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Sep 04, 2009

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Josh Rowley

Your reconstruction of first-century Palestine's economics is interesting and helpful. I would think, also, that if 80% or more of the population was living at a subsistence level, then taxation would have been generally more burdensome than it is for Americans today. In any case, there are certainly significant differences between there and then, on the one hand, and here and now, on the other hand.

I suspect, though, that you paint too rosy a picture of Western economics today. You write, "Instead of becoming wealthy by taking from others, people can become wealthier because they become more productive. Instead of hoarding wealth in selfish contempt toward others, amassing wealth and investing it creates productive capacity that benefits the community." What about greed? Has greed ceased to exist in the twenty-first century? Surely wealth is accumulated today with various motives and by various means, some of them noble and some of them not. I don't think we can know the answer to the question, "What would Jesus have taught if he had come into a world where people could be empowered to develop economically productive lives and engage with countless others in mutually beneficial exchange?" I do think he would still condemn greed.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Josh.

My point would be that certainly greed exists in our culture … along with gluttony, sloth, envy and all the other sins. Certainly we want to address those in our culture. But identifying them and addressing them may look very different. Let me try a couple of concrete examples.

I had a meeting yesterday with a guy who is trying to start a coffee processing company in a remote region of Honduras. Small destitute villages of about 100 people grow coffee, pick it, load it into bags and walk five hours to the nearest station where they can sell their product for 25 cents on the dollar. This new company will purchase inexpensive hand powered equipment that allows the villages to process their harvest. The process knocks of 75% of the weight of the beans and the product gathers a higher price at the market. With the added productivity comes greater income that the locals to then plow into other productive enterprises, starting an upward moving cycle of prosperity. Let’s say I have $10,000 I’m will to lend this company to get started.

From the biblical world view, everything is a zero-sum game. Increasing productivity isn’t on the radar as a possibility. Is this economic development approach project contrary to scripture? There is nothing about it in the Bible.

Isn’t the fact that I have $10,000 in the bank hoarding … my excess of wealth is someone else’s loss? Or in an economy where making wealth by increasing productivity is central, is it ethical to save up money for investing in or lending to productive enterprises that also generates wealth for others?

Selling the coffee is going to require marketing and trade. There is nothing in the Bible about marketing and trade in the modern sense of those ideas. What does Christian ethics have to say about marketing and trade? What does all this mean for addressing the problems of the poorest nations in the world?

They intend to sell this product at a profit. Profit is what allows business to accumulate wealth (like my $10,000) to have available to plow into other productive efforts. Yet in the zero-sum Bible economy, profit would mean benefit at the expense of another’s expense. Isn’t that greed? Yet running my business well and earning a good profit, I can expand the production of the goods and services I make that people value. Be pursuing a profit in my business am I being greedy? Thus to say we should condemn greed is true but difficult to apply … and if we use First Century thinking we may end up condemning that which is actually admirable if we aren’t careful.

My point in citing the remarkable explosion in GDP is not say that the Kingdom has come in its fullness but to illustrate what a radically different world we live in. For centuries Christian ethics has been processed in societies with a few very wealthy people and the masses at bare subsistence. For the first time we have societies with mass abundance and even the poor are well off by strict material standards compared our forefathers and foremothers. As I said in the previous post, greater material prosperity has not made us more civic minded and caring as Modernism taught it would. What do Christian ethics teach us when there is mass abundance and the world is no longer a zero-sum game?

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