Sunday, 5 July 2015

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christian Moral Teaching?

by Oliver Brotherton

This essay is an evaluation of the place of Christian moral teaching in a capitalist setting. The research question concerns the message of Christian morality as taught by the Bible, most prominently by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, and its place within capitalist business, capitalist society, methods of capitalist gain and capitalist influences on moral thinking. The essay evaluates the arguments in favour of a potential compatibility between Christianity and capitalism including Biblical quotations and research into the ‘Protestant work ethic’. These arguments, however, are found to be insufficient to allow Christianity and capitalism to be considered compatible as these arguments rely on superficial readings of the Bible and incorrect views of Christian values towards others and society. The essay then covers arguments against compatibility including Liberation Theology, Christian Communism and the immoral nature of capitalist business for example surplus labour. It is shown that these arguments provide a more accurate interpretation of Biblical teaching, as they emphasise social justice and equality over personal gain. The essay will conclude that Christian moral teaching and capitalism are fundamentally opposed and, in fact, mutually degrading. Both concepts, in modern society, focus on completely separate issues. While capitalism aims towards personal gain at the potential loss of others, Christianity emphasises self-sacrifice to help people in need. Moral values such as those expressed in the Bible are vital to becoming an ethically aware society and the influences of capitalism on everyday life are causing ‘western’ society to become morally challenged and ever more amoral both in business and in daily life. Overall, capitalism is found to be too ethically challenged to be revived to the benefit of society. The moral and practical ideals of Christian Communism are found to be beneficial to creating an ethically aware and egalitarian system of governance and belief.

For much of the history of the ‘western’ world capitalism has played a serious role in shaping societies and thought. At the same time, especially in Europe, Christianity has been a dominant force in influencing the development of moral thinking. Although these two factors have shaped and moulded our modern culture and morals, they are fundamentally opposed in their teachings, to the extent that the supremacy of one acts to degrade the other in society. Even from the most basic of Christian morals it is difficult to find any aspect that is reflected in the ideals of modern capitalism. In fact such is the extent of capitalism’s amorality that it is difficult to find any naturalistic moral basis that can be practically applied to it. In order to help revive logical moral ideals in society, we would need to completely discard much of the common teachings of capitalism that have pervaded our everyday thought.

It is important to begin with some of the issues within the question presented. Christian morality is a particularly difficult issue, as Christianity is by no means a unified doctrine due to its often conflicting moral ideals. There are also varying sources of authority that are accepted by different Christian groups. These can include scripture, tradition, magisterium and reason and the use of these authorities can dramatically affect what is seen as moral by a religious group. For example, although polygamy is commonly rejected by the Catholic Church, many of the more orthodox groups of the Latter Day Saints movement still see polygamy as acceptable. In the case of this essay I would like to use the term Christian Morality to refer to morality as taught in the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus especially. These provide a more straight forward and relevant depiction of Christian morals, which can easily be analysed and applied to a capitalist society. To help define capitalism in the sense it shall be used, capitalism will be examined not only in the sense of economics, but also in a wider, more social and moral context. The concept of capitalism that shall be used, not only describes, as some Neo-Marxian economists have written, a society in which capitalist methods of wage labour and class structure are dominant, but also refers more widely to the ideology of capital gain and the paradigm of class and personal success that is somewhat predominant in our modern society. It is particularly the implications and outworking of the capitalist paradigm (for example its effect on the way we see ourselves and our duties within society) that I shall explore in relation to Christianity, as I believe these not only have the most impact upon our lives, but are also philosophically relevant to much of today’s moral thought.

