By Joel McDurmon
There is no doubt that the sin of Adam and Eve was met with a curse from God. Part of that curse came upon the ground, and thus upon our work:
cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground. . . . (Gen. 3:17–19).
Work has become labor, labor makes for sweat, and sweat makes for quitters and cutting corners. Quitting, slacking, and/or cutting corners means some people will produce less than others, and that means we will have to deal with another by-product of the curse: socialists.
Some fields have more thistles than others. You may think that the fields of theology and history are easier to labor in than others, but you have no idea. Thistles here appear constantly in the form of lies, propaganda, myths, inconvenient half-truths, distortions, and fallacies of all kinds. All must be cleared away.
A perfect example of such a patch of intellectual thistle is in a recent article by Prof. Thistlethwaite. Prof. Thistlethwaite is one of the liberal theologians at Chicago Theological Seminary—affiliated with the United Church of Christ, of which the Professor is an ordained pastor.
Her article is a call for higher taxation and socialism, and it is called, “It’s not ‘class warfare,’ it’s Christianity.”
Now, a political platform based on fundamental theft (taking money from some earners and giving to others) does not sound like “Christianity” to most folks. Understood. But we’re talking about more enlightened Christianity with these folks. We’re talking about a top-tier liberal seminary where they teach courses like, “Bible and Homosexuality: A reconsideration of the Bible and biblical interpretation from the standpoint of gay and lesbian experience,” and “New Horizons in Queer Sexual Ethics: Course will explore questions of sexual ethics raised by pornography, pederasty, prostitution and other boundary situations using the resources of gay and queer theory.”
Well, perhaps you don’t have the stomach for Bible lessons in pederasty or lesbian experience. So Prof. Thistlethwaite herself teaches more subdued themes: “Skill building for interfaith partnerships,” and ways in which “diversity has shaped American culture and identity.” She has, however, added her own voice to the defense of sodomy: arguing that no one should be allowed to refuse service to sodomites, not even in “a completely contractual and voluntary arrangement to provide food services,” not even based on religious convictions (let alone plain disgust). Rather, all businesses should be forced to work for LGBTs upon request. To allow businesses religious and economic freedom otherwise, she argues, is “just catering to bigotry instead.” And she believes her opinion should be enforced by law.
(Note to Prof. Thistlethwaite: when the government forces you to engage in business with someone you would rather not, it’s no longer a “voluntary arrangement.” It’s servitude.)
This idea of the government having the power to force individuals to act against basic religious truths and economic freedoms also appears in Prof. Thistlethwaite’s essay in question, “It’s not ‘class warfare,’ it’s Christianity.” Indeed, as we shall see, it’s more servitude to a leftist State in the name of “Christianity.”
In a rejoinder to the Republican outcry of “Class warfare!” against Obama’s proposed “taxes on the wealthy,” Prof. Thistlethwaite argues that “Americans sharing more equally in the burden of pulling our country out of massive debt, and using tax revenue to stimulate the economy and create jobs isn’t ‘class warfare,’ it’s actually Christianity.”
Aside from the question of how we got the massive debt to begin with (leftist government programs and wars), there is something of note here. “More equally” is an interesting phrase, recalling Snowball’s dictum, “Some animals are more equal than others.” If by “more equally” she means “same percentage,” then it is indeed quite Christian. But then she would also have no objection to lowering taxes on the rich who already pay a higher percentage in our unbiblical, un-Christian graduated tax system. I don’t think this is what she means.
If, however, by “more equally,” she means “the rich should pay a higher percentage” then No, actually, it’s not Christianity, and it is indeed class warfare. (It is not “equal” either.)
But being without a biblical theology of taxation, however, she must rely on fallacies, epithets, poor associations, and misrepresentations of free market economics—in other words, basic liberal political journalism. Pursuing this agenda, she attacks “Christian capitalism” not just as flawed or mistaken, but as “completely un-Christian.”
