Podcast: Were the First Christians Socialists? (Greg Forster)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

The Difference Christianity Makes

Greg Forster, author of Economics: A Student’s Guide discusses whether or not the first Christians were socialists, reflecting on how believers should think about our global economy, the right way to respond to increasing income inequality in the US, and why Christians should be the most generous people on earth.


Greg Forster

This book draws on the legacy of the Christian tradition to introduce readers to the study of economics, challenging them to carefully apply biblically rooted economic values. Part of the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series.

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Full Transcript



Matt Tully
Well Greg, thank you so much for being here on The Crossway Podcast today.

Greg Forster
Thanks for having me.

Defining Economics


Matt Tully
In our culture today, we spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and debating about various issues related to economics. And we spent a lot of time discussing some of the ethical considerations related to economics, and rightly so. In your book you note that, “Scripture speaks extensively about right and wrong economic arrangements.” And so that’s where I’d like to spend a lot of our time today, discussing some of those things. But before we get into that, can you briefly explain what economics is?

Greg Forster
Usually when people ask what economics is, what they really mean is What is the economy? Economics is really easy to define as the academic discipline that studies the economy. Just like chemistry is the academic discipline that studies chemicals and what they do.

The economy turns out to be a little harder to define. Economists speak of it in terms of our trade-off decisions. So you have $10 and you’re deciding whether to buy something with it or save it, which would allow you to buy something else later, or put it in the bank. You are spending your time praying and you suddenly realize that instead of praying, maybe you need to be downstairs helping your spouse wash up the dishes—to take an example from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. You have to make decisions about how you spend your money. You have to make decisions about how you spend your time. You have to make decisions about how you’re going to use all of your material possessions. You have to make decisions about what relationships you are going to build and how you’re going to build them. You have to make a lot of decisions that involve trade-offs, where you want both A and B, but you can’t have both because if you go for A you lose the opportunity to get B, and vice versa.

So economists speak of the economy as this vast web of human behavior in which we’re all making decisions that involve trade-offs, and our decisions affect each other. If I spend $10 to buy this item, it affects you as the person who’s selling it to me, and it also affects a lot of other people as well. For example, the chair that I’m sitting on right now was made by thousands of different people. There’s actually no one individual person who knows how to make this chair because there’s no one person who is in charge of the whole process from beginning to end. From the mining of the raw materials, to the construction of the different parts, to the assembly, to the shipping, to the advertising that made you aware that this chair was available from a certain place at a certain price, and on and on and on—many thousands of people made this chair and there’s nobody who could do it alone. So as we make decisions about how to use our time and resources and and all of our other things, we are affecting each other. And the economy is this big web of relationships that we’re in.

When people talk about the economy, usually they’re referring specifically to the structures that are created for the purpose of managing these trade-offs—businesses, financial structures, marketplaces, things we create specifically for the purpose of managing the trade-offs that we have to deal with every day. Unfortunately, when you say “the economy,” most people will immediately think of one of two things. They’ll either think of numbers and mathematical formulas, or they’ll think of talking heads on a screen yelling at each other about politics.

Matt Tully

Greg Forster
Numbers are great. I love them. I’m a social scientist, among other things, and I think numbers are fantastic. I also think politics is great. The yelling is something we could do without, but I think public policy debates are great. But all that is not the economy. The economy is this lived web of relationships that we’re all involved in. And as Christians we have to think carefully about how we participate in that vast exchange and what God’s intentions are for it.

Is Economics The Dismal Science?


Matt Tully
Economists sometimes joke that economics is The Dismal Science. What do they mean by that?

Greg Forster
Well, essentially the central message of economics is, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.” Or as one famous economist put it, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” What he means by that is someone can offer to buy your lunch for you, but you still have to spend the time. So you you lose the time it takes to eat it, and by accepting the gift you’re implicating your relationship with that person and they may expect gratitude or want something from you later. And even if you set that aside, the person who bought that lunch for you has paid for it. Somebody somewhere paid. Even if no money was involved—if we were in a barter economy—people’s work went into the creation of the lunch. So somebody paid with their labor if they didn’t pay with their money. Economics emphasizes the necessity of trade-offs, which is how it got the nickname The Dismal Science. And I think from a Christian point of view, this is not something we put into the category of “sin.” It’s something we put into the category of “finitude.”