First it is important to consider the arguments that can be offered to support capitalism within a Christian context which, although they lack any practical credibility, could show a degree of support for compatibility between the two. It has been argued that passages within the Bible support capitalism. This is perhaps best shown through the Parable of the Talents[1] (sometimes referred to as the Parable of the minas), in which a man who is about to go on a journey entrusts some money to three of his slaves. The Parable is often seen to be in support of capitalism and entrepreneurship as each slave is given a different amount of money based on his respective ability, then when the man returns the two slaves who have made a profit and doubled the money given are congratulated by him, while the third slave who merely buried the money and did nothing with it is scolded for being lazy. Certain readings have taken this to be divine support of business and work for profit, which can be easily seen through the emphasis on monetary gain. This argument, however, was actively rejected by many as it is symbolic. John Cort, a prominent Christian socialist, wrote that the man referenced in the parable represents God and that the money he gives his slaves is the ‘spiritual wealth’ that God gives to us all[2]. From this Cort argued that the parable has no relevance to wealth, but in fact teaches us to allow God’s goodness to grow and multiply within us. I also believe that, although this Parable, along with others involving money in the Bible, may appear to give some credibility to capitalism, this is merely a shallow and incorrect reading of the Bible’s teachings. Naturally we cannot take every Parable in the Bible at face value, otherwise many of the lessons taught by many of the Parables seem irrelevant. For example the Parable of the Mustard Seed[3] , in which Jesus compares the kingdom of Heaven to a mustard plant, cannot be taken at the same level of face value without the entire concept being lost and the Parable itself becoming ridiculous. To take the mere use of money in the Bible to mean a support of capitalism is a blind and incorrect reading of the underlying moral teachings.

Another potential argument for the compatibility of Christianity and capitalism is that it has been argued that the formation of capitalism in Europe was, at least partly, influenced by the work ethic of early Protestant society. The German sociologist Max Weber claimed that the Protestant teachings of hard work led to a focus in society on the accumulation of wealth[4]. This therefore led to the creation of the modern capitalism we have today. As the Bible encourages hard work over laziness, it can be argued that a capitalist focus on business and wealth over idleness is a logical extension of biblical teaching. This is emphasised regularly throughout the Bible, for example the Proverb ‘The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied’[5]. Although there is clearly a great focus within Christian morals on diligence, I find this insufficient to be able to consider it a capitalist outlook. The Bible rarely mentions personal gain in a monetary sense and although hard work, in many societies, does lead to monetary gain, it is difficult to argue that the Bible actively supports the accumulation of personal wealth and the resulting inequality. I believe that the Christian work ethic is more accurately summarised by ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’[6]. Christian morality encourages hard work for the glory of God as opposed to hard work for personal gain. The incentive to work provided by capitalism is far too self-centred and narcissistic to be considered compatible with Christian morals.

Although there are arguments which can be made in support of a potential compatibility between modern capitalism and Christian moral teaching, this link is tenuous at best and any arguments presented often result from a twisting of the Biblical message. Any pseudo-capitalist ideas taken from the Bible itself are flawed in their allegorical and parable nature. References that seem to support wealth and capital gain cannot be merely taken as such. As well as this, the argument that capitalism is somehow supported by the message of diligence in the Bible is an obvious corruption of the very selfless nature of the Bible’s teaching. You cannot simply reduce the Biblical message to self-centred reasoning and ignore the fact that the very purpose of such teachings often focus on working for others and for God, as opposed to the capitalist teachings of personal gain. The main flaw of these arguments is the assumption that human nature always works for self-benefit, as is often encouraged by our capitalist society. Although capitalism has altered the way we see work and effort in our community and centralised it more around the self, this is not the only way we, as people, can act. This is the fundamental difference between Christian morals and capitalism, while Christianity works to benefit others and to glorify God, capitalism seems to encourage personal advancement at the potential detriment to others. For this reason all arguments for any compatibility between the two cannot be considered valid, as they focus on the same concepts (for example money and hard work) in very conflicting ways.

Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez
Aside from the potential arguments in favour of compatibility between capitalism and Christian morals, there is a large amount of support for there being a clear division between the two. Perhaps the starkest opposition to capitalism from within the Christian Church comes from revolutionary movements including Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology began in South America as a political movement within the Roman Catholic Church which sought to teach and interpret the Bible with a focus on the poverty and social injustice that is common in much of Latin America[7]. Liberation Theology claims that corruption caused by sin is the source of poverty and oppression in society and that it is the greed and jealousy of individuals combined with the failures of the political system that have caused these problems[8]. The Peruvian Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez claimed that it is action against poverty and oppression in favour of social justice that allows us to better know and come closer to God[9]. Liberation Theology claims that in order to do good we must actively speak out against inequality and corruption in our society[10]. Many Liberation Theologians also claim that these injustices come about through institutionalized problems, such as poor employment security, low wages and high food prices and as such it is capitalism and similar governing powers that are creating these sins within society.

