Thursday, 25 March 2010

Money, Greed, and God--Part I

Getting The Language Right At the Start

This is the first post in a series on the recent book by Jay W. Richards, entitled Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem (New York: Harper One, 2009). This book is useful to put in the hand of every Christian who instinctively suspects that money is a kissing cousin of worldliness--which is probably most. Actually, it identifies and explodes eight pervasive myths about money, free trade, economic progress and prosperity. It also deals with pervasive misrepresentations of the Bible's teaching on these subjects. In addition, and most helpfully, it is very  readable. Consequently it is a book which deserves wide currency in the Christian community. 

Now let us say right off that we do not like the terms “capitalism” or “capitalist”. We believe it is time for Christians to stop using those terms, at least in any non-pejorative sense. This is something which Richards does not address--and we believe this is something which needs to be noted. Generally, words ending in “ism” and “ist” denote an absolutising of some aspect of the creation into an overarching reality or ethic, to the point where it becomes an idol. And that is the heart of the discomfort many Christians feel over wealth, possessions, and capital. There are legions of Unbelievers who worship money. Christians know, quite rightly, that such idolatry is evil and is condemned in Scripture.

For Christians the management of wealth, property, possessions is always a fiduciary duty: that is, property is to be held, increased, and used in trust. We will be held accountable for our faithfulness, our stewardship, and our diligence as servants in God's household--and there is no merit whatsoever in denying the responsibility. The third, worthless servant in the Parable of the Talents stands as a warning for all in God's Kingdom who refuse the duties and obligations of stewardship.

In common language, when we at "ist" or "ism" to the end of a word, more often than not, idolatry is implied.  Hence a “statist” is someone who believes the state to hold absolute power and authority and is omnicompetent to rule all aspects of human existence. A “rationalist” is someone who believes and acts so as to make human ratiocination the fundament of all meaning and truth. Thus the term “capitalism” does not convey what Christians must believe concerning property. Rather it conveys the Lockian notion that the ultimate and most fundamental value in human society are the rights associated with and connected to private property. This is an idolatry pure and simple: it is patently unchristian, not in the sense of being sub-Christian, but anti-Christian.

We prefer, for what of a better solution, to employ the term personal property rights (recognizing “person” in the legal sense of the term—that is that it can refer to corporations or companies or other legal entities, as well as individuals and families.) Personal property rights are derived, of course, from God, to Whom belongs all the fullness of the earth. That is our starting point.
He alone is the original Owner of all things insofar as He created them out of nothing, and sustains them by His Word of power.

He alone has an absolute right to bestow title of sub-ownership of His property to others. The delegated property rights of mankind to the entire earth are declared in Psalm 8: 6-8.

Thou dost make (man) to rule over the works of Thy hands;
Thou hast put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the sea.
These personal property rights may be recognised, protected and enforced by governments—in fact, this remains a fundamental duty of the state—but property rights do not originate with the state. The state has a duty to enforce personal property rights as a servant of God, not as master over the creation. Original title of property does not reside with the State, but with the Creator. Personal property rights over the entire earth are delegated to mankind, not as a collective, nor to any one man, nor institution, nor king, nor to any human derivation.

Actually, this is not quite accurate. When the entire race fell into sin, man forfeited the personal property rights granted by God. After the Fall, God restored these rights over the creation, but in a sub-optimal mode. There would be hostility between man and the created world. The very ground itself was cursed because of the sin of Adam: earning personal property was now to be a task of tiring toil, hard labour, in sweat. The creation itself would grow thorns and thistles to impede progress, making all things more difficult. (Genesis 3: 17—19) This is what Paul referred to (from the general creation's perspective) as the creation groaning, awaiting man's coming forth and presentation as finally redeemed. (Romans 8: 22—23).

But when the Man, Christ Jesus came forth, He inherited the title of ruler over the entire Creation and all things were subjected to Him as part of His enthronement. He is now the absolute owner of the heavens and the earth, and His ownership and personal property rights are not sub-optimal: the entire heavens and earth, all sheep and oxen, all beasts of the field, all birds, all the fish of the sea—they all bow completely to His dispensation and command. (Hebrews 2:5—18) He, in turn, inducts his brothers and sisters into His realm, having redeemed them and sanctified them. In the end, His brethren will again rule over all the works of His hands, as declared in Psalm 8, but no longer in a sub-optimal way. At that time, our personal property rights over the earth will be in perpetuity, but never as original owners. Rather, we will own as permanent stewards over His household, always giving a joyful account to Him for our fiduciary actions and our perpetual stewardship in His Name.

For the present our delegated personal property rights over His possessions are temporary, and expire completely at our death. Even so, we will be required to give an account to Him of how we have carried out our fiduciary duties over His property which He has seen fit to bestow for a time upon us. Moreover, through the institution of inheritance, we are obligated to transfer our property and the fiduciary rights over it to our children and grandchildren and designated heirs. Thus, the property we administer is to abide perpetually, whilst our stewardship of it will pass to our heirs. That is the biblical pattern and mandate (Proverbs 13:22). The man who boasts that he will leave this earth having consumed and expended all that God has given him is nothing less than a rebellious evildoer.

This, then, is the creational, redemptive and eschatological frame of personal property rights. Without this frame, no case for personal property rights can ultimately be successful, for no creature can succeed in claiming an original and absolute ownership of all things in the heavens, upon the earth, and under the earth. But personal property rights cannot exist in any authoritative sense without derivation from such an original and absolute title.

Without such a derivation and foundation, personal property rights will be nothing more than conventions of convenience, subject to pillage, rapine, expropriation, or theft. Without such a framework, counter claims to any personal property will inevitably be recognised in human society, whether under artificial intellectual constructs such as equality, justice, or fairness; or the uber-demands of the rich, the powerful, or of the state, or an envious society-at-large.

Richards does not deal with any of this necessary biblical framework for personal property rights. His book is weaker for it. His focus, however, is upon expounding the intrinsic good that comes to mankind as a result of us recognizing, respecting, and defending personal property rights. When we do that, amazing things happen—good things. This is very important and valid—for since God has dignified and blessed mankind with sub-ownership of all He has made, it necessarily brings great blessings to human society in general and individuals in particular when it is recognized and accepted as such.

But, Richards is aware that we live in a culture which prefers not to recognize the divine blessing of personal property rights but actively argues for their rejection. This is unfortunately common within the Christian community—although widely propagated outside that community as well, whence it was learnt. His objective is to counter the false ideologies and idolatries that have lead many Christians to undermine personal property rights in disobedience to their Lord.

His pedagogical method is to identify eight persistent myths regarding personal property. These, he summarizes as:

Myth No. 1: The Nirvana Myth (contrasting personal property with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives).

Myth No. 2: The Piety Myth (focusing on our good intentions, rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions).

Myth No. 3: The Zero-Sum Game Myth (believing that the free exchange or free trading of personal property requires a winner and a loser).

Myth No. 4: The Materialist Myth (believing that personal property is not created; it's simply transferred).

Myth No. 5: The Greed Myth (believing that the essence of personal property rights is greed).

Myth No. 6: The Usury Myth (believing that working with money is inherently immoral or that charging interest on money is always exploitative).

Myth No. 7: The Artsy Myth (confusing aesthetic judgments with economic arguments).

Myth No. 8: The Freeze-Frame Myth (believing that things always stay the same).

We will deal with Richards's treatment of each of these in turn, in forthcoming posts.

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