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The Criticism of Capitalism (A Review of ‘The New Perspective On Paul’, part 1)

I am working on a review of NT Wright’s ‘New Perspective of Paul’ as taught by him in many of his books, including (but not limited to) Justification, Paul: A Biography, The Day the Revolution Began, Jesus and the Victory of God, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and not least the translation choices he made in The Kingdom New Testament. This is a massive topic that touches on other even more massive topics. On top of that, NT Wright is not the only scholar espousing this “New Perspective.” There are several others, most notably James Dunn and E.B. Sanders, and they each have their own variation. I am also studying their works on the subject, but for the time being am focusing on NT Wrights as he is the most well known proponent. 

For those unaware of what the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is, don’t feel bad. It appears that not many are exactly sure what it is. After reading hundreds of pages of Wright, Dunn, and Sanders I am still not sure I can summarize accurately what they are trying to communicate. This is not because I have some animosity towards their view and am feigning incomprehension. Quite the opposite. I find myself too eager to embrace NPP. I have for quite a long time had serious objections with the Reformed teaching of “Forensic Justification”, not the general principle, but the detailed extrapolation of that principle. The NPP, at least insofar as it relates to Justification, seems to be much more in concert with my current thinking on the issue. I also prefer the exegetical approach that the NPP seems to emphasize as contrasted with the topical approach that I find common in Reformed theology. I realize that Reformed theologians will take issue with my characterization, but my point here is not that I am right in my objections, but rather why I find myself too eager to accept Wright’s teaching, and consequently why I am flummoxed at my difficulty of easily summarizing his point even after reading multiple books written to elucidate it. I can only imagine how someone predisposed to reject the NPP might feel. 

The best summary I am able to give at the moment is that the NPP is an attempt to restore the full, original meaning of Paul’s teachings on Justification as they would have been understood by the intended, first century readers of his Epistles. And that this original meaning is to be ascertained through strict exegetical analysis of the Epistles as well as the Hebrew Scriptures that he quotes extensively, as well as strictly historical contextualization of the terms and words he employs. (If that summary didn’t help you much in understanding NPP, welcome to the club; we meet every third Tuesday of the second odd month when leap year is one year past.)

Despite what you may have heard, NT Wright is not denying, or even diminishing “Imputed Righteousness”, “Salvation”, or “Going to Heaven”, at least not explicitly. If he is doing so implicitly or inadvertently might be another matter, and I will address that much later in this review. However, his stated and oft repeated claim is that he believes the Reformed doctrines. He states that the NPP is not less than Reformed theology, but rather that it is much more. I think it is safe and fair to take him at his word, at least until it might become obvious that we cannot.

I should point out that several acclaimed theologians have interacted with Wright on the NPP to varying degrees of effectiveness. For instance, John Piper wrote a book directly responding to his teaching aptly titled “The Future of Justification: A Response To NT Wright”. Piper is fair and generous in his treatment of Wright and his beliefs. Wright responded to Piper with a book of his own, “Justification”. Others have been less fair, and some have been downright sophomoric. For example a very well known Reformed minister began his curmudgeonly criticism by pointing out that “you could kind of shift [his name, ‘NT Wright’] a little and make it ‘New Testament Wrong’.” Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with Wright, that is nothing more than the evangelical equivalent of a playground taunt, and not a very funny one either. 

Before I address the NPP in future essays, I want to begin by commenting on a tangential issue he raises almost at the end of the book, “The Day the Revolution Began”, and one that I have found to be a theme in other of his books. Namely, Wright’s cautious but unfair criticism of “capitalism” and his view on the Church’s responsibility to serve those crushed and pinned under its greedy boot. (That is my paraphrase of his much more measured and kind characterization, but I think it is accurate in substance albeit not in spirit.) 

In “The Day the Revolution Began” he writes, “The familiar trio of money, sex, and power are enthroned as securely as ever. A sign in my local charity shop tells me that a quarter of the world’s wealth is owned by so few people that they could all fit on an ordinary bus, while millions of desperately poor people save up what little they have to pay people smugglers to ferry them dangerously across the Mediterranean, where, if they make it across the sea, barbed wire and refugee camps await them and local politicians agonize over how to cope. You don’t have to hold a doctorate in global economics to know that something is radically wrong with whatever “systems” we have, or don’t have, in place… Clearly money is a major factor, and the nations that for centuries have profited from their “enlightened” cultural, technological, and economic status must look at themselves in the mirror and ask the kinds of questions that white South Africans had to face in the 1980s.” 