Overall Liberation Theology accurately presents a compelling picture of modern society. Capitalism has caused inhuman suffering for many people around the world and logically we cannot say that it is acceptable to allow this suffering to continue. As well as this, throughout the Bible God is shown to provide similar care for the poor and Jesus’ teachings often emphasise a level of support that ought to be given to the needy, as Jesus himself often spent time with those most marginalised in society. An example of this is found in the Gospel of Luke, ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.’[11] This and similar quotations are often used to show Jesus’ (as Gutierrez put it) ‘preferential option for the poor’[12], which we in turn should also have in order to achieve social justice and salvation for ourselves. Liberation Theology has, however, received a great deal of criticism for its seemingly Marxist ideals and, although this is not inherently a problem, it was initially rejected by the Vatican as the then Cardinal Ratzinger claimed that certain Marxist aspects of Liberation Theology were ‘damaging to the faith and to Christian living’[13]. The Vatican also spoke out against Liberation Theology as many of the main theologians identified the corruption of the Church as a contributing factor to the vast extent of the problem.  Although few can disagree that Liberation Theology’s emphasis on justice through non-violent, Christian means is a definite strength, the Vatican found the elevation of orthopraxy (correct action) to the status of orthodoxy (correct belief) to be too Marxist to be considered Christian. Although the very orthoprax nature of Liberation Theology does seem to stray from common Christian teaching, the fight for social justice ought to be a key ethical concern within modern Christianity. Social justice and equality need to be seen as ethical necessities, not only to be more in line with the Bible’s teaching, but also to act against the very unfair and elitist nature of capitalism in society that impacts so negatively upon people’s lives.

The Occupy movement outside St Paul's, 2011
A key aspect of Capitalism that lacks compatibility with Christianity is surplus labour. Surplus labour, as understood by Marxian economics, is the additional labour that a worker provides beyond the work needed to earn his own living[14]. The problem with this, as claimed by many Marxian scholars including Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, is that in capitalist society there is no distinction between necessary labour (the amount of work needed to earn a living) and surplus labour[15]. For example, if a waiter signs a contract to work for 10 hours for (for example) £100, this money would be recouped by the waiter for the employer after (for example) 8 hours and the remaining time he spends working is free labour for the employer. Surplus labour within capitalism allows additional profits to be made by an employer, however, such exploitation is ethically untenable. Capitalism has created and somewhat normalised such methods of profit at the expense of others, however it is difficult to see this as anything other than a modern day form of passive-slavery. There are parallels that can be drawn between today’s ruthless employer who makes their employees work long hours and the slave trade, for example in American cotton farms in the 19th Century, where slaves would receive a fraction of the profits they were producing. In relation to Christianity the most obvious conflict here is that of greed. As one of the cardinal sins within Christian ethics, greed is often mentioned within the Bible for its harmful and sinful nature. As the Bible says, ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people… have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs’[16].  This phrase accurately shows the Christian moral view towards greed: the capitalist ideal of profit, particularly at the expense of others, cannot be considered compatible with Christian ethics. As well as this, the manipulative and extortionate nature of much capitalist labour also conflicts heavily with a Christian belief in equality. A particularly stark example of the potential unethical and immoral nature of business was the baby milk scandal of the 1970’s in which large multinational companies including Nestlé caused the death of huge numbers of babies in poor communities by discouraging breast feeding in favour of bottle feeding[17]. Such actions cannot logically be considered compatible with Christian beliefs.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, considers business ethics from a Christian position. Aquinas builds his ethical theory firstly from the Bible: ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you’[18]. Christian business ethics has since often emphasised fairness in trade dealings along with a focus on trust and a societal outlook, as opposed to self-centred ways of conducting business, where the focus is merely to maximise profit.

