Marvin Olasky wrote a short piece in World magazine that I almost glossed over because the content was so predictable. He briefly reviewed two books on development and poverty. One by economists Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz is called From Poverty to Prosperity. Olasky notes that this book extensively expounds on economists’ recent interest in the influence of social institutions on wealth and poverty and yet (quite predictably among economists) more or less ignores the role of human sin. The second book was Power and Poverty by Dewi Hughes, which painfully seems like yet another “trendy evangelical” (apologies to Os Guinness) book which discusses economics without any idea of what are the root causes of wealth and poverty. The quote from Hughes’ book is “Poverty is fundamentally a matter of distribution of the adequate provision that has always been there.” I don’t have a copy of his book, but I have read one interview with and two other profiles of Hughes online to confirm that this appears to be an accurate representation of Hughes’ argument.
Sigh. Here we are again. The same “ships crossing in the night” dialogue between a ) economists who believe either that culture and values are largely irrelevant, or, if they do believe that culture and values matter, seem to want to talk about anything other than human sinfulness, a concept which is at the core of two of the major religions of mankind, and b ) theologians with apparently impeccable theological and compassionate credentials (Hughes works with a Christian aid organization and his book is published by IVP) whose knowledge of economics would get them failed out of most of the economics classes I know about. It reminds me of Paul Collier’s passionate narrative in the Bottom Billion of his trying to find out why a major Christian aid group in Britain was promoting what was economic misinformation on international trade.
The usual reaction to this state of affairs is that if there is a dialogue between economists and theologians on issues of wealth and poverty it probably means that we need either to a ) open the moral sensitivities of the economist who works in a bubble of moral neutrality, or b ) help the theologian from making the worst of economics errors while maintaining his appropriately Christian moral arguments. However, with great presumption I would like to take a different tack here. This post is the first of three that will argue the following: 1 ) The “zero-sum” economic worldview of many Christians (of a variety of political persuasions) is not merely economically deficient, it is at odds with the moral view of both the Old and the New Testament. That is, I am challenging their position on both Christian and economic grounds. 2 ) The “zero-sum” worldview leads to political outcomes that perpetuate rather than cure poverty. Finally, 3 ) What we need from theologians is not just a high-school AP knowledge of economics, but rather a concerted effort to create a Christian theology on poverty in a positive-sum world. I’ll begin today with the first proposition.
What is forbidden points towards what is perfected. Suppose that a theologian argued that all manifestations of sex were sinful. That makes no sense, because why then would there be a Biblical distinction between a picture of love, fidelity, and marriage on the one hand and sexual immorality on the other? Why would we have a commandment against adultery? Why would Jesus honor marriage with the miracle at Cana? Why would he preach on the completion of the commands against adultery through his calls to love and purity of heart? Why would the early church confront its culture with models of chaste love? Obviously, this is because the initial assertion (“all manifestations of sex are sinful”) is incorrect, and Jews and Christians, the Old and the New Testament, provide a picture of human relationships that are whole and within God’s plan. The same point can be said about the creation of wealth. If any attempt by an individual to better his lot or that of his family occurs in the context of a zero-sum world, then all such activity is theft. But if all economic activity is theft, then why do we have two commandments which serve, just as in sexual relationships, to point to the distinctions between sinful abuse and conformance to God’s will? If any economic activity is theft and covetousness, then the human economic condition is not just depraved but depraved without any hope from God and there would be no point for God to say “Thou shalt not steal.” The prohibition against stealing implies that there is a better way to improve one’s lot in life, one that is not stealing. Theologians who insist that there is a fixed pool of wealth and that all that matters is the division of the spoils are not only ignorant of basic economics but they also fail in their duty as theologians to help Christians define modes of economic love in the midst of positive sum economic possibilities. I realize that these are strong words as I type them, but I believe that in whatever small way I am able I need to move this discussion off of the same old parameters.
The Bible is full of good sermon material on wealth creation and just distribution. There’s no indication that the Mosaic law saw all property or economic activity as redistribution or theft. There are actually some quite interesting economic discussions that fit into what I am talking about: the requirements for leaving part of a field un-harvested, the prohibitions against dishonest weights, scales, and boundary markers; the bankruptcy provisions. In the New Testament, Jesus actively shows us some specific examples of the completion of the Law through love: healing on the Sabbath and the restatement of the divorce and adultery codes. How can we transfer these models that Jesus has given us to an economically-relevant context of gains from trade, technological innovation, consumer preferences, and so forth? Finally many of the figures of the early church were involved in trade and/or commerce (e.g. tent-making; trade in purple cloth). How did they model their economic life?
A further problem for theology of economics when growth is possible: the world has fundamentally changed. Theologians may not realize what an astonishing event in human history is the discovery of how to create economic growth. It is an essential parallel to the astonishing rise of the medieval cathedrals over lands that, for hundreds of years, had produced mostly huts and fortifications. Jesus discussed the ordinary aspects of life in his teachings, and they clearly included buying and selling, planting and harvesting, and even some kind of simple investing. Even at this basic level, a Christian theology of a positive sum world is not one that eliminates discussions of justice, but acknowledges exchange and choice. But, no Christian theologian that I know of would talk about healing and ignore the fact that our stock of knowledge about medicine and health is radically different than in Biblical times. A theology of healing needs to incorporate both what Jesus was saying in his healing messages and what know now about medicine. There should be an exact parallel with how we weave Jesus’ message and what we know now, but didn’t know in 30 A.D., about economic betterment. No Christian theologian that I know of would develop a theology of healing that ignored our new knowledge people could be sick for reasons other than the indwelling of demons. I fear that if we cannot have a dialogue about poverty in which it is acknowledged that Paul may be poor for reasons other than that Peter is wealthy, then we may be at an intellectual dead end.