While he doesn’t mention capitalism by name, he is more forthcoming in an earlier book, “Simply Christian” in which spells out the complaint, “And now we have the new global evils: rampant, uncaring, and irresponsible materialism and capitalism… it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in macroeconomics to know that if the rich are getting richer by the minute, and the poor poorer, there is something badly wrong.”

Criticizing capitalism is as socially acceptable as defending it is treacherous. Furthermore, criticizing the inequality that arises under capitalism is attractive to godly, sincere Christians such as NT Wright, because Chrisitanity is both historically and fundamentally concerned with oppression of all sorts, including, but not limited to, financial dispossession. Christians, because of their faith in Jesus and their faithfulness to the Apostles’ teaching are wary of wealth, suspicious of the wealthy, and compassionate of the poor. Christianity was birthed in the great Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And they still take the Apostolic request seriously, that as the Gospel extended throughout the world, “that we should remember the poor.” This, and many other Biblical and historical arguments can be offered in favor of Wright’s skeptical view of capitalism. And if that was all there was to it, it would still merit a critical treatment, but that is not all there is to it.

Christians should be circumspect in their criticism of capitalism because we, like the fish swimming in lemonade, often find it difficult to discern that the bread we are eating isn’t made of lemons. That is to say, it is very difficult to distinguish between what is actually a fault in capitalism and what is merely a sentiment of our broader cultural context. It is indisputable that our broader cultural context is at the very least tepid on the virtue of capitalism. Recent surveys make a compelling case that the scale of public opinion has already passed the tipping point against it; in every study it is a significant majority that view capitalism as undesirable or even outright evil. But, if we are going to criticize it, we should be reluctant to trot out the same tired tropes that Communists and Socialists and Anarchists have been recycling for decades, and that have been soundly disproven each and every time, regardless of the new ways they get packaged and sold to the public.

As with any human structure—be it financial, social, religious, or civic—capitalism certainly has many problems. However, all too often the criticism leveled against it is either directed prejudicially at its actual benefits or against elements that are common to all human structures. For example, consider Wright’s criticism that under capitalism “the rich get richer and poor poorer.” First, part of this criticism is true regardless of the economic system employed. Second, part of this criticism is actually a benefit of capitalism. And third, part of this criticism is demonstrably false. 

The first part, that “the rich get richer”, is not only true of all economic systems, is actually true of all structures in general. It is a well established law that structures favor the most established members. Not just human structures. As Dr. Jordan Peterson points out often in his writings and lectures, this applies to all structures. For instance, stars, trees, and (famously) lobsters all follow the ‘rich get richer’ rule. That is to say, stars don’t eventually all become equal, trees don’t all eventually grow to the same size, and lobsters don’t organize for equity. In every system of order, a few members will outrank all the others. That is not to say that we should simply accept that as inevitable. Obviously just because stars, trees, and lobsters operate uncaringly by that law, doesn’t mean that humans with the potential to realign ourselves according to ‘unnatural’ values shouldn’t strive to promote a more equal society. But what it does mean is that it is dishonest to say that this is a problem with capitalism. Communism, socialism, anarchism, and every other financial and societal system also have the same problem. For instance, under communism, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. 

The second part, that “the rich get richer”, is a benefit of capitalism, not a detriment. If this feels wrong to you, you should consider why you feel that way. There is an envy in the heart of man that considers inequality as perverse. This envy gets decorated with pretenses of good intentions and concern for the destitute, however, usually it is nothing more than raw envy. If the “poor” are wealthy by any reasonable standard, then why should they care if the wealthy are more wealthy? However, this criticism is indiscriminately and mindlessly directed at any disparity of wealth, almost regardless of the absolute levels of poverty that might or might not exist in the population. This is why politicians no longer rail against the evils of “millionaires” and have now moved on to attacking “billionaires”. It is no coincidence that most of those politicians themselves are millionaires, and a significant number of their constituents are also millionaires. Many don’t think of themselves as millionaires because they are counting their own wealth differently than they count that of the evil rich, but if you calculate how much you are potentially worth (factoring in the most optimistic value of your house, vehicles, and possessions and not taking into account debt or depreciation) many of you are also millionaires, and you are getting richer every day. That is the benefit of capitalism: Most people are rich, and they tend to get richer, not poorer. 

