Scott Rae, Professor of Christian Ethics at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, recently presented a lecture titled “The Virtues of Capitalism” at Southeastern Seminary. In it, he addressed income inequality, economic theory and why pastors need to be literate about economics.
Here are a few excerpts.
Economics is about life together.
“The intersection of morality, theology and economics comes about primarily because economics, like our political life, is fundamentally about how we as communities order our lives together. Much of how we order our lives together in community has significant moral overtones. How we decide, and on what basis, the distribution of the burdens and benefits of a society — those are economic questions that are fundamentally moral questions. I think this explains in large part the passion that comes out on both sides of many economic issues, in addition to what I would also admit is blatant self-interest as well.”
Why pastors need to be literate about economics.
“It’s naïve to teach and preach the Bible without taking into account the profound differences in the economic life between the ancient world and the modern, industrial, information-age economy…. One of the most important reasons for pastors to be economically literate is so they can preach and teach and apply the Bible accurately. In particular, it is crucial that they apply the Bible’s teaching on economic life clearly and without misunderstanding the author’s intention.
“For example, it is not uncommon to hear application on things such as the Year of Jubilee as requiring a wholesale redistribution of wealth, or to hear the church’s sharing of goods in common in Acts 2 as a reference to some sort of enforced redistribution of income. Some of the criticisms, I would suggest, of our market-based systems are misreadings of the Bible due to a failure to take some of these differences into account. These differences, for example, help account for the stark statement of Jesus that it is easier for [a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for] a rich man to enter the. This is not, I think, primarily because of the temptations of wealth, that we normally associate with wealth today. This is primarily because of what’s called a zero-sum view of economics, in which it was believed that there’s a fixed economic pie, and if you got a bigger piece, then someone else got a smaller one.
“That zero-sum view of economic life characterized the ancient world, but it is definitely not true of our modern, industrial, information-age economy wherein every time a profit is made, the size of the pie actually gets a little bit larger.
“We should further distinguish between greed and self-interest, in contrast to their frequent conflation. Self-interest is nowhere condemned in the Bible. Rather, it’s upheld as a mandate to care for oneself and one’s dependents. What is condemned is self-interest at the expense of, or the neglect of, others. The zero-sum view of economic life in the ancient world meant that one’s pursuit of self-interest often (I would say, as a norm) did come at someone else’s expense, making it much more difficult to distinguish between that and greed, than today where it’s much easier (in fact, I’d say it’s more the norm) that one could do well financially and do good for the community at the same time.
“A misunderstanding of this is often at the heart of the demands of business to ‘give something back’ to the community, as though the nature of their business is somehow value-extraction, not value-addition to the community. As I would argue, that business in general, if it’s going to be profitable, has to be value-enhancing for the communities that they serve.”