All the Beautiful Parts of Capitalism

by on November 29th, 2007

There are six billion people in the world, three billion live on less than $2 dollars a day, 800 million people will not eat today, and 300 million in Africa alone do not have drinking water. So we as Americans are six percent of the population yet we consume 40 to 50 percent of the resources. We are the upper, upper, rich elite. And our way is taking over the world. So we have to first ask the question—how can we take all this wealth and give it away? All the technology and beautiful parts of capitalism and bless the world and the poor—or else we’re in deep trouble.

That’s a quote from the creepy man in the horn rim glasses. No I don’t mean the guy from the show “Heroes”, I mean emerging church guru Rob Bell. The quote is from the interview “Rob Bell on Sex, God, and Sex Gods” in the November 14 issue of the Wittenburg Door.

I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot. As far as I know, Bell is right. In one of his short film’s called “Rich,” Bell says something like whatever kind of car you drive, you are rich by the world’s standards. Bell’s right. I am rich. I have two cars (both with over 160,000 miles) and I’ve never missed a meal I didn’t want to. Bell goes on to ask a question: “How can we take all this wealth and give it away? All the technology and beautiful parts of capitalism and bless the world and the poor?” Good question. There are poor people. We (American Christians) have a lot. How do we bless them? Rob says if we don’t ask this question we are in deep trouble because:

the scripture always bends towards the oppressed and the marginalized. Beginning in the Torah—take care of the widow, the orphan, the stranger among you. The story is written by oppressed minorities. And it continues, no room in the inn, they follow Jesus because they are hungry. The story always goes towards the underside of the Empire. I think it is sometimes hard for the American church to understand the Bible because we are the Empire..

Jesus wants us to take care of the poor. And we’d better do it. This seems right as well. How do we channel our wealth to help the poor? Thanks Rob for giving us the question. Let’s think through it. The answer of course is easy. Christians must engage in a war on poverty! Not just poverty but the underlying social conditions that accompany and feed off of poverty like . . . AIDS. AIDS is awful. It’s the plague of the 21st century. Poverty and AIDS, and . . . drugs. Yes drugs often cause AIDS . . . and homelessness, yeah. Homeless people, that shouldn’t happen in any country. Especially Africa. Africa is really bad. You get the trifecta in Africa: Poverty, Homeless, and AIDS. So we really need to help Africa. But how? How do we give away our wealth to help Africa. Well, each of us could send money to World Vision that would help. World Vision gives money to African people for food and . . . clothing. I know we can send our shirts to African people. Yes, let’s put together a clothing drive and send them our clothes. And didn’t I hear something about Bono. Yeah he’s got a Christian worldview . . . sort of. He says we should get everyone to forgive Africa’s debt to the West. That will reduce poverty when these African countries don’t have to repay the rich West. Yeah. That will help. But I can’t make Congress do that. I can’t even make them put prayer in schools. But what I can do is vote and get others to vote. Yeah. Now I see it Lord. I’ll elect officials with the same desires to help the poor as I do. Maybe I’ll invite them to come to my church. Oh I feel a spiritual burden coming on! We’ll have a conference about AIDS in Africa and raise a lot of money and have politicians (let’s call them statesmen) come speak about what they want to do about poverty, and AIDS and drugs and homelessness. Then, and only then will the church be doing what Christ asked us to do, wipe out poverty. Yeah, then we’ll fulfill the mandate to take care of the widow and orphan and stranger among us.

Wait! Time Out! If we can “wipe out poverty” wouldn’t that mean that Jesus is a false prophet? After all He did say that we will always have the poor with us (Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8)? On the other hand, if He was God incarnate than what He said is true and we will not be able to “wipe out poverty.” Another question I have, is “wipe out poverty” the same as “take care of the widow, orphan, and stranger among you?”

Okay enough tongue and cheek satire and imaginary conversations. What’s my point? If you thought all of the above inner dialogue was motivated by the right intentions you would be right. If you thought all of these options would help the poor especially in Africa, you would be wrong. But you would also be in accord with a new wave sweeping through Christendom. I call it the rise of the Evangelical left. It’s the Social Gospel of the 19th century on steroids with a rock sound track and hair gel.