We are not God. We are created beings. As created beings we have limits. So even in an unfallen world there would be an economy. There would be economic systems because you cannot do everything if you want to do A and B, but you can only do one of them, you have to make a choice. And that’s just inherent in being a creature rather than the Creator. So we have to make these economic trade-offs even in an unfallen world. But obviously while it gets its name from the fact that it emphasizes finitude, I think for most people economics is the dismal science because they encounter so much sin, wickedness, and injustice in the world of the economy. Economics is one of the primary places where we encounter the fall. You look at Genesis 3—the very first effect of the curse that’s pronounced is to Adam. And it’s not that he’ll have to work because there’s work before the fall.

But the first effect of the curse is, “In the sweat of your face, you will labor. And the field will produce thorns and thistles for you.” So right there at the very beginning, before any of the other consequences of sin are announced, the first consequence is economic: that work will be toilsome. In other words, that it will involve pain and strain. So work is not a curse, but through our work we experience pain and stress. And work also has a new element of futility that you can do everything right and still fail. In the unfallen world when Adam sows grass, he gets grass. When he sows wheat, he gets wheat. But in a fallen world you can get weeds where you didn’t sew them. Because in a fallen world the ground is disorderly. The world is disorderly. It doesn’t always give you what you want. You can do everything right and still fail now, which was not the case before the fall. So the economy—our work—is a primary place where we experience the effects of the fall and that transitions to things like buying and selling, the use of money. I mean, Jesus is very serious about the dangers involved in the use of money. So there’s a double-edged answer to that. It’s a dismal science because it emphasizes finitude, but there’s a lived experience of sin in the economy that we respond to.

Free Market and Capitalism


Matt Tully
I’m struck by the way you’ve described it. The economy is much broader than how we often think about it. Yet money, financial markets, and that kind of thing is at the center of it. It’s certainly the thing that comes to mind when we say the economy. And so I want to actually ask a couple questions about that as well. A couple terms that I think we often hear about our economy in the United States is “free market” and “capitalism.” So, I wonder if you could briefly describe or define those two terms and how they relate to one another?

Greg Forster
I have stopped using those terms entirely because I find they mean different things to different people and they have so much baggage associated with them. I find I can communicate much more clearly if I just use other words. So for example, I once attended a debate in which two of the most famous biblical scholars in the English-speaking world debated the question, Is capitalism biblical? And they spent forty-five minutes debating and it turned out that they agreed about everything except the word capitalism because both of them were in favor of a basic market structure. They didn’t want a government-planned economy. Both of them were in favor of a welfare state, and they agreed that it should be a limited welfare state. They were both concerned about long-term dependence on welfare programs, but they also supported the existence of such programs. They wanted a culture of generosity so that those who had wealth were willing to use it to help others. They wanted a reasonable amount of health and safety regulation, but not too much, and on it went. But they were debating. The only thing they were debating was whether to call this thing capitalism.

So I raised my hand and I said, “Do the two of you disagree about anything—literally anything—except the word capitalism?” And they were unable to come up with anything they disagreed about. I’m sure that if they sat down and thought about it they could probably come up with something that they disagreed about, but it really shows you how our polarized culture has surfaced secondary, and even tertiary disagreements, at the expense of identifying common ground in the koinonia—the communion of the saints—that the Christian intellectual tradition has passed on to us in the form of economic thinking. I think, to get to your specific question, on the one hand for some people capitalism means a system of rule of law in which property rights are protected and people have the right to engage in buying and selling and creating businesses without arbitrary interference. Whereas for others capitalism is a cultural system dominated by greed and consumerism in which societies attempt to whip up affluence for themselves by telling people to Go! Buy! Buy! Buy!

And I think both of those phenomena are real and I think in the church there’s broad agreement that we ought to have property rights and the rule of law and that consumer greed and consumerism are bad and that there’s a major problem with a culture of greed and consumerism. I think we just diverted in the way we use the word capitalism, so I have stopped using the word.

