Good Friday

Good Friday

Thursday, June 2, 2011

God Created Markets???

Some months ago my husband and I attended a lecture on what it means to be a Christian in the business world. My husband is a businessman and we have had many discussions about how Christians can be competitive in a sometimes ethically questionable marketplace. The person delivering the lecture has a Ph.D., had worked in the business world, and teaches at a Christian college. Given the shallow nature of previous thinking we had been exposed to, we were eager to hear what this person had to say.

Working from the biblical perspective that God had created a world that was good, this individual proceeded to tell us that “God created business,” and “God created markets.” This was his self-stated “theology of business.” Hmmm.

I decided to talk to the speaker after his lecture to determine where, biblically, he had determined that God was the creator of business and markets. Turns out he had none. He responded that since God had created a world with an uneven distribution of resources, God had created business and markets. He went on to assert that God had created music and art as well. When I suggested that there is a difference between creating the potential for certain cultural artifacts and creating the artifacts themselves, he seemed offended and disbelieving.

As is almost always the case, theological assertions not only impact the theological topic in question, but also other related theological topics. It is also the case that what we teach has the potential to impact how we act, our ethics. So if I granted his premise, how might that impact our ethical understanding of business?  How should we think about and respond to the presenter’s suggestions that God created business and markets? I have a few initial thoughts.

First, it would seem that if God created business and markets (in a capitalistic sense which is what I believe he was asserting), why are business and markets not a universal phenomenon? The fact of the matter is that in any number of primitive societies, the distribution of resources operates more like a family than a market. What I mean is, that goods are shared between clans rather than bartered for or traded. This is, in fact, the model the early church seemed to operate on. (Acts 2:42-47) So if God created markets, why doesn’t every society, or even the early church appear to operate with a market driven model?

Second, and more importantly, if God indeed created cultural artifacts like markets and business, than markets and business, like all of creation, are in their essence good, although fallen. But that begs the question of whether all cultural artifacts are in their essence good. The reality is, that humanity was created with the potential to use the various resources of creation to produce art, music, and social structures including business and markets. But humanity is fallen so the structures and artifacts we produce are the result of a fallen intellect and understanding. What “good” looks like with regard to any of these artifacts and, in fact, whether these artifacts are even something that should be considered the proper use of human potential is open to question and is part of what Christians are called to discern.  

Many economists admit that greed is a driving force (perhaps even the driving force) in a market economy. But greed, in the Christian tradition, is one of the seven deadly vices. So if greed is foundational to the capitalistic marketplace, is the marketplace really something good?

Maybe more to the point, is the question of how a market economy reflects love for God and neighbor, the summary of the law. I’m not saying that it cannot; only that questions about how one operates in this environment, how one promotes the flourishing of one’s neighbor in this system are difficult. If what matters most is the bottom line, what happens when the bottom line and the good of my neighbor come into conflict?

To simply state that God created markets and therefore they are good, not only misunderstands the doctrine of creation, but has the potential to whitewash real ethical difficulties that are part and parcel of operating in a market economy. We should encourage hearty discussion of these matters, not simplistic justification for our own preferences.

3 comments:

  1. Mary, I appreciate what you have to say. I find that I have so many conflicting thoughts on the issue I'm having a hard time writing a coherent comment.

    The wisdom tradition in scripture seems to state that businesses that are operated ethically and virtuously will be the ones to thrive in the long run. They do things like treat their laborers well and paying them on time, using "honest scales," and maintaining a good reputation.

    I am unsure about reducing all economic impulses to greed. There is a wide gap between greed and self-interest, wisdom, or prudence (a virtue!). For instance, if I am shopping for a mortgage and a bank down the street can give me a better deal than the one next door, it's simply the better deal.

    On the other hand, some free-market friends of mine say that an unrestrained free-market will eventually lead to a economic utopia. There is no evidence of this in anything other than politically driven theory. For instance, the environmental costs of a product might not be priced into the sticker price.

    So while "the market" is no devil, it's no saint either. As you say, it's a realm where virtue and vices are played out.

    What the church can say is that there's a desperate need for ethical business people who lift priorities like prudent, reputation-driven growth, honesty, and financial solvency (as opposed to wild-cat leveraging).

    Since most of the people in the church are more involved in "the market" through the workplace than the average clergyperson, I think it's important that clergy get good training in business ethics. Businesses are often what raise the standard of living in a society. So the church's concern for the poor should be a strong incentive to be a resource for businesses in terms of encouragement and ethical guidance.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections, Ryan.

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  3. I have always had a concern that capitalism is not supported biblically. It promotes individualism and greed and creates even greater separation of rich and poor.

    What I have been confronted with more and more are American Christians who believe that a free market economy, capitalism and Christianity are soul sisters, in that to be American is to buy into the system as if it were a gift from God. It is utterly disturbing to me since God's biblical system seems to be as you point out, an Acts 2 model and going back further to the OT as well, one that considers the issues of injustice that comes with such a "capitalist" mindset.

    God seems more interested in a true community where those blessed with riches come along side those without and without the means.

    On the other hand since we are stuck with such a greed driven system, we as the people of God are challenged to speak into it with a prophetic voice challenging a balance and ethical business practice.

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