Briefly here’s my take on the origins of the Evangelical left: Christian Socialism in the 19th century dies out because of its association (partly justified) with Communism. The Evangelical right steps into the void and finds its greatest spokesmen in Jerry Falwell. And partly because any movement has fatigue after at least 30 years and partly because politics makes for strange bedfellows (and Washington has some of the strangest) the Evangelical Right falls on hard times. Jerry Falwell dies, and the Christian American undecided look around and notice that while Evangelicalism is as strong as ever, we still have all of this poverty and homelessness, and AIDS—especially in Africa. Enter a whole new group of spokesmen from Brian McClaren to Jim Wallis. Christians have lost their focus, they say. Government shouldn’t be used to legislate morality! It should be used to legislate justice! And Evangelicals had a whole new set of bedfellows—social activists and sometimes, just Socialists. Like the Areopagites, (Act 17) we just love something new; and after all Jesus said take care of the poor. So what could be wrong with all my above thinking? If one person can give money or help the poor, wouldn’t using the power of government be a better and more efficient use of our time, talent, and treasure? As it turns out, No.

I don’t have the space to outline what’s wrong the entire Evangelical left’s good intentions and bad thinking. This is a blog not a full-fledged article or book even which leaves me feeling a little like a rabbi at his first bris “What to cut, how much to cut, and what to leave in tact?” But I have to start somewhere so let’s just take one example: Africa. Turns out that sending our old clothes to Africans—not such a good idea. Consider that in Kenya textiles is a struggling industry for poor Kenyans. What happens when we flood the Kenyan market with our old clothes? We take away demand for clothes and we take away jobs from Kenyans who are trying to get out of poverty and who have asked us to Stop Sending Us Your Used Clothes . And this plea didn’t come from some greedy Kenyan capitalist but rather a group of Kenyan pastors in response to the questions “What message can we take to Christian pastors back in the U.S. ?”

Want another example of good intentions wed to bad economic thinking? How about forgiving third world debt as Bono wants to do? I came across the article Africans to Bono: ‘For God’s sake please stop!’ that made me rethink that idea.

It seems a lot of Africans would kindly like Bono and every other Hollywood do-gooder to please stop calling for aid to Africa–and for those who are religious, “For the love of God please stop.” The reason is that pouring money into Africa and forgiving third world debt doesn’t help the poor. Listen to Kenyan Economist James Shikwati:

Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. . . Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need.

Throwing money at Africa doesn’t help. Helping Africans develop an economy does. As much was said to Bono: at a conference celebrating African ingenuity and entrepreneurs, where Bono had the arrogance to lecture Africans on the benefits of massive aid for eliminating poverty! Good intentions married to bad economics.

And that’s my point. Rob Bell is right. We do need to ask the question: “How can American Christians fulfill our mandate to take care of the widow, orphan and stranger in the spirit of Jesus?” And we had better consider how that mandate squares with the elimination of poverty as a political issue. I think we would all agree that we are commanded to be good stewards with our resources. Scripture asks us to give to the poor in a way that doesn’t violate our duties to our own family—or we are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:8)—and so we have limited (though admittedly abundant) funds to help others and like any scarce resource, allocation of those funds in a wise way involves taking into account principles of economics. And that means thinking about economics from a Christian worldview instead of merely jumping to conclusions like my earlier inner dialogue.

Look, economics is like any other discipline subject to worldview. In 2 Corinthians 10:5 Paul says that “we are taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ” while many take this verse as a caution about controlling what we think about, not allowing lustful or “stinkin’ thinkin” to get in our heads, the context suggests that Paul is talking about examining every sort of idea and philosophy and dragging it like a Roman captive to the seat of the eternal ruler and letting Him pass judgment. That includes the economics of Evangelical Christian Social Justice. Africa proves that it is possible to have good intentions and lousy economics and in the process undermine the very mandate of helping the poor among us.