Free markets is similar. It maybe has a little bit more of a specified meaning, but it still has different resonance on the two sides of the aisle. So I like to emphasize that we want property rights and the rule of law. We want an entrepreneurial economy where people have the freedom to start new things and to keep the fruits of their labor. And we also want generosity. We want concern for the poor.

We have to recognize that in the modern world the traditional systems of caring for the poor have broken down because they were not designed for the modern world. I think we have to recognize that we have not yet invented systems that work to help people in poverty and we have to treat that as an urgent, unsolved problem. And I think if we could stop debating about the word capitalism, maybe we could mobilize the church to deal with this urgent, unsolved problem because the church really should be the first line of defense against poverty and I think it’s a crying shame that nobody says, “Oh you’re in financial trouble. The place you need to go is church.” That’s on us. It’s the church’s responsibility to be figuring out how to help people. And so I feel strongly that that’s something there’s an opportunity there to create a powerful witness to the world if we could only mobilize to do it.

Cultural Capitalism


Matt Tully
Yeah, I think when people criticize capitalism, they typically have in mind that iconic scene from the movie Wall Street back in the late eighties where Gordon Gekko utters that famous line, “Greed is good.” And he kind of epitomizes this capitalistic mindset.

Greg Forster
Well, notice it’s a historical narrative. He said, “Greed is what has created all the great accomplishments of the human race.” And for some people that narrative is capitalism. That narrative is what’s distinct about the whole cultural system of capitalism. What lies behind this division is two scholarly discourses in the social sciences. Sociology and anthropology—at least since Max Weber—have used this discourse that capitalism is a spirit before it is a system, and it is a spirit of accumulation. Whereas in economics and political science, capitalism is identified in terms of its legal structures. Capitalism means a system under the rule of law with protection for property and contract rights, and that’s because economists and political scientists are primarily thinking of capitalism as distinct from communism and socialism, whereas sociologists and anthropologists are primarily thinking of it as distinguished from tradition-bound societies. And they’re seeing an emergence of capitalism as against historic, tradition-bound systems of economic organization.

But I think you need both. I think you need to be able to distinguish modern economic systems from from tradition-bound ones. But you also need to be able to distinguish systems that respect people’s freedoms from totalitarian systems that don’t. And if only we could just shake hands and agree on all that I think we’d get a lot done.

Were Early Christians Socialist?


Matt Tully
Yeah. So I think Christians, when we come to these issues, these questions, these contentious debates about the proper role of government and how economic systems should be set up and function, we often look to Scripture, rightly so, to guide us in that thinking. One of the passages that often is cited is Acts 4:32–37 which records that in the early days of the church, “No one said that any of the things that belong to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” To a lot of people that sounds a lot like how they would describe socialism. So were the first Christians socialist?

Greg Forster
Right. If you look at the rest of the passage, you see that Ananias lies about having this property and Peter says, Well, this was your property. And you didn’t have to sell it and bring us the money. He says quite explicitly, It was yours and you were not obligated to do this. So clearly some sort of property right is still operating.

Matt Tully
And the reason he was put to death was . . .

Greg Forster
For lying.

Matt Tully
For lying about it. For acting like he was going to do it.

Greg Forster
Right, that he held back some of the proceeds.
Craig Blomberg has also pointed to linguistic characteristics. Now, I’m no Greek scholar, but Craig Blomberg is. And he’s pointed to linguistic characteristics indicating that the sharing in the passage that you’ve described is more of a an occasional rather than constant reality. So when people had needs, sharing occurred. Not that private property was obliterated because the sharing was a constant, present reality, but that on occasions when it was called for, possessions were shared.

But I don’t think this penetrates to the root of the matter. I think the root of the matter is this: modern socialism and communism didn’t exist in the ancient world and the essence of these systems is essentially eschatological—that we can build heaven on Earth by rearranging economic systems. Socialism and communism begin with the assumption that human problems can be solved if we can just force the economic structures into the right shape. I mean, this is why they’re built on force. That’s their fundamental principle. Whereas the early church trusted God to solve their problems. They weren’t trying to force anybody’s system into the right shape because they knew that you can’t save people by forcing social systems into the right shape.

