financial oversight The free market is the best way we know to distribute goods and services fairly. When the freedom of the market is taken away efficiency and production are both adversely impacted. I believe in free market capitalism, not because it is overtly biblical but because it is just and because it has lifted the most people out of poverty. Both communism and socialism have failed because they control people in adverse ways that destroy human initiative and responsibility. I have believed this way for a long, long time. In fact, I have believed this way for as long as I have thought about economics and the way societies function best in promoting freedom and the incentive to work and serve.

What I do not believe in is the concept of the market that many in America now defend in our every day debates about the Great Recession. I believe the market has become, for many Americans and for a lot of Christians, a modern “golden calf.” Some people actually worship this concept of the market, so it seems. Some attribute to it divine-like status much like Israel attributed to the “golden calf” a kind of divine quality that would help them serve God and each other. Consider that we trust in the market. We really do. Our corporate responsibility for society, and thus for one another, is replaced now being replaced by loyalty to markets. We elect our leaders based on market plans and advertising campaigns. We regularly misplace our priorities by putting our confidence in hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s and mutual funds. These various financial tools are not inherently wrong but we too easily fall into the trap of seeking a “risk free” system where we put our confidence in man, not in God. When this happens we can even explain what we think will happen in the future based upon market performance in the past and present. Economists have become, for many of us, a new priesthood. We pick the ones we trust and expect life to play fair in the end. It doesn’t. It never has. God will be always be God.

All of this affects the rich and the poor, but especially the poor. I think multitudes of Americans have made the market into a type of idol over the last thirty years of incredible market success. Listen to how we talk about the market. One theologians suggests that we think that it is all-knowing, all-present and all-powerful. Anyone who dares to suggest that the regulation of greed is important is a heretic. And the implications of what greed can do to ordinary people is shouted down by the very folks who have made the market an end to be praised as a god. Listen carefully to the discussion about the economy on the left, but especially listen to it on the right.

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox was correct when he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in March of 1999 that in America we now see “The Market as God.” Cox says that markets change but meaning and purpose in life must always come from somewhere else. Cox wrote: “The Market is not only around us but inside of us, informing our senses and our feelings. There seems to be nowhere left to flee from its untiring quest. Like the Hound of Heaven, it pursues us home from the mall and into the nursery and the bedroom.”

Images But idolatry always has consequences. Our love affair with debt, irresponsible home buying and “we can have it all right now” is literally destroying our society. I have become more and more convinced that many Christians are missing this moment in a big way. We listen to all the praise of the market system and then we want to fix the blame on one problem and be done with it. People on the left blame the economics of Ronald Reagan and his disciples. People on the right blame Congress and the Fannie and Freddie fiasco. Frankly, there is blame for everyone here if you look long enough.

I offer an alternative response. We are all to blame in general, some of us more particularly than others. Investors, home owners, borrowers, lenders, journalists, elected officials, economists, regulators, credit rating agencies and even Christian ministers and ministries who failed to tell people the truth about debt are all responsible in some way. The tragedy is that we all suffer, to varying extents, because we are all in this together and we failed to listen to the truth. But those who suffer the most are the real poor. Most of us know few of these people personally and most of our churches don’t really care. Odd isn’t it? The Bible is filled with a clear message about the poor and how we should be concerned for them. The problem is that most of our conservative churches never preach on the subject and fewer still do anything about it. I wonder if our separation of the races, of ethnic groups, and of the rich and the poor is the real scandal in the church and we are now just beginning to reap what we sowed for decades, even centuries.

Markets will only work well when a society is truly free and truly virtuous. If we lose our personal and collective virtue then we will lose our personal and collective freedom. The markets will break down and scandals will abound. Doesn’t that strike you as exactly what has been happening during the past forty years or more? Ultimately I can’t change anyone but me. I am seeking to listen more intently to what God says and to respond in faith. I would encourage everyone who calls on the name of the Lord to do the same. Take your Bible, if you think I am off my game here, and mark every text you see that has something to say about how the godly should care for the poor and the weak. You may be shocked by what you discover.

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Comments

  1. gregory April 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Very well stated John. You communicate thoughts and ideas in an excellent way, as far as I am concerned.
    Though now characterized as a protestant, I was truly blessed with 12 years of jesuit education, discipline , and personal responsibility. Oh it was harsh at times! But I thank God they taught me to think critically and act responsibly. Especially to the people God clearly has a heart for. The disadvantaged and poor. We are sent as healers to a broken world. But we MUST do NO harm.
    On this mission, and many others, I can partner with any Christ follower regardless of our differences.
    It would be interesting to study a correlation between the decline of this type of education and the decline of virtue in American society.
    I am not shocked as what Scripture has to say. I am shocked and disheartened, at times, by our response or lack thereof. Especially to the people of God. It seems to me a portion of the fullness of faith is to be found in the visible church in how we love one another.

  2. Dennis Hesselbarth April 20, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    John, It seems to me that a biblical discussion of any human system must factor in our sinful nature and our propensity to selfishness. Modern free market capitalists apparently believe that in the give and take of free individuals, greed and power are muted. But people gather together, and their collective efforts produce imbalances. The powerful shape the systems to their own advantage. The poor, powerless, get shoved aside. The whole American governmental system presumes this, diffuses power and creates checks and balances. Why we modern Americans think that somehow capitalism avoids this dynamic is beyond me. What ever happened to depravity?

  3. John H. Armstrong April 21, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Capitalism does not avoid “this dynamic.” It does allow for the freedom that, if and when used responsibly, can/will foster great(er) good. Capitalism without virtue (character) will turn us toward the market as our god and this will ruin us. But other social systems are not truly just either and most do even greater harm since centralized governments will always try to administer or oversee (personal) freedoms. The Roman Empire had a measure of freedom until the Caesars. Greece had it for a time (mostly as an ideal), but in the end the sad history of governments is that they all fail without the balance of human powers (because of human depravity) and civic and personal virtue.

  4. gregory April 21, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    How are we to balance human power? Who will teach and motivate us, American society, toward civic and personal virtue? Who will balance that?

  5. John H. Armstrong April 21, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    When Christians make the kingdom of God their true goal it will begin to happen. Right now we are more concerned to protect America as empire than the kingdom as a present reality over America. America will be better for it if Christians stopped relating God’s design to our government and politics, left and right.

  6. George C April 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Truly free markets certainly leave the most opportunity for personal greed, but they also leave the most room for personal generosity. Other types of markets severely limit the later through less opportunity for wealth (forced generosity is not generosity at all), while adding the factor of of governmental and corporate greed.
    The “flaws” with truly free markets are not with the system being too free(who can really argue with free willed exchanges of goods and services), but with people being too evil.
    Any church that is not teaching a concern for the poor (all kinds of poverty) is not teaching the Gospel, but too many churches are also making the age old mistake of trying to use the force of the government to bring about a kingdom (through forced charity) that is not and cannot be established through force.
    God certainly commands generosity towards the poor in scripture, but doesn’t give us the right to coerce it. He owns all the cattle on a thousand hills and can make food fall from heaven. It seems that the pragmatic problem of the plight of the poor is secondary to us learning true generosity.

  7. John H. Armstrong April 23, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    You should have written this blog George. I could not agree with you more my brother. The alternative to the free market is all bad. But we must have more Christians who act like Christians to really make it work to the very best for as many as possible. I have no sympathy for “government run” solutions to our problems, though government should have a true regulatory role in things like banking, which was lost I fear in the last thirty years. In the end we seem to keep running back to the government to solve problems a free people must resolve by hard work and responsible charity.

  8. keith April 26, 2010 at 12:19 am

    John,
    How are you defining “the market” and “free-market capitalism”? Personally, as someone coming from a rather free-market orientation, I don’t find a free-market economy in America. You cannot start a business without tons of licensing, fees, etc. For example, my sister started selling cakes out of her home, but that ended up getting nipped b/c she needed licenses, a separate kitchen, etc. That is a small example, but there are TONS of barriers to entry into our markets, i.e., it ain’t free.
    Also, something as basic as money is controlled, not by “the market”, but by the Federal Reserve.
    When I look at people getting into homes, I see much of that as being directly related to intervention into the markets (Fannie & Freddie).
    Anyway, the point is not to exalt the “markets” as god, but we CANNOT look at our current economic climate, arbitrarily calling it a FREE-market, and lament its conditions and the idolatry of it all. Yes, the market is thrown around all the time (I find it to be an inescapable part of the world, as I see the market as merely being the aggregate of individual decisions) The fact is, Keynes was not a free-market and, as Nixon said, we are all Keynsian now. What do you think the “stimulus” is all about? The “market” is manipulated, be from the right and left, and is not free.

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