Theological Economics: A Third Way of Viewing Markets

CurrencyToday at Common Sense Concept I offer a bit of commentary on a recent piece by Joe Carter over at First Things (“What the Market Needs to Be Moral”).

Here’s an excerpt from Carter’s article:

While we Christians often form our views on such institutions as marriage and the family from our theology, we acquire our understanding of markets from our politics. If we subscribe to a progressive politics, we adopt the Left’s criticism of markets and support for government control over them. If we subscribe to conservative politics, we embrace the Right’s unquestioning allegiance to unfettered markets.

Here’s an excerpt from my response (or “regurgitation,” if you prefer):

For conservatives and libertarians, this does not mean we should toss our political arguments out the window. This does not mean that the public benefits of market efficiency and specialization should be ignored. Instead, it means that at a fundamental level we must ensure that such views are grounded by and consistent with a theological understanding of the market.

As Christians, what is the overall, high-level purpose of the market? How does God see it in terms of its ideal, supreme usefulness? How does God view the market as a natural, organic feature of individual humanity and community interaction? Once we begin to ask these questions and understand the answers, we will be able to more effectively return to our contemplations of how the market can be leveraged as an institution geared toward promoting Christian morality.

Read my full response here.

Image provided by jeffweese.

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  • Remnant Culture

    How do we think about markets theologically? I respond to @JoeCarter888's recent piece on markets & morality.

  • Guy Fawkes

    Markets can be neither moral nor Christian. People can be moral or not, Christian or not. What is taking place in the capital markets today is an outworking of an addiction to money. The people who run the big investment banks along with the governmental and quasi-governmental officials are addicted to money and – as addicts – are doing everything possible to feed their habit. As anyone who has ever loved an addict will tell you, they will use your morality as a weapon against you. The Too-Big-Too-Fail banks need to be allowed to fail, their bond-holders need to take a haircut and their equity holders take whatever loss ensues. Fraudulent contracts need to be rolled back and clawbacks need to be initiated and enforced. The addict must be cut off from his support system which means that we all need to stop giving any money to these banks for any reason, (including “paying our debts”). In the case of the TBTF banks, paying debts to them is directly analogous to giving your drug-addicted son free room and board because you feel a moral obligation to care for him.

  • Remnant Culture

    Thanks for the comment. I tend to agree on the “addiction” note, but I think part of it has to do with being spoiled as well (which could be seen as another form of addiction). I actually have a post on our addicted/spoiled mentality at another blog that just went up today:

  • Cody Kimmel

    This is an interesting dialogue (and a great blog). I wonder though if our interest in how the kingdom of God intersects with economic systems should focus on how economics can serve to promote Christian morals. I guess I just don't believe God's end goal is for us to be moral so much as it is for us to be worshipers. Obviously, we want our economic system to promote morality, but that is not the ultimate Missio Dei. What can we be doing with our economics to proclaim the gospel to those who haven't heard about him? Does cut throat capitalism and its effect on Africa and Southeast Asia really share Jesus' love to those places? Is exploitation any less antithetical to the gospel if it is done legally and in the spirit of economics?

    I guess what I'm saying is that it doesn't seem enough to desire an economy that promotes morality, but rather economic decisions that lead to salvation.

  • Remnant Culture

    I agree that “morality” is not necessarily the ultimate goal: the Gospel is. I'm glad you pointed it out because it is left a bit unspoken in this piece, particularly because I don't really think any kind of ideal morality is achievable in the first place (at a cultural, society-wide level) if individuals on the ground aren't transformed and renewed by Christ.

    As far as what we can be doing with our economic systems to proclaim the Gospel, I would argue that globalization and capitalism are key in enabling us to do, partly because they lead to ever-increasing amounts of freedom, and partly because the products of freedom lead to greater *earthly* empowerment for the church.

    We may, however, disagree on what “exploitation” consists of. In most cases, globalization and widespread free trade can *only* be a net benefit to individuals in those countries — regardless of how grim their realities may be afterward. In most cases, if employees are taking jobs freely, the assumption is that any of their other options would be a greater degree of exploitation. If we look at places like South Korea or Hong Kong, much of what many would have called “exploitation” in their impoverished years served as the foundation for better things — teaching people new skills, empowering them and educating them in various industries, leading to greater foreign investment, etc. Certainly what I'm arguing is on the macro level, but even if we look at individual cases in capitalism where certain countries do “legal” yet immoral things, I'm not convinced that doing the moral (or Christian) thing would necessarily benefit the spreading of the Gospel either. I don't see economic systems promoting the Gospel in the economics themselves as much as I do in utilizing the fruits of economic innovation as leverage.

    In the end, I think economic systems may be *beneficial* in our quest for spreading the Gospel, but as with all things, everything comes down to the individuals involved. We could have the freest, most prosperous, most accessible and interconnected global society in the world, but if the Church is failing to utilize the tools available we might even be *worse* off than if we chose to actually do the Christian thing in a tyrannical, impoverished society.

    Therefore, I would argue we need parallel growth. The freer and more prosperous the society, the more challenging it is to stand up and stick your neck out for the sake of the Gospel. But if we are able to grow simultaneously in both areas, the products of our freedom *may* be able to highly improve our earthly ability to execute our heavenly callings.

    Thanks for the comments and I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I checked out yours and it looks pretty swell as well. Cheers.

  • Cody Kimmel

    Joseph, I guess it is unfair for me to just write off the stuff going on in Africa as a result of economics as purely exploitative. The issue is far more complicated than that. I do agree that on the macro-level, at least the hopeful result of capitalism is greater freedom, the hard question we ask is how do we as Christians think on the macro-level without sacrificing justice on the micro-level, which is difficult.