So I think the fundamental difference here, in my mind, is more eschatological. Where are you looking for your salvation? Is it to God or to some political movement? And I think we can say that, but I want to stop and put a big warning marker on this. This passage in Acts is not there to supply free marketers with a talking point against socialism. That is not why is there. It’s there to summon us to radical generosity. I think we should be asking not only the question Is socialism biblical?, but also the question, Do we in the church today practice the radical sharing—even if it’s only on occasion—that clearly characterized the early church and was so important that Acts highlights it in this dramatic way? Acts really emphasized that this is important.

And so while I agree and I think it’s very important that we should not use this passage to paste Bible passages on very dangerous totalitarian ideologies that say, We can fix the world if we just had the power to force things into the right shape. I’m awake to that danger. I think we should all be awake to that danger. But at the same time, Scripture’s emphasis here is on the call to radical generosity, which the church today is not yet living up to. And I think we should not lose that in the debate about whether Acts 4 socialist?

Criticisms of Capitalism


Matt Tully
You highlighted the important eschatological realities behind socialism and communism. Does capitalism not fall under that same critique? Is there something different about Capitalism as a system?

Greg Forster
Once again, it depends on what you mean by capitalism. Stepping back from that word for a moment, in the modern world, one of the primary things we have to deal with is religious pluralism. We now live in a world where societies do not have a shared religion. What does that mean? Well, it means we have to live together and we have to have social systems that do not make ultimate claims, or make only the kind of minimal ultimate claims that it’s easy to get social consensus around. And this is simply a reality of the end of the medieval Christendom idea that you can force everybody to be Christian at the point of a sword. Now, if we’re not going to force everybody to be Christian at the point of a sword, you have to have a system of rights in which people are entitled to disagree with each other and we still live together in peace, even though we have different ultimate ends.

So my friends who defend capitalism would say, “Capitalism doesn’t fall under this critique because capitalism makes no claim to be an ultimate system. It makes no claim that it will save you. It’s only a system of rights to protect people from arbitrary interference.” The rule of law and property rights are for them the essence of capitalism. And the whole point of that is to protect you from people who want to force their ultimate answer on to you instead of your ultimate answer.

If what you mean by capitalism is a narrative like the Gordon Gekko narrative that greed and pride are the source of human improvement—which is also a real phenomenon that we see clearly in the world around us—that is an eschatological vision. And to the extent that people buy that they are making an eschatological investment not in a political movement to rearrange economic systems, but rather a false eschatology: the false eschatology of material success.

One of my heroes is Whittaker Chambers, a Christian writer from the twentieth century. And he said that there are two false sources of salvation in the political world. One is violence. That through violent, revolutionary movements we can rearrange systems and then everyone will be saved. Right? If we could just force things into the right shape. And the other is the narrative of material success. That if we can just forget God long enough to all get rich together, then we’ll be saved because everybody will get rich and be happy without God.

So it’s a false eschatology, but it’s very much a false eschatology to be awake to and fighting.

The Christian’s Role in the Economy


Matt Tully
What would you say to someone who hears that but says, It sounds a little bit like you are denying the importance of Christians being active and God using means to accomplish his purposes. So, you know, it’s not about Socialist beliefs, or capitalist beliefs are not about trying to bring Heaven on Earth necessarily, but it’s a belief that God has called us to actually do things, and he works through people making decisions and creating laws.

Greg Forster
I think the shoe is on the other foot. I think the church has been paralyzed by this felt need to resolve the debate—Is capitalism biblical?—before we’re allowed to roll up our sleeves and get anything done. That’s what led to my frustrating experience of hearing two of the brightest people in the church spend forty-five minutes debating, when they didn’t actually disagree about anything. I have seen this time and again. Another friend of mine who was in charge of bringing events to university campuses on economic subjects was told at one university, Well, if you came in we would have to have somebody else to debate you because we don’t do public subjects unless we have both sides represented. And then later in the same meeting they said that they had just had a meeting on human trafficking. And he said, Oh really? Who was your speaker in favor of human trafficking? Right? I think the need to frame everything as a debate creates an us-versus-them mentality that divides the church.

Now, I’m not saying that we don’t have disagreements. I’m not saying they don’t matter. I’m saying we’re in a moment right now where what the church most needs is to identify what we agree about and act on it. Because we have a lot more agreement than we think we do if we can step back from these hot-button terms.

