The financial crisis gripping the country leaves some people desiring to decapitate a few capitalists. But the fact is, many who follow Christ are also culpable. For years we have wagged our finger at capitalism and consumerism, all the while ignoring “our most urgent missionary task,” according to one wise missionary. The task he’s referring to leads to the weightiest question. Raising it requires tough love. But if Christians saw it as part of their missionary task, they’d lessen the likelihood of future financial collapses.
The highest ambition in the Judeo-Christian faith is to love rightly – “love the Lord God and your neighbor as yourself” (Deut. 6:5). This quest leads to the weightiest question, posed by Jesus and St. Augustine in the midst of terrible collapses. After Peter denied Christ three times, Jesus asked, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). As Rome collapsed five centuries later, St. Augustine suggested to his Roman friend Lawrence: “For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves.”1 Christians have long held that the weightiest question is What do you love? For the proper ordering of our loves determines what we truly believe and hope.
This is why ordering our loves has everything to do with the sub-prime mess. Free market capitalism addresses the weightiest question since controlled economies, such as communism, mask a person’s true loves. Back in the USSR, the old joke was, “We pretend to work and the government pretends to pay us.” Love isn’t like that – it doesn’t pretend and isn’t coerced. It flourishes in freedom. If you can stand the roller coaster ride, free markets ferret out what we most deeply care about, our loves. As Augustine noted, “My love is my weight: wherever I go my love is what brings me there.”2 The down side is that free markets can produce tough times, such as we are presently enduring. But don’t wag a finger at corrupt capitalists. When was the last time you heard a sermon connecting free markets and the ordering of our loves?
More often than not, Christians make capitalism and consumerism the whipping boys. But the fact is, God made you to eat and drink and breathe – to consume (Genesis 1:29-30). It’s inherently good. You’re consuming energy and oxygen as you read this – you can’t escape being a consumer. Sure, consumerism can be corrupted. But that’s a disruption of God’s good design. It’s the same with capitalism and free market economics. The word economy comes from the Greek word oikonomos, which means “one who manages a household” and is affirmed throughout the Bible.3
The early American colonists understood this. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut are often called the “first written constitution of modern democracy.” They were drafted in May 1638, in response to a sermon by Thomas Hooker before the general assembly in Hartford. Hooker cited the biblical passage, “Take ye wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you” (Deut. 1:13).4 Our democratic capitalism is rooted in scriptural soil. From this rich loam, our free market economy blossomed, writes Michael Novak, a George Frederick Jewett Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak rightly describes capitalism as a trinity of systems in one – an economy based predominantly on markets and incentives, a democratic polity, and a moral-cultural system based in the Judeo-Christian tradition.5
So why aren’t the virtues of capitalism and consumerism preached from the pulpit? Dinesh D’Souza, named one of the country’s top public-policy makers by Investor’s Business Daily, says too many Christians see the stock market as secular and souls as spiritual. “Most Christians have retreated into a Christian subculture where they engage Christian concerns. There is religious truth, reserved for Sundays and days of worship, and there is secular truth, which applies the rest of the time.”6 The good news is that a handful of Christians have long held to a more positive view of capitalism, such as Pope John Paul II. In Centesimus Annus, 42, the Pope asked whether, after the failure of communism, capitalism should be the goal of rebuilding countries.
The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production as well as free creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy,” or simply “free economy.”
The pope is right, free markets help us figure out the order of our loves. Gulp. The financial collapse of so many institutions indicates that many of us love the wrong things in the wrong order. That’s tough love. Lesslie Newbigin proposed an antidote to avarice 30 years ago: “The ideology of the free market has proved itself more powerful than Marxism. It is, of course, not just a way of arranging economic affairs. It has deep roots in the human soul. It can be met and mastered only at the level of religious faith… The churches have hardly begun to recognize that this is probably their most urgent missionary task during the coming century.”7 A missionary in India for four decades, Newbigin recognized a world of free markets emerging. Since ordering our loves is humanity’s highest quest, Newbigin saw that tying markets to morality would become the church’s most urgent missionary task in the 21st century. Rather prescient, wouldn’t you say? But here’s a better question: Do you imagine our missionary task this way? If more of us did, Christians might lessen the likelihood of future financial collapses.
1 St. Augustine, The Enchiridion §117.
2 St. Augustine, Confessions 13.9.
3 Louis Baeck, The Mediterranean Tradition in Economic Thought (London, UK: Routledge, 1994), p. 55.
4 David Gelernter, “Americanism – and Its Enemies,” Commentary, January 2005.
5 Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
6 Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2007), p. xiv.
7 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 94-95.