Market Capitalism and Caring for “the Least of These”

December 18, 2014

Earlier this year Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, received a lot of attention from the mass media, so I decided to read it. I googled it, expecting a document of 10 or 12 pages; I found instead a document of over 200 pages. But I started reading it and my spirits were immediately lifted by the exuberance of the opening pages. “The gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross constantly invites us to rejoice,” writes the Pope, and then goes on for several pages in a great summarizing hymn of biblical passages that call us to joy.

Certainly, the joy of the gospel about which Pope Francis speaks so eloquently in his apostolic exhortation comes from living one’s life in Christ. And a most significant part of that life of joy comes in loving our neighbor, especially that neighbor who is one of the least that Christ talks of in Matthew 25 with such compassion. How we can best love and serve that neighbor is not always easy to determine in our modern economy but a look at the Pope’s discussion of the social dimensions of the gospel, especially his emphasis on the workings of the free market and its exploitation of the poor, might give us some direction.

In sections 54 of The Joy of the Gospel he writes:

. . . some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. . . . To sustain a life style that excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for the selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. . . . We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor. . . .The culture of prosperity deadens us.1

As I read this I was reminded of what I had just been reading in James Bratt’s biography of Abraham Kuyper.2 Kuyper, for those who don’t know him, was a Dutch theologian and politician during the last several decades of the 19th century who, for a time, served as the Prime Minister of The Netherlands. Bratt writes that Kuyper “denounced Laissez-faire capitalism as inimical to human well-being, material and spiritual; as out of tune with Scripture and contrary to the will of God. . ..3 Kuyper said this economy replaced the spirit of “Christian compassion” with “the egoism of a passionate struggle for possessions.”4

Furthermore, both Kuyper and Francis insist that even though the poor are no better than the rich in God’s eyes, Jesus, as Kuyper puts it, “invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the poor and oppressed.”5 Kuyper calls this idea the “first and foremost” controlling principle of Calvinism where economic issues are concerned.6 Pope Francis writes, “God’s heart has a special place for the poor; so much so that he himself became poor.”7

Well, that’s pretty powerful stuff. But there are theologians who argue that the poor benefit greatly by a capitalistic system. John Schneider, for example, formerly a professor of theology at Calvin College, in his book The Good of Affluence, calls capitalism the “greatest liberating power in human history,” providing an unusually good opportunity “for the expression of true Christian faith and virtue.”8 Catholic philosopher Michael Novak is equally exuberant as he writes about the wonders of Market Capitalism.

Who gets it right in this world where capitalism seems to be the only credible game in town? Francis and Kuyper? Or Schneider and Novak? I don’t know if we can give a definitive answer to that question, but from my perspective, the Pope and Kuyper get it right. If we took a survey of poverty around the world, I suspect we would find it difficult to discern a measurable trickle-down effect from modern capitalism. Certainly statistics on American wealth and poverty indicate that the top 1 or 5 percent are getting wealthier, almost everyone else is getting poorer, and income disparity of astounding proportions is still wretchedly apparent.

What concerns me as a Christian, is the way so many Christians preach Free Market capitalism as if it is a doctrine of the Christian faith. Most Christians I encounter who are in business or banking or business education at the college level or a part of that amorphous group called the Religious Right view the Free Market with benign acceptance. For them, John Schneider and Novak speak with more authority than the Pope or Kuyper.

Are people anywhere engaged in disinterested conversation about this topic? Is it even possible to discuss this subject from an objective perspective?

Dig Deeper

Read more about how Christians can engage the world of business in Brian Hoekstra’s article, “Be Salt and Light.”
Harold Heie shares insights on how Christians can have respectful dialogue on topics we might not necessarily all agree, like this article, in Respectful Conversations as Deep Expression of Love.

About the Author

  1. Pope Francis. The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium (Rome: Word Among Us Press, 2014.)  

  2. Bratt, James. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.)  

  3. Bratt 224 

  4. as cited in Bratt 224 

  5. Bratt, 224. 

  6. Bratt 225. 

  7. Francis, 197. 

  8. Schneider, John. The Good of Affluence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 2‑3. 

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  1. Have you seen Mark Noll’s old essay on Kuyper and Leo XIII? He situates them beautifully in the time of Bryan when the Populist movement was sweeping the midwest driven by farmers fed up with oligarchs and the plummeting price of grain.