Look the work Brian Fikkert has done helping churches figure out better ways to serve the poor. That stuff could be done on a much bigger scale. You could have churches across the country doing stuff like that. And I think we’re starting to see that—I don’t want to say nothing is happening. But if what you’re looking for is a sense of urgency to get stuff done, that’s what I’m offering. I just think the social ethics question has been processed in a way that’s paralyzing. And again, I don’t want to dismiss systemic questions because they need to be asked. But I think the systemic questions can be asked from the standpoint of what we all agree about and we don’t.

The Role of Government


Matt Tully
Some could say that the economic realities facing us today, and going into the future, are so big that we need a larger kind of interference. We need government intervention to help address these, and the disagreement is about how that should look.

Greg Forster
Right. So one side says the only thing we need is freer markets and the other side says the only thing we need is bigger government. And they’re both paralyzing because neither of them is something you can do. Whereas God’s Plan A for social action in the church is the local church. And local churches can and should be doing all kinds of things in their communities without waiting for politicians to take the lead. Goodness gracious, when did the church begin waiting for politicians to get their act in order before the church is allowed to be the church? That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not just talking about having an economic development program for your local community. This is about whether the church is going to be the church. Live as the church. I mean, obviously the church is the church in Christ regardless, but when are we going to live into our identity as the church?

Well, we better be doing something to bring life to the world, to express our faith. As Bonhoeffer said, “If our hands are not busy with acts of love then our mouths have no right to preach the message of Christ in its fullness.” That’s absolutely true. So, let me give you an example—a tangible example—to put my money where my mouth is. Right now welfare programs in the United States will penalize you financially if you get married. You will lose dollars if you are on welfare and you get married. Now, I don’t care if you’re left-wing or right-wing, I don’t care if you think that welfare programs should be bigger or smaller—we all ought to be able to shake hands and agree that there should not be a financial penalty for getting married. Especially if you have children.

Matt Tully
Where do you think that comes from? Because if we all agree, that’s not a good idea, why is it in place?

Greg Forster
Well, that’s a long and complex story, as injustices often are. To be blunt, I think part of it is an unwillingness in current political systems to privilege marriage over singleness. An unwillingness to say you ought to be married if you’re having children. Or we want to support, you know, people being married if they have children. So if you’re entitled to the same money, if you have this certain number of children, and then you get married, you now have an earner. You have an additional earner in the home so you’ll be penalized for your earning capacity. Now, this is complex and there’s no simple one-step solution to solving this problem. But goodness gracious. We’re doing nothing about it. I’ve never heard anybody preach on the injustice of this. I don’t see Christian activists in Washington raising this issue, but here’s a place where left and right ought to be able to totally agree, right? I can’t see any ideological objection from either side that if you are on an assistance program, you should be able to get married to the parent of your child without suffering a dollar loss. We should be marching in the streets with torches and pitchforks over this, but we’re not. I’m not discouraging political activism. I’m not discouraging systemic ethics. I’m just saying let’s not be paralyzed by debates to the extent that we’re not able to take action on anything.

Matt Tully
It’s a both/and issue, and maybe the priority for us as individual Christians should generally be local action as Christians in our churches.

Greg Forster
Well, I do think the Christian intellectual tradition points to a sort of preference for local action in the local church, which I think can be broadened to a general principle that local action is always preferable to large-scale systems that tend to become one-size-fits-all and disconnected from those they serve. And that, by the way, applies to both the government programs and to market systems, which are also often disconnected from local accountability.

Income Inequality


Matt Tully
So one of the most contentious economic issues today that many see as having a very strong ethical or moral dimension to it is income inequality, which according to many is at an all-time high in the US. Writing for Chicago Booth Review, Howard Gold writes that the top 1% of US adults now earn on average eighty-one times more than the bottom 50% of adults. And he compares that to 1981, when they earned just twenty-seven times the lower half. So how should Christians think about this issue in particular? Do you think there are distinct Christian principles that should come to bear on this growing income inequality we see in our country?

Greg Forster
This is often framed in terms of a choice between caring about inequality or caring about whether the people at the bottom are doing okay. And what if you could take better care of the people at the bottom, but the price for that is the people at the top get much, much richer, so that the gap gets bigger? What choice would you make if that were the trade-off?

Once again, the two sides are bringing different lenses to see this phenomenon. I think people are more concerned about income inequality as distinct from caring for the poor, because that’s the distinction that I’m drawing here. If you’re isolating income inequality from the question of how are the poor doing, people care more about income inequality to the extent that they think that people get rich through illegitimate means and there are different factors that contribute to people believing that those who are wealthy are wealthy through illegitimate means. And if people are wealthy through illegitimate means, then it is a primary moral concern that they’ve accumulated this wealth and gotten ahead of everybody else.
This is what you see, for example, in the New Testament enunciations of the wealthy because in the New Testament world the wealthy people swaggering around to the Romans and how did they get rich? They conquered and they took. They stole the land, right? This is why in the Old Testament wealth is generally treated as a blessing from God that we are to be grateful for, whereas in the New Testament wealth is viewed as both a symptom and a source of evil because in the Old Testament the land was given to the people by God and they had wealth because they had land, which was given to them by God. Right? In that agricultural economy wealth comes from land. The land is a gift of God. That’s a central message of the Old Testament. I gave you this land. Remember that I gave you this land or you’re going to forget that I gave you this land and you’re going to think you made this money on your own.

That is a paraphrase of a passage in Exodus. And in the New Testament the rich appear as malefactors. And the reason the rich appears as malefactors is because they stole the land. So if you think that people who have wealth got it through illegitimate means, you’re going to be mortally offended at inequality, even distinct from the question of whether the poor are doing well or not. But if you think that people generally make wealth through legitimate means, then you’re not going to be concerned about income inequality.
The example one friend of mine uses is JK Rowling. JK Rowling became a billionaire by writing a book. And by writing this book she entertained millions of people and she sold intellectual property rights to movie companies, which then entertained millions of people and that’s all she did. I mean, she literally just she wrote some books and she became a billionaire. And she did not take that money away from anybody. She didn’t steal it. Nobody is worse off because she’s better off.

She produced something that had value to people and people said, Yes, I’ll pay $20 for a copy of that book. Yes. I’ll pay $20 for a ticket to that movie. But to the extent that you think the wealthy are less like JK Rowling and more like Carlos Slim, who is sometimes considered the wealthiest man in the world, or at least he used to be. I think these days it’s Jeff Bezos. But let’s say Carlos Slim, who became wealthy by leveraging personal connections with the Mexican government. He got telecom contracts that were handed to him by his political connections. He was able to make a ton of money because he knew the right people and because the system was corrupt. He owns the New York Times because he had this inside track. Now if you think that most wealthy people are like Carlos Slim and they made their money through corrupt connections with big government, then you’re going to be concerned about income inequality. If you think that most of the wealthy are like JK Rowling who made their money by doing honest labor, then you’re going to be less concerned about income inequality. And the thing is, I can tell you both stories.

Story One: In the modern economy, people have more freedom to do what they are gifted to do instead of being required to do whatever job society assigns them. In the medieval world, if your father is a cooper, you’re a cooper. If your father is a miller, you’re a miller. If your father is a carpenter, you’re a carpenter. The range of professions is limited and your personal range of professions is one. And that’s if you’re a man. If you’re a woman you’re consigned to the house and you’re given less opportunity. In the modern world people can go find the job that suits them, like JK Rowling, who came from nowhere—it’s not like her parents were great authors. JK Rowling grew up in poverty, a single mom, but she had this talent and she was able to produce this product that everybody wanted.

So Story One says the modern economy has unleashed people to use their gifts, particularly as technology progresses. Though few people who can do computer stuff really well, they can monetize their gifts in a totally unprecedented way. So you get Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, right? The new billionaires can monetize their very, very rare capacities in a new way. So Story One says the modern world produces inequality and there’s nothing you can do about it unless you’re going to go round up the people with enormous capacities and enslave them.

Story Two says that tradition-based cultures economies were morally ordered because there was a shared religion and a shared tradition and it was understood that there were certain behaviors you were not allowed to engage in. And yes, there was a certain amount of corruption, you know, let’s not be naive and romantic. Kings were often very bad. But there were limits to what you could do. And if you push the limits too far, prophets started rising to oppose you. And that doesn’t only happen supernaturally, even just within natural human culture, if you push the boundaries too far people will start marching with torches and pitchforks.