Christian business ethics has many clear benefits in a capitalist society. The social benefits have been shown in more modern times by the action of many Churches against unfair business, for example the actions of the Anglican Church under the current Archbishop of Canterbury to try put payday lenders out of business due to their extortionate interest rates. A similar message of equality in business has been provided by the Catholic Church in several encyclicals. The Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII[19], emphasised fair conditions of labour and claimed that it was the duty of the State to promote social justice. Although it is clear that Christianity can and does play a large role in capitalism by providing a firm ethical standpoint, this form of business ethics is, unfortunately, often ignored or rejected in much modern-day trade. It can easily be argued that a Biblical approach to modern-day life is somewhat outdated, especially in an ever more secular world. As well as this, some have claimed that it is a business’ duty to make profit for its shareholders and employees and that any ethical thinking is irrelevant. Despite this more customers today are considering the ethical processes by which certain products are produced and so many of the ‘moral’ companies (for example Fair Trade food) are now very profitable. A focus on ethical business, however, simply to gain more profit cannot be considered ethically viable or anything more than an extended form of egoism.  Ethical egoism in business is the argument that an action or trade is ethically valid as long as it makes you (or your shareholders) the maximum profits. This is completely against any Christian teaching, however egoism is still today a dominant ethical thinking in Western society. Another example is the actions of the banking company Goldman Sachs who were heavily fined for ‘dishonest and unethical’ practice[20] that put selected clients at an advantage over others when dealing in stocks.

Although Christian moral teaching can easily be applied to capitalist business, so much of modern trading is conducted with practices that conflict with Christian teaching that, in our current world, Christianity has become too different and contrasting to be considered compatible with capitalist business. The unbridled egoism of many modern businesses has fed an ever more self-centered perspective of trade that cannot logically be tenable when considering Christian ethics. The roots of capitalism are so deep within our society that it has become near impossible for any legitimate ethical revival of Christianity to fully take place within business. While it could be argued that the actions of many Christian groups in the world to support fairer trading can be seen as support for a potential compatibility between modern capitalism and Christian business ethics, these actions do not solve the problem of egoism and the growing amorality of many companies. The outreach of Christian business movements is too limited and overall modern Capitalism has strayed too far from any ethical basis, for a respectable Christian revival to take place within it.

Amish have communitarian values
Despite the representation of Christianity and Communism as fundamentally opposed, most famously shown by Marxian attitudes to religion as ‘The sigh of the oppressed creature’[21] and the rejection of religion by many Communist nations (for example the USSR and Cuba), in fact, the Christian perspective is, in many ways, far more suited to Communist government than to capitalism. Christian Communism, in fact, outdates the modern Communist revolutions and it has been claimed that Communism was a key element of early Christianity. The theologian and Christian Communist Professor Roland Boer has claimed that the Biblical message that ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common’[22] is an example of Communism or at least a sharing of goods within the Bible that can be seen as similar to modern Communist thinking[23]. Another Biblical story that is often claimed to be a symbol of Communism or anti-capitalism within the Bible is the story of ‘Jesus at the Temple’, in which Jesus casts a group of money-changers and traders out of a temple as they were turning it into a ‘den of robbers’[24]. From this it is clear that there is a message of equality within the Bible that extends not only to friendship and loving others, but also to the ownership of goods. A similar practice is, and still can be, found in many current Christian Communities. For example the Church of the Latter Day Saints (commonly known as Mormonism) traditionally practices the Law of Consecration as revealed by God to Joseph Smith. The Law of Consecration states that all of the property of members of the Church ought to be given to the Church, so that everyone can have enough land to be sufficient for them and be a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration’[25]. All remaining property can then be used to further the Church’s abilities. Similar sharing of property and work can be seen in other Christian groups including Amish and Rappite communities. Although these groups are not inherently communist, the focus on stewardship and sharing of property over actual ownership does actively oppose capitalist ideals and seems to be more similar to a Communist society.

