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The Political Economy of the Gospels

T. Nicolaus Tideman*

The message of the Gospels is that our sins are forgivable, that death is not to be feared because our true lives are spiritual rather than physical, and that participation in the kingdom of God -- a new and better life in this world as well as the next -- is accessible to all who orient themselves to God.

Drawing on the Old Testament, Jesus taught that our first commandment is that we love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength, and that our second commandment is that we love our neighbor as ourselves.1 When asked who our neighbor is, he replied with the parable of the good Samaritan, implying that anyone we encounter is our neighbor. 2 Jesus taught an ethic in which there are no bounds on our obligations to others: 3

Love your enemies,
do good to them which hate you
Bless them that curse you and pray for them
which despitefully use you.
And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek
offer also the other;
and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.
Give to every man that asketh of thee;
and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

When asked by Peter, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" Jesus replied, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." 4 In other words, we are to forgive indefinitely.

This unbounded obligation to others is reconciled with the need to survive through the introduction of the idea that it is not through our own anxious efforts, but through God's provision for us that we survive:

Therefore I say unto you,
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink;
nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.
Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
Behold the fowls of the air:
for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns;
yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.
Are ye not much better than they?
Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
And why take ye thought for raiment?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you,
That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field,
which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven,
shall he not much more clothe you,
O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying,
What shall we eat?
or, What shall we drink?
or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness;
and all these things shall be added unto you.

The message of the Gospels denies the validity of concern for material scarcity. This is made particularly clear in the accounts of the feeding of the multitudes with just a few loaves and fishes.5

comprehending this counterintuitive idea, that material scarcity is not to concern us, is brought out by the accounts of how even Jesus' disciples did not understand the message: 6

Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread,
neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf.
And he charged them, saying,
Take heed, beware
of the leaven of the Pharisees,
and of the leaven of Herod.
And they reasoned among themselves, saying,
It is because we have no bread.
And Jesus knew it, he saith unto them,
Why reason ye, because ye have no bread?
perceive ye not yet, neither understand?
have ye your heart yet hardened?
Having eyes, see ye not?
and having ears, hear ye not?
and do ye not remember?
When I brake the five loaves among five thousand,
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up?
They say unto him,
And when the seven among four thousand,
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up?
And they said,
And he said unto them,
How is it that ye do not understand?

Without a concept of material scarcity it is difficult to construct an economic theory, as material scarcity is central to economic theory. And yet, even without a concept of material scarcity there is an allocation problem to be solved — the allocation of our efforts.

In the parable of the talents we are told that we will be expected to accomplish something with the resources that are put into our hands. 8 This parable is followed in Matthew by a teaching that may be taken as an indication of what constitutes accomplishment: 9

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand,
Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you
from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat:
I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink:
I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me:
I was sick, and ye visited me:
I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying,
Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee?
or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in?
or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them,
Verily I say unto you,
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren,
ye have done it unto me.

In other words, every person is a manifestation of God, and anything that we can do to help anyone is to our credit.

There is thus an unlimited task for each of us. No one of us will ever be able to say, "I have done every last thing that might be required of me. I have no further obligations." But neither are we to be concerned that that which we have left undone might be held against us. For if we refrain from judging others, we ourselves will not be judged: 10

Judge not, and ye shall not be judged:
condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned:
forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:
Can the blind lead the blind?
shall they not both fall into the ditch?
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye,
but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Either how canst thou say to thy brother,
Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye,
when thou thyself beholdest not the beam
that is in thine own eye?

We are called to a different form of leadership: 11

Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles
exercise lordship over them;
and their great ones exercise authority upon them.
But so shall it not be among you:
but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:
And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.

Jesus reinforced this message during the last supper, when he took on the dress of a slave and performed a slave's duties: 12

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments;
and took a towel and girded himself.
After that he poureth water into a basin,
and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments,
and was set down again, he said unto them,
Know ye what I have done to you?
Ye call me Master and Lord:
and ye say well;
for so I am.
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet;
ye also ought to wash one another's feet.

In other words, leadership consists of serving.

With this message of the Gospels in mind, turn now to the problem of political economy, the problem of what principles ought to govern the organization of the production of goods and their distribution.

One might first ask whether the requirement that we abandon concern for scarcity would preclude production. The answer is no, it is not production that we are cautioned to avoid, but anxiety. There are any number of reasons why we might allocate some of our time to production, without being anxious about our own material requirements. We feel called to undertake a particular kind of work, so we do it, trusting that any material needs we may have will be satisfied. If we want to undertake our productive activities in conjunction with others, that's fine, too. Associating with others provides us with opportunities to be useful to them.

Among those who are close to us there is no need for prices and markets, because we can see easily enough how we can be of service to them. But human discernment is limited, and prices and markets help us to be aware of what is valued by people who are less close to us.