But in the modern world traditions have dissolved and societies are pluralistic. So how do you hold people morally accountable when there’s no standard? We can go knock on the door of the billionaire and say, “Stop oppressing people.” And the billionaire can say, “Why shouldn’t I?” And we say, “Well, because ourChristian standard says that you shouldn’t do that.” And the billionaire has every right in the modern world to say, “Well, nuts to your Christian standard. Nuts to your hippie God who says we should love each other. My God says the strong should rule the weak.” In the modern world, if you’re not going to force everybody to pretend to be Christian, you kind of have to put up with that. But it means a much larger level of moral disorder as possible and so systems of corruption run amok.

So I can tell you both of those stories and the problem is that they’re both true. And I think that’s why income inequality has created such an irresolvable problem in the church. You can tell a story that people are getting richer for legitimate reasons and therefore income inequality shouldn’t be something we’re offended about. But you can also tell a story that people at the top are less morally accountable than they used to be and that’s also true. This is an unsolved problem.

I think the extent that a solution is possible depends on reorienting ourselves from the thinking that the existence of people with a lot of wealth is inherently bad, because I don’t think that’s sustainable within the Christian intellectual tradition. I think Christian ethical tradition doesn’t doesn’t allow for a radical leveling where nobody is rich. But instead reorienting the question: how do we create a cultural environment where those who do have a lot of wealth and power are more morally accountable for how they use it? I think if we could crack that nut, if we could solve that problem, income inequality would be less offensive. It wouldn’t necessarily go away, but we’d be less upset about it because we would have a sense that those in positions of wealth and power are accountable for what they do.

There’s a line in Micah that Amy Sherman likes to quote, “When the righteous prosper the city rejoices.” So it’s not that somebody prospering is inherently wrong, we want righteous people to prosper. The city rejoices at that because they want righteous people to have wealth and power because they know they’ll use it well.

Is the System Unjust?


Matt Tully
Is it possible that another angle on this question could be that although the individuals who are amassing this wealth are, let’s just say for the sake of argument, generally moral people who are not oppressing people intentionally, they are part of a system or part of an economy that is unjust. Our modern economy, which is so different than it was a hundred years ago, which by definition tends toward the consolidation of wealth. And so the system itself is unjust even if individual actors aren’t.

Greg Forster
Right. I think you’re raising a different question. The question there is, Is the economic system fundamentally unjust? Ff it were true that people were only getting rich through illegitimate means, that would be a fairly strong sign that the underlying system is inherently unjust. But I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think that it’s all corruption and crony capitalism, particularly if you compare the system we have to the major alternatives that exist in the world, which really do run on cronyism. That’s what socialism and communism are: giving political elites the power to arbitrarily rearrange economic arrangements, which means giving them arbitrary power over human beings and essentially enslaving the populace. That’s a fundamentally unjust system. A system in which human rights are respected and the rule of law is upheld is not going to be a fundamentally unjust system. If people are using their freedom as a cover-up for evil, as Paul says, that’s not an indictment of freedom. It’s an indictment of evil and I think the church should always expect that the world will be full of people misusing their power. It’s unreasonable to demand that the economic system deliver to us a world without corruption. That’s not going to happen, though Scripture and the Christian intellectual tradition permit us to sometimes say a system is totally corrupt and we have to overthrow it. So like most Christian ethicists, I think there is a legitimate right of revolution against tyranny. I think the emphasis in Scripture is that you don’t reach that point until the very end of the line. That’s the desperate last resort, to take up arms against the whole system and overthrow it. To the extent that you can work within the system, building up what’s already good in it, and challenging what’s bad in it. That’s the default mode. To drop out of the system and take up arms against it is really a desperate remedy.

Ethical Responsibility


Matt Tully
So kind of related to that, what kind of moral responsibility do we as Christians bear just by participating in an economic system that is at times unethical and unjust? In other words, are we implicated in the unethical actions of individuals, or companies, or even governments when we engage in economic transactions with them?