The third part, that “the poor get poorer”, is a flat out lie. It is empirically false. If we look at the general rate of poverty in any capitalistic economy it is indisputably the case that the poor are getting richer. It is only in non-capitalist economies that the poor are getting poorer. The reduction in absolute poverty worldwide over the last 200 years is one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and it is entirely due to capitalism. This has probably been one of the biggest experiments ever conducted in the history of the world. The control groups number in the Billions and every conceivable variable has been controlled for. There are massive test cases proving that it isn’t democracy nor natural resources nor historical privilege that account for this increase of wealth. Regardless of the form of government, the historical disadvantage, and the lack of natural resources; whenever capitalism is implemented, the poor get richer. And they get richer almost immediately, not over many generations. It is true that they don’t all get richer equally, and it is true that the rich also get richer. But if your goal is to lift each person out of absolute poverty, no human system has had any success (nevermind “greater success”) except capitalism. 

The danger in stating these facts is that it will sound like a full-throated worship of capitalism, or worse, a defense of the wealthy. I assure you it is neither. None of us should defend the wealthy. As James reminds us in his Epistle, the wealthy are often the source of much of the persecution that the church endures. Also, as I said before, capitalism has many, many problems. Not least of which is that it is not the economic system of God’s coming Kingdom. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, capitalism is the worst economic system mankind has ever devised, with the sole exception of every other economic system. For Christians, capitalism is a paradoxical reality. On the one hand, it is contingent on legal equality which resonates with Christians who believe strongly in a single, moral law, that applies indiscriminately to everyone, regardless of wealth. And that is the sine qua non of capitalism. But that legal equality is so critical because capitalism is also equally contingent on people behaving selfishly, and that is abhorrent to Christians. Adam Smith, in his classical essay on capitalism, “The Wealth of Nations” explains that when people are free to act in their own self-interest, the unintuitive result is a society that benefits everyone. The caveat to this, as previously stated, is that we must have a common set of rules that everyone must abide by. But given this precondition, people will do what is good for others, not because they care for others, but because they care for themselves and the best way to achieve their own objectives is by providing to others what they want. This is the inner clockwork of this economic system. In other words, it harnesses man’s selfishness to promote man’s common good. This is obviously at odds with what the Bible teaches as the supreme virtue: Selfless love.

Therefore, Christians should be very circumspect about defending capitalism. But we should also be vigilant to not condemn it with half-truths and outright lies. A benefit of capitalism is that, unlike Marxism, it doesn’t disallow a stubbornly Chrisitan disruption. Christians are free to ignore its structural incentives and rewards, and privately act according to contravening principles. Namely charity, mostly in the Biblical sense of the word, but also in the secular sense. But this must be done in accordance with Jesus’ principle of “giving to Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. That means that Christians cannot be motivated with capsizing capitalism or subverting it. Rather we act independent of it, with no ulterior motivation of prematurely and humanly instantiating a “Kingdom economy”. Christians are commanded to be submissively subversive. By the power of the Spirit we can implement a love driven economy within the church and with our neighbors and fellow citizens that is not only not capitalistic, but that fills in capitalism’s glaring shortcomings where specific individuals too often fall through and are crushed under its benevolent weight. However, this power must be coupled with the discernment of the Spirit. We must be vigilant to avoid the unjust and untrue criticisms of secular systems, but also be knowledgeable of the full panorama of the plethora of sins associated with the unrighteous Mammon.

It is true that the Bible pronounces many harsh reproaches against wealthy oppressors, and many stern admonitions to the faithful to be cautious of the mortal dangers of riches, as well as condemnation of the outright evilness of the love of money. However, there are also as many, if not more, equally serious exhortations to the poor warning them of the multigenerational consequences of bad life choices, lack of self-discipline, poor financial planning, and unrealistic understanding of money and wealth. And all of these are portrayed as sin also, not just temporal foolishness or unfortunate circumstances. Or in NT Wright’s parlance, they are a breakdown of the image bearing nature of man and result in a loss of his human dignity and enslavement to the powers of darkness. 