She says Christian capitalism is “ignoring a lot of what the Bible says,” reflects “self interest, not ‘stewardship’,” illustrates “the need of the far right to discredit biblically based anti-poverty political work,” ignores that the early church was definitively “socialist,” and is the uneducated view of “nearly unconscious” believers.
Indeed, she argues that “you have to be nearly unconscious not to realize that ‘Christian capitalism’ is neither good Christianity nor good capitalism.” Based on such harsh words so confidently stated, I would like to address Prof. Thistlethwaite’s two claims in regard to biblical Christianity and free-market capitalism. Think of it as clearing the cursed Thistle from the fields of theology and economics.
Prof. Thistlewaite argues that Christian capitalism is not “Christian” at all, but “completely un-Christian.” She says,
It’s not “Christian” because it ignores the central teachings of Jesus on the moral imperative of taking care of the poor in the Sermon on the Mount, and it dismisses the actual economic practice of the disciples as described in the Book of Acts.
In regard to these two things—the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Acts—she could not be more misguided.
First, the Sermon on the Mount gives absolutely no “moral imperative” about “taking care of the poor.” It in fact says nothing about the subject of material care of the poor. Go ahead, read Matthew 5–7 for yourself. Nothing. This is not to say that Jesus did not instruct us to care for the poor at all, but it does not appear here where our Professor of Theology confidently points.
The Sermon does talk of the “poor in spirit,” but this is hardly to be understood economically. It also speaks of lending freely: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matt. 6:42; see also Luke 6:30, 35). This, however, does not necessarily specify only the poor or the proper economic system for best taking care of the poor. Most importantly, it certainly does not prescribe a system of wealth-transfer or taxation to be enforced by civil government.
Jesus does, however, prescribe some government coercion in respect to some economic law in that Sermon on the Mount: He calls for the enforcement of contracts against those who (having freely borrowed) refuse to pay their debts:
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny (Matt. 5:25–26).
Granted, Jesus does spend time in the Sermon warning against the dangers of wealth, but this hardly means that wealth in itself is sinful or should be taxed, and certain does not mean that bureaucrats and liberal professors of theology should be in control of “regulating” capital.
Besides, Jesus also spends a lot of time in that Sermon warning against dishonesty, pride, accepting accolades, and sexual immorality—all things liberal professors of theology should spend more time on before assuming the position to lecture the “public square” on economic theory.
From her botched appeal to the Sermon on the Mount, Prof. Thistlethwaite moves on to the “money quote”—the ultimate proof-text for closet-marxists: Acts 4:32–35 (well, actually, Jim Wallis claims to have 2,000 such proof-texts). It says,
“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Now see there—“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”—right there in the Bible. Here we can clearly see the abolition or private property and the equitable distribution to all men. From this the Professor says the early church was clearly and plainly “socialist.”
Except, it wasn’t. As most liberals who quote this verse do, our Professor is confusing private charity with government coercion. Socialism is the use of government force to redistribute wealth. The early church was clearly practicing voluntary charity. They were not running to the Sanhedrin, Herod, or Caesar to establish higher taxes—although it might readily have been accepted.
The voluntary nature of the giving is clear from the proceeding verses which Prof. Thistlethwaite ignores and probably assumes her liberal followers will not read either (a safe assumption). How does the story continue? When one guy (Ananias) sells his property and gives only part of it to the apostles (pretending, we assume, he had given all), the Holy Spirit condemns him to death (!)—but for lying, not for keeping part for himself. In the midst of this whole context of selling property and giving in common, the Apostle Peter upholds the law of private property: “Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” (Acts. 5:4). Note: the property was legally his before he sold it, and the money was legally his after the sale. There is no state-ownership here, no community ownership here, and there is no government-enforced redistribution here. In short, there is no Socialism here.
Besides, we know why they had no hesitance in selling “lands or houses” especially, as I have explained before: because Jesus had just predicted the soon destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 24; Luke 21), and had taught the disciples to be ready to get out of town quickly (Luke 12:35–40). They knew there was no sense in maintaining their property in Jerusalem for very much longer, as the city would be destroyed and abandoned. See my book Jesus v. Jerusalem, a partial commentary on Luke, for fuller discussion of this.
