Friday, August 6, 2010

Judaism, Christianity and Capitalism

Judaism, Christianity and Capitalism

A historian has recently reminded us that the early -- 17th century -- Puritans in Massachusetts were seriously opposed to capitalism. For one thing, they disapproved of lending out money with interest. The entire finance and banking business was not allowed in Massachusetts. They also disapproved strenuously of selling goods for, as we say, "what the market will bear." We are used to selling goods at the current market price which depends on demand. If the goods you sell are scarce you can charge more. But according to the Puritans, that was extortion. When you sell as high as possible you take advantage of the needs and urgencies of the buyers. The baker who raises the price of bread in times of famine enriches himself at the expense of his hungry neighbors. When gasoline is in short supply and the oil company raises the price of gasoline for people who need to get to work, it takes advantage of the needs of their customers. So thought the Puritans.

Today, by contrast, our children learn in their introductory college economics class that prices are set by supply and demand. The Puritans were willing to admit that many merchants follow supply and demand to set their prices, but they also were quite unambiguous about their moral condemnation of that practice. But that part is not mentioned in Econ. 101.

The Puritans did not invent these condemnations of lending out money at interest or of charging as high a price as the market will bear. They based themselves on scriptural injunctions in the Old and the New Testament.

Deuteronomy 23:19 forbids lending money (or anything else, such as food) with interest to fellow Israelites, but permits lending with interest to strangers. Similar injunctions can be found elsewqhere in the Old Testament.

The New Testament also has much to say about economics. Perhaps the most famous is Matthew 19: 21-24: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. . . . it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Many people believe today that they have no ethical obligation to their fellow humans; all they need to do is to make as much money as possible. But the traditional Jewish and Christian thinking about the economy rests on the injunction to take care of others who are in need. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

This is what it says in Leviticus: “If your brother, who is living with you, falls on evil days and is unable to support himself with you, you must support him as you would a stranger or a guest, and he must continue to live with you. Do not make him work for you, do not take interest from him; fear your God, and let your brother live with you. You are not to lend him money at interest or give him food to make a profit out of it.” (Lev. 25:35-3 7).

That seems pretty unambiguous. Islam and Hinduism contain similar proscriptions against capitalist practices in their scriptures. Some evangelical Christians, notably the “New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good” are vocal in their insistence that we are responsible for saving the natural environment. They are equally insistent that the New Testament demands from us not to take advantage or oppress others. Oppressing others includes taking advantage of their pressing needs by charging them higher prices for goods that are scarce--that is to set prices by supply and demand.

The current economic crisis brings these issues to the fore. We are in this crisis because the money makers have been in charge and have ruined the lives of millions. Those lives remain precarious because the money makers run the government. They are proud that the big banks are making money once again. They regret that many people are still our of work and many people have lost their homes. But they are not prepared to do much about it. Making money is all important. Helping your fellow women and men is strictly secondary.

This is not a question about religion, about being an observant Jew, or a church going Christian, or a practicing Muslim or Hindu. You may want to leave all religion behind you as the superstitions of a less enlightened age. But you must still confront the question:  What sort of  world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world where money is more important than anything else, including human lives? Would you rather chose a compassionate world where the poor and suffering  will find someone to take them in?