The moral importance placed on equality and sharing that is evident along with a disengagement from capitalism and profit, show a clear link between Christian ethics and Communism. Both systems provide a more ethically aware lifestyle and the focus on equality and community over somewhat narcissistic capitalist gain, could easily be seen as a benefit to modern society. A key counter argument against Christian Communism is the very secular and anti-theist nature of traditional Communism. Indeed Communism was described by Martin Luther King Jr. as ‘the only serious rival of Christianity’[26], however in reality Christian Communism provides the moral focus that is needed to stabilise Communism and give people a reason to work (for the glory of God), while also providing an ideal and practical society that is in line with Christian teachings of equality and fairness. As well as this, the use of current Christian communities (such as the Latter Day Saints) could be seen as irrelevant as they are not always based solely in common Biblical teaching. Mormonism is based in the revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. a ‘prophet’ from the 1800’s and so perhaps this cannot apply to Christianity and the Bible as a whole. However the ideas presented by the ‘Communist’ aspects of the Latter Day Saints movement can be aligned with and beneficial to Christian social teaching as a whole, as systems like the Law of Consecration are logical extensions of Biblical teaching. Christian Communism is overall a mutually beneficial alignment of concepts of similar bases that, in practice, is far more reliable than the rather conflicting ideals presented by Christianity and capitalism.   
There are clearly arguments that can be made both in favour and in opposition to the compatibility of Christian moral teaching and capitalism. An argument against compatibility, however, provides both a more realistic overview of the heavy ethical conflicts between the very egoistic and self-centred aspects of modern capitalism and the social, loving nature of Christian morality whilst also providing a practical social response to serious modern-day inequalities. Modern ‘western’ society provides a stark example of the dominance of the capitalist outworking that has caused an individualistic and egoistic approach to both business and everyday life. It is clear that Christian morality has suffered under capitalism and it has been degraded to the point of being ignored by much of society. Movements like Liberation Theology and Christian Communism are becoming ever more critical in order to better relate our amoral society to a more ethically concerned and communitarian perspective, not only to help business and trade, but to help better every person individually.

This essay was shortlisted for the Ithaka Prize 2015

New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008.
John Cort,1988 "Christian Socialism: An informal history" Orbis Books
Weber, Max "The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism" (Penguin Books, 2002) translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells
Berryman, P. 1987. Liberation theology. New York: Pantheon Books.
Gutierrez G. 1971. A Theology of Liberation London: SCM Press.
Gutierrez G. 1983 The Power of Poor in History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (September 13, 1984). "Instruction on certain aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation'",
Marx, K. 1968. Capital. New York: Dutton.
Lenin, V. n.d. 1908 The agrarian question in Russia towards the close of the nineteenth century. Part 2 Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House.
Pope Leo XIII ‘Rerum Novarum’ 15th May 1891
Marx, K. and O'malley, J. 1970. Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of right'. Cambridge [England]: University Press. p.131
Boer R. Taking notes 24: Why I am a Christian communist 17/08/2014
Martin Luther King Jr. 30 September 1962 “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church Atlanta, Ga.
Rowland, C. (1999). The Cambridge companion to liberation theology. 5th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Matthew 25:14–30 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 994
[2]John Cort,1988 "Christian Socialism: An informal history" Orbis Books
[3] Mark 4:30-33 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 1006
[4] Weber, Max "The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism" (Penguin Books, 2002) translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells
[5] Proverbs 13:4 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 646
[6] 1 Corinthians 10:31 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 1151
[7] Berryman, P. 1987. Liberation theology. New York: Pantheon Books.
[8] Gutierrez G. 1971. A Theology of Liberation London: SCM Press.
[9] Gutierrez G. 1983 The Power of Poor in History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
[10] Rowland, C. (1999). The Cambridge companion to liberation theology. 5th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[11] Luke 1:53 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 1026
[12] Gutierrez G. 1971. A Theology of Liberation London: SCM Press.
[13] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (September 13, 1984). "Instruction on certain aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation'",
[14] Marx, K. 1968. Capital. New York: Dutton.
[15] Lenin, V. n.d. 1908 The agrarian question in Russia towards the close of the nineteenth century. Part 2 Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House.
[16]1 Timothy 6:10 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 1194
[18] Matthew 7:12 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 971
[19] Pope Leo XIII ‘Rerum Novarum’ 15th May 1891
[21] Marx, K. and O'malley, J. 1970. Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of right'. Cambridge [England]: University Press. p.131
[22] Acts 2:44 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 1094
[23] Boer R. Taking notes 24: Why I am a Christian communist 17/08/2014
[24] Matthew 21:12-13 New International Bible, Hodder and Stoughton 2008. Page 989
[26] Martin Luther King Jr. 30 September 1962 “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church Atlanta, Ga.

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