God’s Bargain

One of the charms of Democracy is the barren privilege of our belief that we can bargain with an incredibly powerful being – our government – that knows almost nothing about us. We have a vote, and we hang on the words of candidates, hoping to hear a promise that we can bind with our vote. Those that draw upon other resources (whether the free market or faith) to garner security tend to wish to limit the role of government. Those looking at success from the outside often wish to draw upon governmental power to avert personal calamity. In most of the electorate, those two impulses join in incoherent combination. Witness, for example, the Floridian retiree who pronounces that entitlements must be cut to reduce the federal deficit, but insists that Medicare and Social Security are sacrosanct.

Entitlements for the elderly were established as a “New Deal” during the Great Depression. At that time, the elderly were the most impoverished segment of society. Since that time, the elderly have become the wealthiest segment of the population, being replaced on the lowest tier by our children.

The challenge of loving people unconditionally – of saying that you will invest in the survival of others without regards to merit – is to create conditions in which the loved ones may choose to use their power to hurt themselves and others. In our modern democracy, the elderly – the community with the most time for political organization – have used that opportunity to steal power from those without a political voice – children. That hasn’t happened directly, and any specific senior citizen would be angered by my characterization. But governments are aggregates, and my statement, in aggregate, is irrefutable.

The Bible, of course, is the story of Unconditional Love’s attempt to enter into and glorify the world. It celebrates episodes of human grace, but for the most part it is a record of iniquity – of the rejection of unconditional love in favor of material possessions (land, wealth or political alliance) that provide security. Inevitably, the strategies of material possession create competition between individuals and communities, often culminating in violence.

How does God deal with this problem? Well, in the Old Testament, generally by disassembling the nation. In the record we have Noah’s Flood, the subjugation of Egypt, the culling of the Golden Calf, the jealous threats of Exodus and the exile to Babylon. So we have this paradox: the gifts of Unconditional Love are showered on the people, but when they abuse them, they suffer terrible punishment.

Unfortunately, the power of this rebuke was projected onto individuals. If the nation should suffer as a whole for sin, so must the individual. Personal misfortune was interpreted as a consequence of personal sin, when in most cases it occurs as a result of sins committed by others. The hungry child sleeps at her desk while the septuagenarian on social security tees up on the golf course.

Jesus rails against such hypocrisy in the opening verses of Luke 13. He speaks of Galileans whose blood was added to the Hebrew sacrifices, and the people killed by the collapse of a tower, and warns that they were not alone in their sin. To the audience, he proclaims twice:

Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

But then Jesus tells a strange little story about a landowner that planted a fig tree in his vineyard. When it bears no fruit, he orders his gardener to cut it down as it was “wasting the soil.” To this, the gardener replies [ESV Luke 13:8-9]:

Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put manure on. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

In many other parables, Jesus speaks of himself as a landowner, prince or bridegroom, but in this case, I see him renewing his role as a tender of life, most familiarly through the parables of the shepherd. To those familiar with the story of the Golden Calf, it might come to mind that God threatened to destroy the entire Hebrew nation, and relented only when Moses assumed responsibility for their future conduct.

Here Jesus says that the problem is not with the Hebrew people (the tree) but with the ground they are planted in. He vows to spread his loving spirit on them, and counsels that they will flower and bear fruit under his care.

And if not, then God may destroy them. Note that: the landowner orders the gardener to cut down the tree, and the gardener offers to care for it another year, building a bond of caring that means that the landowner must do the work of clearing the ground.

In disobeying the owner the following year, will the gardener himself by cut down? Is Jesus offering this assurance to his disciples: “I will care for you as Moses did, and if you fall, I will fall with you.” Recognizing both that sin must not be allowed to take root in the land, but also committing himself without reservation to preservation of the tree of human spirit that will eventually spread Divine Love over the entire world?

Ultimately, the only stable security is in knowing that we are loved. God is the only perfect source of that love, but his restless seeking to heal the world means that we cannot take that love and hide from the world. We cannot “retire” in comfort. We must go into the dark places where people hunger and live in fearful ignorance and bring them love. If we do not, love will pass round us seeking another way, and the sins of others will overwhelm us.

God’s purpose is pure, and embraces everything. It can serve us only if we serve others.

God loves us, but he cannot be bargained with like we can bargain with a government.

But why would we want to?

Response to “Are Christianity and Capitalism Compatible?”

Source post is here.


Thanks for the link back to my post.

A comment on the history of economics (see Nasar’s “The Grand Pursuit”), motivated primarily by the principle that just as we should not hold Christ responsible for all the terrible things done in his name, so we should not hold Adam Smith responsible for all the things done in his name.

At the beginning of the 19th century, economic thought was dominated by Malthus. The “dismal science” held that there was no escape from widespread poverty, because the growth of systems of production appeared incapable of keeping pace with population growth at the subsistence level. This meant that, no matter how freely owners distributed profits to the workers, population would continue to grow until poverty imposed a constraint on lifespan. This justified much of conservative thought of the era, which held that sustaining the institutions of the state in the face of ravenous poverty was essential, lest the entire body of humanity be reduced to barbarism

Capitalism found a way out of this dilemma, essentially by supplementing the productive capacity of individual workers with machinery. The upshot was that, while wages per piece produced fell (as decried by Marx), the cost of goods fell even faster. This instituted an era of enormous growth in the global standard of living and average life span.

Unfortunately, this boon comes largely from our harvest of the bounty of the Earth – in the West, each of us consumes energy equivalent to 200 man-years of labor. This has been indulged without a mind to sustainability, so it looks as though we are likely to return to Malthusian economic outcomes in the near future.

I would note that the economic practices of the early Christian communities did not focus on the mechanisms of production or the issues of sustainability. These were beyond the ken of all except the most sophisticated members of society. In fact, the Fall of Rome and the ensuing deurbanization and decay of the social order was so traumatic to the Church fathers that they spent the next 1500 years trying to reestablish the Roman Empire, which they saw as the first Christian nation and therefore “God’s kingdom on earth.”

So I would suggest that capitalism, with its hopeful, rational and scientific view of productive processes, is not incompatible with Christianity. We are still left with two problems to confront: maturity regarding procreative opportunity (each of us needs to ask “can I actually love a child into the future he/she deserves?” and discipline ourselves accordingly), and fairness in the distribution of wealth, which currently is seriously out of whack in America.