So you can see that while the Bible does indeed address poverty and wealth in many areas, it hardly supports the radical leftist agenda or claims of people like Prof. Thistlethwaite. Conservatives like me do not ignore these passages of Scripture, we just understand them for what they really teach. Sure, they teach that we should not hoard wealth for self-indulgence, that we should give liberally to those in need and to other good charitable causes—we understand all of this and embrace it. In fact, we have written much more in trying to advance these teachings than any liberal ever thought of doing.
In fact, as Arthur Brooks demonstrated a few years back in his book Who Really Cares?, conservatives by far, in every way, by every conceivable means of measuring, do most of the charitable giving worldwide.
It is the liberals who ignore these passages (while quoting them!) and depart from their teachings. Instead of private charity, they desire to tax wealth, and take property from some people to give to others they approve of. And they wish to enforce their idea of material equality on all of society by the force of government arms.
That’s not Christianity, it’s actually armed robbery.
Next, Prof. Thistlethwaite argues that “Christian capitalism” is also “lousy capitalism,” because, “The capitalist system relies on self-interest, not ‘stewardship’ to actually run.”
First, this is a false dichotomy. There is no necessary and exclusive choice to be made between self-interest and stewardship. It is, in fact, in everyone’s self-interest to be good stewards of their resources. Indeed, it is in every business’s self-interest to have good stewards in charge of their operations and resources. Good stewardship is always good self-interest (though not necessarily vice-versa).
Second, her refutation of “stewardship” in capitalism is disingenuous. Why did this idea of “stewardship” (in quotation marks) even enter the professor’s article out of the blue like this (it appears nowhere else in the article)? It came in response to a video to which she linked, which explained free-markets as the Christian view of economics. This video is a product of Summit Ministries—good solid stuff. Prof. Thistlethwaite linked to it saying it teaches that “unregulated capitalism, with all its inherent inequalities of wealth, is God’s plan.” Now, watch it for yourself. . . .
Did you even once here the word “unregulated”? Not once. What you did hear was the biblical teaching of private property and a proper work ethic, as well as proper stewardship of the fruits of our labors. Here’s what you heard:
“God grants people private ownership of his creation. But people are accountable to Him for the way they use their property. Because of this, Christians have a duty to use their property wisely. Property is not intended to merely be hoarded, or to be taken away. Rather, under the direction of God, humans are to work, be rewarded for their work, enjoy these rewards, and serve others as well.”
In other words, God prescribes how work and wealth should be regulated.
It’s not that Christian capitalists want an “unregulated” market; it’s simply a question of who does the regulating. Christian capitalists agree with the Bible—that God places regulations on us, and we are accountable to Him. He does not authorize the State to use coercion to alter otherwise free markets in favor of either the rich or the poor. God provides the regulations. For Thistlethwaite, however, leftist bureaucrats should provide the regulations and we should be accountable to leftist bureaucrats and professors.
This is what bothers them most of all: they can’t stand being reminded they’re not God. They can’t stand not having the power and control God keeps for Himself.
For liberal professors of theology, God cannot be trusted to regulate things. In fact, if leftists like themselves are not the ones doing the regulating, then they think the market is de facto not regulated at all. It shows they don’t really believe God is in control of things. This is the atheism at the root of leftist economics and “theology.”
Likewise, she is exercised over the video’s endorsement of capitalism “with all its inherent inequalities of wealth.” Again, this is a distorted view. The video actually promotes the Christian doctrine that an inequality of productivity will properly result in an inequality of reward—and who thinks that’s unfair? “If a man will not work, he will not eat” (2 Tim. 3:10). It is not only acceptable but praiseworthy to endorse “economic inequality” in such cases—it’s simple justice.