You hear a lot about worldview on this blog. You hear a lot about how ideas have consequences and the church must be diligent to examine ideas before we accept them. Well, this is no less is true with economic theories. I’m afraid that the Church must once again do some thinking about the ideas in our culture and one area we have sadly neglected is economics. To be blunt we’ve simply assumed what seems intuitively plausible: the term “Capitalism” goes with the phrase “compassion for the poor” about as well as the term “Brittney Spears” goes with the phrase “moral fortitude.” The problem is that the people telling us “Capitalism is bad” are often Socialists and Socialism is an idea just like Capitalism. And we have failed as a Church to take both of these ideas captive and examine them in the light of Christ. Instead, we’ve just watched Rick Warren conduct AIDS conferences with Barak Obama and let Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis make us feel bad. It turns out that we may swallow a Socialist camel in our war against the gnats of poverty, AIDS, and Homelessness.

And no less than Rob Bell gives us a clue as to how to think about helping the poor correctly:

I was in Rwanda—essentially you take someone in poverty and give them [sic] a couple of bucks so they can start a business. We met a woman who started a business, built a house, fed her family and her business was now self-sustaining and growing—on a $40 dollar loan. A Western church gave this woman forty bucks and look what she’s done. Economically speaking, that’s one of the hopes of the world right now . . . working with ground churches and trying things that could help save our world. I was hiking through these slums in Nairobi where people are dying of AIDS and it’s the Church figuring out how to give them medication, how to prevent and educate, to help give people an honorable death. The Church is on the front line.

Even though Bell is one of the bigger luminaries in the emerging church this is an area where “his truth” has diverged from most of the emerging church in this area and the above quote is what Bell means by the beautiful parts of economic capitalism. Work with churches on the ground instead of trying to change the politics of a nation. Why? Because Africans know more about their situation than you or I (or yes even the good people at World Vision) and definitely more that Brian McLaren, Bono and Rick Warren combined. Help Africans create their own livelihood. Deal with AIDS by finding ways to privately support medication and prevention. Above all, don’t rely on government (or the world bank) to provide justice, because government usually does it poorly, at a higher cost, and without a Christian worldview.

Support Africans with free trade and grants to encourage entrepreneurs like the recent winner of the African Technology Entertainment and Design conference where Bono lectured Africans. While Bono didn’t get applause, a 12 year old who made a windmill out of plastic scraps and bicycle parts providing electricity to his entire house was the showstopper at the conference. What if some churches helped take his design and built windmills for whole villages and while they were there, when some dear African asked “why are you doing this?” We could say, because the Bible tells us so. The beautiful parts of capitalism indeed.

4 responses to “All the Beautiful Parts of Capitalism ”

  1. Shane Burns says:

    Good post,

    Do you know of any organizations that I could support that is providing aid using a solid Christian world view?

  2. Jonathan Miles says:

    Shane,
    A good place to start is Acton.org for getting a handle on good sound principles, but the point of course is that alot what it is going to take is not large organizations funneling money from donors but feet on the ground. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” in the form of sound godly economic wisdom as well as the story of the gospel.

  3. Jonathan Miles says:

    Shane,
    also I like Rob Bell’s idea. See if your church can partner with an actual African church and provide micro-financing for families in particular villages.

  4. Joshua says:

    As long as we hold to the concept of ‘money’, we will never be true Christians. The first Christians ‘held everything in common’. They each received, from the Church leaders, exactly what they needed- no more, no less. A system of Church controlled distributism and barter is needed, not capitalism or socialism. Despite what both socialists and capitalists will tell you in order to perpetuate their faulty, Godless systems, most people, if they have shelter, food and clothing, will do what they love and enjoy. People who love cars will work on cars, people who love cleanliness will clean houses, people who love computers will program or repair them. Wage slavery forces people to do things that they hate, because if they do not, they will have no shelter, food or clothing. I often look to Star Trek- yes, Star Trek- for an idea of the perfect society. There is no money. Everyone is happy because everyone does the work they love and are best at. Society benefits because people put their hearts into what they do, not for a wage, but for nothing less than the benefit of all mankind. It is a higher way of doing things. Wages make us animals, and just as Christians should never be socialists, they should seek to never be capitalists, either. Just like Democrats and Republicans, the two are just different sides of the same greedy coin. Let’s melt down the coin and make something useful.

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