Christian Economics: Conservative and Liberal

One of the frustrating things about American political debates these days is the division that is created among Christians over various matters of economy.  Certainly the handling of money has always been a challenge for every culture since the dawn of time; we all have greedy streaks within us that kick in at some level or another.  And yes, some governments and economic systems have been worse than others.  But for Christians in this country, today, to insist that “economic conservatism” is more biblical than “liberal economics,” or the other way around, is patently ridiculous.  The Bible does not give us a political approach to making policies about money, much less does it describe an economic theory that translates to the running of countries.  The closest it gets to these is the Law of Moses, a particular set of laws for a particular country that was conquered roughly 2,500 years ago.

And so, when you look at the history of Christian thought and practice, in conversation with the Bible’s witness of God’s will concerning the handling of money and wealth, you find a number of “liberal” notions and a number of “conservative” notions.  To think that we can contain the whole of biblical teaching into a single political party or economic policy is historically untenable (not to mention theologically unreasonable).  Here are four interesting quotes from various Early Church leaders and theologians on the topic of money and wealth.

From St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on 1 Corinthians:

It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard with indifference a human being, a being made in the image and likeness of God, who is naked, trembling with cold and almost unable to stand.

You say: ‘But that fellow there is pretending to tremble and not to have any strength.’  So what?  If that poor fellow is putting it on, he is doing it because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty.  Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity.  You would not have opened your heart to his destitution without his play-acting.

If it were not necessity compelling him, why should he behave in such a humiliating way just to get a bit of bread?

The made-up tale of the beggar is evidence of your inhumanity.  His prayers, his begging, his complaints, his tears, his wandering all day long round the city did not secure for him the smallest amount to live on.

That perhaps is the reason why he thought of acting a part.  But the shame and the blame for his made-up tale falls less on him than on you.

He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution.  You, on the other hand, deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation.

Notice the lack of phrases like “why doesn’t he get a job?” and “we should hold him accountable for his lies.”  No, here is the annoyingly “liberal” argument that a person is a person and if you have what another person needs, it is your duty to give it to them.

From St. Basil the Great’s commentary on Psalm 15:

If you help a poor person in the name of the Lord, you are making a gift and at the same time granting a loan.

You are making a gift because you have no expectation of being reimbursed by that poor person.  You are granting a loan because the Lord will settle the account.  It is not much that the Lord receives by means of the poor, but he will pay a great deal on their behalf.

“They who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord” (Proverbs 19:17).  Do you not want the master of all to be on your side, especially as he is prepared to settle your debt?  If a rich person were to promise to pay on behalf of others, would you not be happy to accept the pledge?  Why then do you not accept the Lord as surety for the poor?

Make a present of the money you have to spare without asking for interest: it will benefit you and others.

It will benefit you insofar as you have made your money safe.  It will benefit the others insofar as they are able to use it.

If all the same you are looking for some profit, be content with what the Lord will give you.  he will also give the interest on your gift to the poor.  So wait for the benevolence of the one who is truly benevolent.

The profit that you gain from the poor surpasses all bounds of cruelty.  You are profiting from misfortune, you are squeezing money out of tears, you are persecuting a defenceless being, you are belabouring someone who is starving.

You think the profit you make out of the poor is just.  But “Woe to those who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).  “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16), or kindly relationships from usury?

Now there’s a scathing rebuke of practically all of current Western civilization’s banking practices!

More from St. Basil, still meditating on Psalm 15:

Dogs are pacified if you give them a bone.  The money-lender becomes fiercer than ever when you pay him back his money.  He keeps on barking, demanding ever higher interest rates.  He won’t believe your sworn statement.  He tracks down what you have at home, he investigates all your business affairs.  If you go out of your house he drags you by force to his office.  If you stay in hiding at home, he stands in front of your door and knocks and knocks.

In the presence of your wife he makes you blush, he molests you in the presence of your friends, he attacks you in public.  He makes your life intolerable by repeating to you: ‘I need money urgently and the only possibility of my obtaining it is to secure from you the interest on my loan.’

If he then allows you a deferment, do you hope to derive any advantage from it?  Poverty is like a galloping horse.  It catches up with you quickly, it begins to chase you again and you find yourself in trouble as before, only further in debt than at first.  A loan in fact does not do away with poverty: it only postpones it.  Because that is so, put up with the hardships of poverty today and don’t put them off till tomorrow.

If you don’t ask the money-lender for help, while you are poor today, tomorrow you will be equally poor, but certainly no poorer.  If you ask the money-lender, tomorrow you will be worse off than today, because the interest payments will increase your poverty.

Today, no one will blame you for being poor.  It is a misfortune, not your fault.  But tomorrow, if you become a slave of the money-lender because of the interest payments, everyone will accuse you of folly.

Basil has something for everyone!  First of all he rips apart money-lenders, again putting up a major rebuke against the way we tend to do banking these days.  The way the rich exploit the poor through charging interest is utterly despicable.  But then he turns around and asserts that the poor should avoid putting themselves into debt, lest they be guilty of making their situation worse than it is.

Last, let’s return to St. John Chrysostom, this time commenting on the epistle to the Romans.

It is not enough to help the poor.  We must help them with generosity and without grumbling.  And it is not enough to help them without grumbling.  We must help them gladly and happily.  When the poor are helped there ought to be these two conditions: generosity and joy.

Why do you complain of giving something to the poor?  Why do you display bad temper in the practice of almsgiving?  If they see you in that frame of mind, the poor would prefer to refuse your gift.  If you give with a brusque demeanor, you are not being generous but lacking gentleness and courtesy.  If your face reveals a feeling of hostility, you cannot bring comfort to your brother or sister who is living in the midst of hostility.

Afterwards, you will be happy to see that they do not feel ashamed or humiliated just because you have helped them joyfully.  Nothing actually causes shame so much as having to receive something from someone else.

By showing your great joyfulness you will succeed in enabling your brother or sister to overcome their sensitivity.  They will understand that in your opinion receiving is just as beautiful as giving.

By showing bad temper, on the other hand, far from cheering them up you will be depressing them even further.

If you give gladly, even if you give only a little, it is a big gift.  If you give unwillingly, even if you give a big gift, you turn it into a small one.

Talk about an attitude check, huh?  Plenty of scriptural teachings pepper this commentary: it is more blessed to give than to receive, the Lord loves a cheerful giver, even the principle of the “widow’s mite” being greater than a thoughtless gift.

It is my hope and prayer that Christians in this (and every) country will start thinking more about their money and wealth from biblical standpoints rather than looking solely to what the Republicans, Democrats, Keyenesians, Socialists, or another ideological group asserts.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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