    I haven’t heard of Schneider, but naming an economic theory “the greatest liberating power in human history” sounds a bit idolatrous — from a theology professor no less. That quote and your essay remind me of Catholic leftist turned theologian, Terry Eagleton, in a great blast against Richard Dawkins:

    “Jesus, who pace Dawkins did indeed ‘derive his ethics from the Scriptures’ … was a joke of a Messiah. He was a carnivalesque parody of a leader who understood, so it would appear, that any regime not founded on solidarity with frailty and failure is bound to collapse under its own hubris. The symbol of that failure was his crucifixion. In this faith, he was true to the source of life he enigmatically called his Father, who in the guise of the Old Testament Yahweh tells the Hebrews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils. They will know him for what he is, he reminds them, when they see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. You are not allowed to make a fetish or graven image of this God, since the only image of him is human flesh and blood. Salvation for Christianity has to do with caring for the sick and welcoming the immigrant, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not a ‘religious’ affair at all, and demands no special clothing, ritual behaviour or fussiness about diet.”

    1. That’s a really stunning quotation from Eagleton. When he writes “salvation for Christianity has to do with caring for the sick, etc.”, I agree as long as he means that our caring for the sick, and poor, and immigrant is a necessary response to salvation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
      I have been reading Nicholas Wolterstorff on justice in a collection of essays titled “Hearing the Call.” In one of his essays he cites Calvin’s Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6 as follows: “When any one disturbs the whole world by his ambition and avarice, or everywhere commits plunder or oppresses miserable nations–when he distresses the innocent, all cry out, How Long? And this cry, proceeding as it does from the feeling of nature and the dictate of justice, is at length heard by the Lord. For how comes it that all, being touched with weariness, cry out How long? except that they know that this confusion of order is not to be endured? And this feeling, is it not implanted in us by the Lord? It is then the same as though God heard himself, when he hears the cries and groanings of those who cannot bear injustice.”

      It is a “confusion of order and equity” when people are economically oppressed, Calvin seems to be saying, and God himself cries out How long? when it occurs. So then my question continues to be does capitalism as it was practiced in the 19th century or as it is practiced today create this confusion or order and equity? And are “ambition and avarice” at the heart of capitalism?
      Kuyper and Francis think so. John Maynerd Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century, seemed to think so: In 1930, during the economic depression he concluded that the day might not be far off and we might “prefer the good to the useful.” “But beware!” he continued. “The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little while longer still” (as quoted in E. F. Schumacher, “Small Is Beautiful).

      1. You can also take your choice of gospels and epistles and see that caring for the sick, the poor, and the immigrant is necessary to salvation, not the reverse. But in reality it seems more people just do these things because they are necessary. If charitable acts were left only to Christians, where would the world be?

        I do not believe any pope has opposed “capitalism,” and Calvin certainly did not. He was a man who valued maximum profit and efficiency. He was quite radical in supporting usury (the charging and compounding of interest), which is what allows wealth and debt to become capital. Calvin assumed and supported limits on the profit motive and interest, but he left regulation and limits to individuals’ discretion, or indiscretion. He felt no one should see moneylending as a career or calling, but of course many always have. He saw it as an injustice to charge interest to the poor — for them, giving should be all gift — but of course this too has always been rare. He felt charity should be done though the government as a matter of state policy, which was probably the influence of existing practices in Geneva on him, not the reverse.

        Today we decry this as “socialism,” but Calvin was really, unbeknownst to him, opening the floodgates for economic individualism — the new world of homo economicus and alienated labor. A great deal of “primitive accumulation” happened in the Reformation, as Protestants plundered monastic and other church properties that formerly functioned as the public medical and welfare system of the day. Reduced to mere capital, this wealth was often appropriated in the name of holy iconoclasm that would serve to benefit the poor, but frequently it only lined the pockets of the rich. There was quite a lot of disillusionment and handwringing over this in places like England, especially among the Edwardian reformers who had a strong social gospelling message and felt betrayed.

        Ambition, avarice, and violence are at the heart of every person, and given the opportunity most will seize wealth and power without much restraint or regard for the larger societal costs including the stain on their and others’ souls. Such behavior was never celebrated as a virtue by Calvin or Adam Smith, but it came to be accepted as necessary and inevitable. Eventually freedom without responsibility leads inexorably to the vulgar celebration of avarice as a virtue by the likes of Ayn Rand and Gordon Gecko. We are where we are because no one did better, most of all those to whom much was given. The economist Christians least want to hear from is Jesus: avarice is the root of all evil.