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?
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.
Bratt, James. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.) ↩
Bratt 224 ↩
as cited in Bratt 224 ↩
Bratt, 224. ↩
Bratt 225. ↩
Francis, 197. ↩