What would be unfair and unjust would be to have an inequality of legal force. This is when all of the guns of government are pointed at one group of people engaged in peaceful exchange and who have no coercive recourse in return. This is when some men are more productive than others and naturally earn more than others, but the less productive, less rich (aided by liberal Professors of Theology) use the force of arms under cover of legality to take what they did not earn and don’t deserve from those who do. With such a show of force and redistribution of unearned and undeserved wealth, you can derive a temporary appearance of equality of property by means of an inequality of force.
The problems here are that such material equality comes at the expense of simple justice, and it can only last so long. Those productive guys will quickly tire of working extra-hard only to be robbed by the government, and they will quit working extra hard. Soon, all of those people who produced all of the excess wealth to begin with will have slacked off. There will be no abundance. So the leftists will have driven us to equality alright—an equality of zero for everyone. Instead of rich and poor, everyone will be poor, and thus equal.
Poverty is not eliminated by making the rich poorer. It can only even have a chance to be solved by allowing the rich to be rich, and encouraging by every means possible greater production from everyone. This must be coupled with the legal protection to keep the fruits of one’s labor and use them according to one’s own accountability before God.
In fact, the very video which Thistlethwaite intends to criticize ends with a clear announcement of accountability before God and concern for the poor:
The biblical worldview calls not only for the right to private property, but for people to be good stewards of their property. It also teaches that people should use their property to serve God and others. This view of economics is the best way in which to create wealth and opportunity for the poor.
Does this sound to you like the promotion of “unregulated” and “unfettered” capitalism?
Third, Prof. Thistlethwaite is not content merely with smearing conservative theologians on economics. She aims for the jugular vein of classical free-market theory itself—Adam Smith. This is where her attack on the cannons of “self-interest” enters the assault.
She quotes Smith as promoting a society based purely on “self-interest”:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the bakers that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own 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 advantage.”
From this, she concludes, “Capitalism isn’t ‘God’s Plan,’ it’s an economic system that runs on the human desire for more, our own self-interest,” and for this reason, capitalism “is not beneficent” and “needs to be regulated so it does not wreck the whole ship with unfettered greed.”
In other words, by “self-interest” she understands “unfettered greed” and “desire for more,” and for this reason we should not have free markets. But is this even what Smith meant by “self-interest”?
Indeed, this turns out to be a classic case of “Never trust a liberal with a sound-bite.” Not for a long time have I seen a quotation so badly divorced from the meaning of its context as this one.
Here’s the full context, in which Adams Smith was speaking of the inherent propensity of people to trade—that is, mutually beneficent exchange of goods. Read the whole context (I have italicized the excerpt):
“It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts. Two greyhounds, in running down the same hare, have sometimes the appearance of acting in some sort of concert. Each turns her towards his companion, or endeavors to intercept her when his companion turns her towards himself. This, however, is not the effect of any contract, but of the accidental concurrence of their passions in the same object at that particular time. Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that. When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favor of those whose service it requires. A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavors by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavors by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will. He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilized society he stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. 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 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. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely. The charity of well-disposed people, indeed, supplies him with the whole fund of his subsistence. But though this principle ultimately provides him with all the necessaries of life which he has occasion for, it neither does nor can provide him with them as he has occasion for them. The greater part of his occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase. With the money which one man gives him he purchases food. The old clothes which another bestows upon him he exchanges for other old clothes which suit him better, or for lodging, or for food, or for money, with which he can buy either food, clothes, or lodging, as he has occasion.”
Reading the context changes the meaning considerably from what Dr. Thistlethwaite implies. With her selective editing, she has cut out only that part that serves her own political self-interest. Indeed, she is no benevolent butcher herself!
This is not to say that we must accept Smith’s philosophy completely, but it does show that far from a greed-fueled, “economic system that runs on the human desire for more,” Smith’s division of labor is about mankind’s vast dependence upon fellow man’s productivity and mutually-beneficial trade in order to meet common self-interests that we all share—food, shelter, clothing. It is about the need to work and trade in order to earn one’s way in that vast interdependent multitude, rather than try to live purely on the hard work and handouts of others.