One such sin of the poor (illustrated by the mischaracterization made in this criticism of capitalism) is the implication that all wealth is the same. When NT Wright points out the all-too-obvious fact that a few people have so much more wealth than the rest, he fails to also point out that their wealth is also of a very different sort than that of the rest. He also fails to point out that this source is available to the poor but universally despised by them. The vast wealth of the uber-rich is not in possessions or in cash, it is in value. That is to say, it is in stocks and investments. When the average “poor” person hears that some multi-billionaire “made several billions of dollars overnight”, he imagines that several dump trucks backed up to his mega-mansion and filled his olympic size, heated jacuzzi with hundred dollar bills. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What happened was that an investment that they made, often many years prior, suddenly increased in perceived value on the stock market. Their theoretical wealth increased. However, it is seldom reported that it is almost as common for their investments to take sudden downturns, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars of value. But the point here isn’t to pity the poor billionaire who lost 20 billion in stock value. The point is that the wealthy accumulate their wealth through a different mechanism than the poor. And, even more important, that the reason they are the wealthy is because they accumulate their wealth differently. And, perhaps most importantly, the reason the poor are poor is because they pursue ‘poor wealth’. 

For those who are habitually destined and determined to be poor, wealth is possessions. It is having the things they want. Although they call them “needs”, which is actually symptomatic of the most fundamental sin that enslaves them to their poverty: Covetousness. True wealth is the capacity to purchase, not the purchase itself. When a person purchases what they want, they are trading wealth for use. They are renting pleasure. The wealthy understand that, and do not spend the majority of their wealth (in percentage) on things they want or need. They invest the lion’s share of their wealth into endeavors that will generate more wealth. As they become wealthier, they invest an even greater percentage and spend a smaller percentage. Many wealthy people have relatively very little cash. When governments talk about making the super rich pay a tax on wealth, they usually don’t acknowledge that it will entail them selling large swaths of their investments to be able to do it, and that will produce significant and mostly negative repercussions in the broader economy. However, the real point, as it pertains to criticizing capitalism, is that the poor have access to the same category of wealth creation as the rich. Investments are not the purview of only the elite. The reason that the poor don’t invest is because they prefer possessions. But the reason they remain poor is because they don’t invest. If a person spends all the money they make on possessions that only depreciate over time, they will have a house full of decaying garbage, a wallet full of debt, and a heart full of covetousness. 

If Christians are serious about dealing with poverty in a capitalistic culture, then we need to talk less about the canard of inequality and start preaching the words of Christ that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses.” It is very likely that the wealthy person we despise is far less covetous than the “poor” person we coddle. Too often the Church’s response to poverty is to feed it, that is to say, to incentivize it, to perpetuate it, to prolong it. They encourage a form of financial Munchausen’s. This response is symptomatic of the inherently conservative nature of Christianity itself. Christianity is not good at pivoting. It seems to always be fighting yesteryear’s battles. No doubt the exhortations to the wicked, oppressive wealthy were once very relevant; at a time when wealth was generated almost exclusively through feudalistic land holdings and royal ingratiation. However, the censure of these abuses and logical argumentation against them by the Church effectively put an end to feudalism, and created capitalism in its place as a far more pragmatic, meritocratic, and equitable system of both generating and distributing goods. The result now is that the big sin of our times is “faux poverty” not oppressive wealth. The wealthy are mostly wealthy because they found a way to serve the poor. (Think Walmart, Amazon, Facebook, and Home Depot. They rocketed to the financial stratosphere by selling at ever lower prices to as poor of people as possible, not by catering to royalty.) It is a sin to fake poverty. It is the sin of hypocrisy. It is the sin of contempt. It is the sin of laziness. It is the sin of irresponsibility. It is the sin of bad stewardship. The average person living in the West who is “poor” has, in effect, taken an impious vow of poverty. They have vowed to foolishly spend every cent they can scratch together on whatever their heart desires and to die poor and penniless with more obsolete gadgets and vehicles than Pharaoh could fit in the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Preaching against the rich is certainly necessary from time to time, however it is never very effective. Just like giving money to the poor. The poor, at least the poor today, are not in that situation because they lack opportunity but because they lack Christian instruction. Solomon understood that very well, and rather than write a scathing condemnation of the unrighteous wealthy, he wrote a “Do It Yourself” manual instructing his son how to make the most of the opportunities that everyone has but that most people squander. It is true that capitalism is seriously flawed, but that is merely a function of people being seriously flawed. If you struggle against a system that is simply a reflection of the people, you will be like the gardener who tried to cut down the tree by plucking off the leaves. And what system will we replace it with? They are all more flawed than what we are trying to undo. Paul’s wise advice is much better: “Those that took what they didn’t work for (aka ‘Stealing’) should steal no more, rather they should become hard workers, so that they might earn more than they need, so that they can help the less fortunate.” This is the Biblical solution to poverty, injustice, and flawed human systems. That is, until God’s kingdom reigns on earth as it does in heaven.

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