Greg Forster
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Christian ethicists have historically distinguished between what’s called formal cooperation with evil and material cooperation with evil. Here’s what that means. Let’s say you sell me a car, right? You’ve got a car. You want to get rid of it.

Matt Tully
Minivan, more like it.

Greg Forster
Let’s say I pay you $5,000 for that car. You take that $5,000 and you spend it on some horrible criminal enterprise. You sold your car because you wanted to raise money to buy the materials you needed to rob a bank. You just had to have that cash. Now, I have materially cooperated with your evil because I provided conditions that were necessary for it. But I am not implicated in what you did, because I don’t know what you’re doing with my $5,000 and it’s not my responsibility to prevent you from spending the money I gave you on bank robbery. So I’ve materially cooperated with evil but I’ve not formally cooperated with evil because my act does not take the form of, Yes, take this money and go rob banks with it. I’m making a venture capital investment in your promising enterprise to rob banks.

Now, if when you’re selling me the car you say, “I’m selling you this car so I can raise money to buy the material to buy the guns that I need to have my gang go rob a bank,” suddenly my position is very different.

Most real-world experiences are not that cut and dry. This is why there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because most of the time you are not facing a situation where someone comes to you and says, Hey, will you formally cooperate with my evil, please? So I think while there’s room for a sliding scale where we’re more or less concerned in different situations, I think that I would on the whole be less inclined to emphasize things like boycotts and not buying certain things from people because I just don’t think you are that implicated. Like if I buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks and let’s say there was something bad about the owner Starbucks. Nobody thinks that when I buy a cup of coffee from them that I have endorsed everything that’s believed by the owner of the company, or even by the company itself.
I don’t know the owner of Starbucks—I hate to implicate him as they don’t actually know anything bad about the owner of Starbucks, for the record.

Matt Tully
That’s what I was going to say. It feels like it can be a little more tricky than that when it is the company–and we see this more and more today–where whole companies are coming out supporting certain types of behaviors or social projects that some of which Christians would perhaps be opposed to.

Greg Forster
Which is why I want to leave space for that kind of thing to be potentially on the table. But to my mind a bigger issue in the daily economic life of Christians is spending money on things that you don’t need. I’m hearing this question from a lot of people wringing their hands about whether it’s okay for them to own stock. But I want to know how much of your money is spent on things that you don’t need. Because to waste your money on frivolities is not only immoral in itself, it trains you in lack of self-control, which will have wide-ranging consequences. I don’t want to take that overboard either. You know, Calvin has this passage in The Institutes about monks who compete to see who can survive on less bread and water.
So you can take any of this too far, but if you have practiced a rigorous self-discipline and eliminated everything you don’t need, then I think you have standing to ask, *Is my buying this product from this company compromising my witness? Live your message first. Live your message first before you go try to preach it to other people. This comes back to Bonhoeffer’s quote that I mentioned earlier: “If our hands are not busy with acts of love then our mouths have no right to preach the message of Christ in its fullness.” And I don’t see a ton of people who have practiced this kind of self-denial. Let me put it this way. It’s very easy to organize a splashy boycott, but people will look at that and say, “What did you give up?” You just went and bought a product from somebody else. Our witness is effective to the extent that we are willing to suffer for it. Which is why you should start with self-denial at home, because then you’re proving you’re willing to deny yourself something that you could have for the sake of the Christian message. And when you have suffered for the Christian message, then let’s talk about boycotts and stuff like that. I mean, I appreciate that this is coming from in the modern world where we have less moral coherence. The economic system is not firmly grounded in any comprehensive moral worldview. But that just goes with the end of Christendom. If we’re not going to try and force people to be Christians at the point of a sword, we’re going to have a pluralistic world where social systems like the economy are not going to be morally coherent. And that means diminished expectations for what it means that you bought a cup of coffee from this company, or what it means that you bought a razor from this company, or a sneaker, or a chicken sandwich. I mean, we’re getting close to a world where you cannot buy any consumer product without participating in the culture war. I’m not sure that’s helpful.



Matt Tully
Well, Greg. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing just some of your own wisdom regarding how we should think about these important issues. As you stress in your book, these are issues that we deal with by necessity on a daily basis and it’s good to have some biblical wisdom for that.

Greg Forster
Thanks for having me. I’ve really had a good time.

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