Now that makes quite a difference, doesn’t it? It makes quite a difference whether the self-interest is wrongly defined as “unfettered greed,” or rather represents the need for labor and cooperation in order to meet basic human needs.
It makes a difference when the strike is not against “benevolence” itself or even the giving of it, but against those who expect to live purely on the benevolence of others. Paul condemns this: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. . . . But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load” (Gal. 6:2–5).
It makes a difference when we understand that we must consider and cooperate with the self-interests of others rather than demand that wealth be transferred from others to ourselves by legalized force. If there’s anything greedily self-interested, it’s the socialist’s expectation of receiving handouts confiscated from the labor of others in order to satiate his own appetites. If there’s anything “completely un-Christian,” it’s that.
Apparently, however, Dr. Thistlethwaite does not believe in considering other’s needs, cooperation, and voluntary exchange. She believes the butcher, brewer, and baker should be forced by law to give up the fruits of their own labor based on the demands of other voters and the “regulations” of bureaucracts (and liberal seminary professors). This puts the wealth and productivity of all of society in jeopardy:
I’ll take “Basic Economics” for $200, Alex.
“Being forced to give up the fruit of one’s own labor to someone else’s rule.”
“What is ‘slavery’?”
“Yes! You are correct.”
Perhaps Dr. Thistlethwaite can be excused for missing Adams’ context here. Perhaps she simply copy-clipped the Smith quotation from someone else or from some website. It is, after all, a fairly widely used quotation. I honestly don’t think she has read the whole context. If this is correct, then she is guilty of pretend scholarship—something for which she should be called to account by her liberal academic peers, but will not be.
If she did read the context, however, then she has misrepresented it for some reason. If through a lack of understanding it then she should not have published on the subject to begin with. Perhaps it is just a mistake: then she should revise it. If she did understand it, then she can only be guilty of deliberate distortion. For this she would be culpable of false witness, but would probably instead receive an honorary degree from another liberal seminary.
What is clear is that she has little grasp at all of what a free market actually is. She thinks that the whole 2008 banking crisis should be laid at the feet of the “unfettered greed” of unregulated capitalism. In fact, government regulation was the problem. It was the government-regulated Federal Reserve system that created the malinvestment which led to the collapse. And it was the massive response of government regulation since then that has tried to cover the problem in behalf of the Banks, indebted us trillions further, and led us to the precipice of yet another collapse. How much more regulation can we handle?
No, it was not the consequence of Christian capitalism and free markets. America has never had such a thing. Christian capitalism remains yet untried.
Well, there you have it: we have cleared the Thistles from the meadow. I will now go eat the fruit of my own labor in the sweat of my brow—but only after exchanging it to help meet someone else’s self-interest as well. Please consider your fellow man today, too, and become a Christian capitalist. It’s the only way to honor God’s commandments, loving God and man together.
When greater productivity is rewarded with greater wealth, you have justice. When greater productivity is rewarded with confiscation, you have theft. When an economic system is founded on justice, we call it capitalism. When an economic system is founded on theft, we call it socialism.
I will have to remain on the side of someone who understood the issue at its theological core. The great Charles Spurgeon said, “I would not have you exchange the gold of individual Christianity for the base metal of Christian Socialism.” Agreed. Would that more theologians thought like that.
(If you think I have not covered all of the Professor’s errors completely, then write her and tell her the rest. She’s a liberal academic who loves “diversity.” I’m sure she would love to hear your viewpoint. Here is her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org)
- “Thistlethwaite” literally means “field of thistles.” [↩]
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, I.II.2. [↩]
Joel McDurmon, M.Div., Reformed Episcopal Theological Seminary, is the Director of Research for American Vision. He has authored four books and also serves as a lecturer and regular contributor to the American Vision website. He joined American Vision’s staff in the June of 2008. Joel and his wife and three sons live in Dallas, Georgia. Among Joel McDurmon’s books; What Would Jesus Drink?, Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice, and God versus Socialism.
Article from americanvision.org