The Bible, the Market, and the Meltdown

by Matthew Raley When I started this series on the evangelical alliance with political conservatism, I noted three questions to explore biblically. Evangelicals should act as citizens from a biblical framework, not an ideological one. So, does the Bible teach a worldview of citizenship that coheres with conservatism?

Last week, we surveyed the Bible's view of the state in general, finding that government is set up by God for a nation's justice and security, and that government must not control worship. The real governor of a nation is the ethic of the people, the way citizens live day-to-day.

In this context, the first of my questions is, "What does the Bible teach about work, property, and profit -- the preoccupations of contemporary libertarianism?"

The Bible teaches that work is one of the most basic ways human beings glorify God. Proverbs 22.29 is typical: "Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men." Working skillfully to generate a return of abundance is at the heart of the mandate God gave human beings in the beginning (Genesis 1.28; 2.5-15).

Laziness is condemned, sometimes in comical terms, as in Proverbs 26.13-16. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth." In Proverbs 24.30-34 the wise man passes by the field of a sluggard, "and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down."

The Bible teaches at length about caring for the poor, but it always calls for work as an expression of their dignity. For instance, farmers were to leave the corners of their field unharvested so that the poor could glean what they needed (e.g. Ruth 2). This perspective continues in the New Testament, as in 2 Thessalonians 3.6-12, where Paul commands, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

I was struck by PBS's American Experience this week, which told the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt envisioned building up a generation of young men through hard work, a vision that came from a biblically formed worldview. Anything like the CCC today would be viewed as heinous cruelty because our concept of work is messed-up.

The Bible's teaching on property is summed up in the 8th commandment (Exodus 20.15): "You shall not steal." The words of Proverbs 22.28 are frequently repeated: "Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set." (Note the cross-references.) The act of taking property is, in biblical terms, one of the lowest forms of wickedness. A key proof of King Ahab's villainy, for instance, is his seizure of a vineyard (1 Kings 21).

Indeed, it's not too much to say that the entire law of Moses is founded on the distinction between Mine and Not-Mine.

We have a society today in which we call things Mine when they are purchased with unsecured debt, and in which asset-backed notes can back other notes (which the Bible would call fraud, since the same surety backs two debts). We have a messed-up concept of property.

One of the best places to see the Bible's teaching on profit is Proverbs 31.10-31, a description of the wise woman. She works hard, directs laborers, trades goods, manages and expands the family's properties, and makes a clear profit. Her life is ennobling, both for herself and her community.

The Bible puts limits on the profit motive by making a distinction between work and exploitation. The 4th commandment about the Sabbath, or ceasing, applied to all servants and animals, not just masters, on the seventh day of every week (Exodus 20.8-11). Every seventh year there was a Sabbath for the land (Leviticus 25.1-22). There were also strong protections against the exploitation of the powerless in the law, comprehended in Proverbs 28.8.

Two observations about all of this.

First, the Bible's concept of civil rights is strong, but is not founded on abstractions. It is tied tangibly to work, property, and profit. This is the most fundamental problem between the Bible and the political left, which abstracts a growing list of entitlements based on nothing but egalitarian rhetoric. This is great for the lawyers, and promises to get even better. But it has nothing to do with the biblical concept of justice.

Second, the tendency of libertarianism to see the profit motive as the cure for all social problems often produces exploitation, which the Bible calls sin. No state can overlook exploitation without destroying civil society.

What does all this have to do with last year's financial meltdown?

Just this: no legislature passed a law saying American households had to run up unsecured debts, deplete what little equity they had by refinancing their mortgages, and bet on ever-escalating home prices to make them rich in retirement. The American people themselves did this because their degraded ethics of work and property left them with an exploitative view of profit.

The Bible's view of national life is accurate: the ethics of the people rule.