This begins to sound like a standard, invisible-hand defense of free markets. There is one important difference, however. The standard account of free markets starts with a specification of the endowments of individuals, behind which is a presumption of a police system that will use whatever coercion is necessary to ensure that the specified endowments are respected. Since individuals are presumed to be basically selfish in the standard account of the benefits of free markets, it is unimaginable, in this framework, that any claims would be respected without the power of the police to enforce them. In a political economy based on the Gospels on the other hand, it is by the combination of the basic decency of people and the providence of God that the rightful claims of individuals are honored. There is no need, and there is no acceptable basis, for applying coercion to enforce claims. The utter inconsistency of the message of the Gospels with reliance on force is developed powerfully by John Howard Yoder in "The Politics of Jesus,"13 and again by Stanley Hauerwas in "The Peaceable Kingdom."14

With coercive enforcement absent, the public sector is necessarily somewhat different in a political economy based on the Gospels. When his opponents tried to trap Jesus by asking him whether it was lawful for them to pay taxes to Caesar, he said that they should "Render ... unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's."15 Governments undertake many activities that benefit us, and for this we should be grateful and willingly pay our assigned shares of the costs. Even if we do not benefit, the Gospels teach that we should give to whoever asks, so of course we pay our taxes. But this should not be taken as an endorsement of the coercive collection of taxes. To the extent that we help to shape the institution of our political economies, the message of the Gospels calls upon us to declare that it is not on our behalf and with our approval that the tax collectors imprison those who refuse to pay. We are called to rely upon the kind of mechanism for financing public goods that is employed by churches and the United Nations: voluntary contributions.

It must be through voluntary contributions as well that provision is made for those who might otherwise lack. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will want them and their children to have the opportunities that we and our children have. We will want to maintain our heritage from nature so that every generation can have the opportunities that we have.

But we also need to refrain from judging others. With respect to political economy this means most obviously that anyone who wishes must have the opportunity to leave our political economy and join another or found a new one. And for this we must love them no less. If we are to love as ourselves those neighbors of ours who do not wish to be part of our political economy, we must ensure that the claim that we make of the providence of nature, the flow of land value and natural resources that we claim for our political economy, is no more per capita than is available to those who are not part of our political economy.

Refraining from the use of force is a recurring theme in the political economy of the Gospels. We are called to refrain from the use of force in defense of property. We are called to refrain from the use of force in financing public activities. We are called to refrain from the use of force in providing for those who might otherwise lack. And we show our love for those who do not wish to participate in our political economy by leaving for them the same per capita value of land and natural resources that we claim for ourselves.

Consider now how this framework bears on some traditional questions of economic ethics. Take first the problem of the just price. This simply is not an issue. If two people have the opportunity to trade--to cooperate--on terms that are mutually agreeable to the two of them, it is not for us to say that they ought to be trading on other terms. Between people who love one another, the problem of settling on the terms of trade is no more difficult than the problem when friends eat lunch together of deciding who will pick up the tab, or how it will be split.

That those outside a relationship are not called upon to prescribe its terms is supported by a passage from Luke:16

And one of the company said unto him,
Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.
And he said unto him,
Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?
And he said unto them,
Take heed, and beware of covetousness:
for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.

Relations between employers and employees are a special case of relations between traders. The Gospels call for this relationship, as all relationships, to be founded on confidence and love. The relationship cannot be healthy if either party looks upon the other as someone to exploit. Neither should feelings of being exploited be allowed to endure. If we feel exploited and we feel that the relationship cannot be healed, then we should find something else to do, secure in the knowledge that God does not abandon anyone to a life of exploitation.

The problem of worker management is not a problem either. If an employer finds that his employees want to participate in the management of the enterprise, he can express his confidence in them and his love for them by opening the management process to them. If employees want to manage they should trust that it will be possible for them to do so, somewhere, if not in the firms where they presently work. If some employers or some employees want to have nothing to do with worker management, they should trust that they will be brought together with their counterparts in firms where the functions are separated.

Corporate responsibility may be more of an issue for a Gospel-based political economy. The corporate form of organization permits us to participate in the establishment and management of firms while knowing very little about the other people with whom we are involved or the actions that are taken on our behalf. If this leads us to support implicitly actions of managers in their concern for the bottom line that we could not in good conscience take ourselves, then there is something troubling about our participation in corporations. We need to find ways of managing the resources under our control that do not lead us to endorse implicitly and to profit from actions that we would not endorse directly or take ourselves.

The grand question of economic ethics, the question of whether capitalism or socialism is the more appropriate form of political economy, is another non-question from the perspective of the Gospels. Everyone who wants to live under socialism should be free to live under socialism, and everyone who wants to live under capitalism should be free to live under capitalism. In whichever group we fall, we will want to insure that those who want to organize their lives by different principles of political economy have their share of land and natural resources with which to do so.

A political economy based on the Gospels is a political economy based on love. As the First Epistle of John says, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear."17 To construct a political economy of the Gospels we must be free of fear: free of fear that others may rob us; free of fear that others may not contribute to the provision of public goods or to provision for those who might otherwise lack; free of fear that our incomes will be too low or the prices we face too high; free of fear that if we don't do something, someone will be exploited. Only when love has replaced all fear in our hearts will we be able to construct the political economy of the Gospels.


* Virginia Polytechnic and State University. I am indebted to Estill Putney for helpful suggestions.

1. Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28, drawing on Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. All quotations are from the King James Bible, as phrased in the Washburn College Bible (Oxford, 1979).
2. Luke 10:29-37.
3. Luke 6:27-30.
4. Matthew 18:21-22.
5. Matthew 6:25-31,33.
6. Matthew 14:16-21, 15:32-38; Mark 6:35-44, 8:1-9; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:5-13.
7. Mark 8:14-21. See also Matthew 16:5-12.
8. Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27.
9. Matthew 25:34-40.
10. Luke 6:37,39,41-42.
11. Mark 10:42-44.
12. John 13:3-5,12-14.
13. Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, William Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1972.
14. Hauerwas, Stanley, The Peaceable Kingdom, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1983.
15. Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26.
16. Luke 12:13-15.
17. 1 John 4:18.

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper