair. Greed IS inherent in capitalism. Materialism is not; it is merely encouraged and common within capitalism.

      You mention the worse problems of government handouts. It’s wise to not claim that as a blanket statement (which you didn’t). That is certainly one of the hardest issues in this discussion. We don’t want to promote laziness, entitlement, and harm other taxpayers arbitrarily. But we also realize that a person’s right to eat TODAY and to see a doctor far outweighs the sin of sloth.

      Your final statement raises an entirely new and equally important issue (the link I gave in the post deals with some of this). An individual has liberty to do good or not, but as responsible citizens—blessed with the right to vote on beneficial legislation—are we obliged to force people to help? In essence, the issue is, what do we value more: helping the poor (even those made poor by their own vice) or protecting an individual’s right to not help (a stupid right if there ever was one)? Is it acceptable to pass law on taxes people an amount they’ll learn to live with in order to help others? (My bias shines forth in that last question.)

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      • Where to start?
        A few questions that need to be answered:
        1) Can you define greed and selfishness? I think when you do, you will notice that these are not the leading sources of what makes a free-market work. There is a difference between selfishness and self-interest. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” – Adam Smith. Is working for a living selfish? Also, how is greed inherent in capitalism (i.e., as opposed to other systems)?
        2) “[Capitalism’s] efficiency is not inherent (i.e. a perfect form of mercantilism or socialism would be just as efficient)” – let’s state the obvious: no perfect system exists. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” – Federalist 51. The purpose of economic systems is to put the right rules in place for the best outcomes.
        3) Externalities: You keep using that word but without saying what the problem is. How are externalities not dealt with in a free-market system, but are dealt with correctly in other systems?

        4) If someone is forced to be “charitable” (paying their taxes), does that mean that the Christian virtue of charity is present in their life? Quick side note – the “poor” in America, even without government support programs, are exponentially better off than the poor in other countries. Why do you not advocate for our tax dollars to be used to better the lives of the “bottom billion”? (Hint: because free-markets are already the #1, #2, … means by which the poor are rescued from poverty.)

        There are more questions, but I’ll start with these.

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      • Michael,
        1) The baker bakes in every economy, traditional, mixed, what have you. But the baker opens up a chain of bakeries and lowers the price on bread (advertently OR inadvertently taking the business of the baker on the other side of town) most often in a free market. He does this because he wants a little more, a house a little bigger, and a life a little less stressful. I can’t point to anyone of those things and call it greed, but I can say greed is present, somewhere. Regarding Capitalism, the word I chose is greedy—it is inherently greedy. For capitalism to separate itself from other economic systems, it relies on entrepreneurialism and shrewdness to maximize profits, to lower prices, to increase GDP, and grow the economy. To get all those things we want, we rely on entrepreneurialism and shrewdness. And while some may have that entrepreneurial spirit in their bones, most often, they want to make a name for themselves and amass wealth—greed. Milton Friedman, as I’ve already noted, a proponent of free-market economics claims that it is central and necessary to capitalism’s efficiency (Gordon Gekko claims the same).

        2) You didn’t make any point here. You just stated that economic systems and governments aren’t perfect. I never said otherwise.

        3) Even before I clicked the link, I knew what it would be. Touché. But I’m not sure why this needs much explaining? It is well known that a business that can achieve greater profit (the goal that makes capitalism efficient) at the environment’s expense will likely do that, unless an outside force tells them No. Again, in regards to this and the previous two comments, capitalism is able to avoid some of these pitfalls (not all), but historically has not and generally, practically, and likely will not. But capitalism is not the ultimate issue here (read the post); finding flaws in the present system merely helps us toward the ultimate issue.

        4) No, but it means the poor are fed.
        And I don’t follow your aside and hint. Any good Christian advocates for helping the poor here and helping the poor abroad. Quick side note: it is a common misconception to think that the poor in America are exponentially better off than their foreign counterparts. When dealing with lowest of the local, the difference is marginal.

        We will now field other questions.

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      • To Daniel’s baker analogy: So greed has a positive correlation with market share? With business growth? That “greed is present, somewhere” confuses the issues. As Tim Keller has said a thousand times, and good thing can become an idol, but it doesn’t have to. Greed is not inherent in any economic system (they are sets of rules), but overarches all of humanity.
        My apologies for not including my question. I was trying to set up the idea that free markets are inherently more efficient given the world we live in – most understandably put forward in Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html).
        2a. My questions: in the world we live in, do you believe there is a better economic order than free markets? What makes you think mercantilism or socialism could be better?
        Part of free markets is the idea of property rights, both positive rights (the right to do something) and negative property rights (the right to have something not done to you). Free-market environmentalism is actually a well-developed system of thought (and, ironically, is a large part of what my employer does). 3a. Your use of externalities and inherited wealth are not good arguments against free-markets.
        So, taking from the rich to give to the poor is “the ends justify the means”? The poor being fed is the only criteria for the quality of an economic system? I also think you overestimate the quality of help that the poor receives from a centralized bureaucracy. For someone who appreciates the nature of narrative and story, the depersonalized nature of government help seems antithetical.
        4a. This is not true; simple thought experiment: if you could be poor anywhere, where would you want to be poor?
        Further thoughts:
        Often these conversations are focused around the wrong questions. As with liberation theology and calls for justice, they are framed as the oppressor against the oppressed. However, those posing the question fail to see who the oppressor is, namely those with the rule making power (governments).
        So, Daniel, have I missed your point entirely? I feel think you put capitalism/free-markets into a post that wanted to focus on greed, rather than just focusing on greed.

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      • I apologize Andrew as my brothers and I bombard you with notifications for our lively debate.

        1) Yes—greed, for lack of a better word, is good for business.
        And as St. Augustine has said at least once, some things are more inclined toward idolatry.
        Regarding the neutrality of an economic system, I’m inclined to agree, but there are some scholars in your field who plainly disagree (I’ve quoted one of them twice). Those scholars help me construct my argument.

        2) No, and I apologize if I insinuated otherwise. As far as practicality is concerned, it is clear that free-market capitalism is the most efficient economic system.

        3) I just read up on free-market environmentalism. That’s great, and I’m glad that it growing into a consideration. Of course you’re aware that environmental issues have, nonetheless, classically been understood as market failures, and there are plenty of scholars who are not convinced that the market can thoroughly protect the environment (see the journal Environmental Philosophy).
        3a) Therefore, no, my use of externalities and inherited wealth are not conclusive arguments but rather contentious arguments.

        4) No, poverty is not the only concern, but it is one of the main ones. We cannot forget that there are some things we value more highly than others.
        I anticipated this comment and addressed it via the link in the original post. There are a lot more stories of people suffering than of people helping, and that is what this is a reaction to—lots of stories.
        4a) Ireland. They don’t have many poor and they do a lot to help their poor. I’d probably list a dozen more before America. You may notice then that America would still be in the top echelon, but that does not negate that the difference is marginal.

        I think, historically, Liberation Theology did a great job of singling out the oppressors with some errors. In this case, the oppressor is those who make the rules (government) and those who can help the problem but don’t (wealthy).
        Which leads into your second question/statement. Yes you have, and by enjoying the argument so much, so have I. The point is that the Western Christians/evangelicals are greedy. However, capitalism was intentionally and necessarily included in this post to show how (1) free-markets, at least, have potential to promote greed, (2) we defend our greed by appeals to capitalism and efficiency, and (3) there are flaws in the nation’s current state that should addressed (something to be unpacked in later posts).

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      • Daniel, since we were able to talk on the phone we quickly came to the conclusion that the church does not preach the gift of giving enough to each other. So your point that Western Christians are mostly greedy is spot on. Michael’s points to free market capitalism being overall a better economic solution is very strong. Not to be narrow minded, but finding ways to keep the rich accountable for caring for the needy should be the priority, but if you are not within the church how can the church hold you accountable. If the church wanted to take control of the government and mandate God’s commandments then the problem would be solved. 

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