Just Capitalism - A Review

A lot of public debate about economics deals in caricature, particularly of capitalism. Critics of markets tend to argue that it is fundamentally unjust and based primarily on greed.

Some beneficiaries of capitalism tend to sheepishly agree with the injustice of the system but either shrug their shoulders because they feel they can’t change it or support it anyway because they like the prosperity that comes through the market system.

Brent Waters takes a significantly different approach. He writes,

My principal contention is that globalization is the only credible means at present for alleviating poverty on a global scale. Consequently, a well-ordered global capitalism is compatible with such core convictions as the preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing. To be naively anticapitalism is thereby to effective opt against the poor and diminish human flourishing. Therefore, an ethic of globalization necessarily entails a defense of capitalism.

This is, in fact, why I am pro-markets and anti-socialism. No economic system is perfect because they all involve imperfect, sinful humans. The free market economic system will not prevent all human suffering; however, it has proven to be a better tool to alleviating human suffering than various attempts at socialism.

Summary

Waters argues his thesis in two parts. The first five chapters of the volume outline the necessity of exchange and the place of Christians to argue for market systems. His first chapter summaries some of the historical arguments about wealth and poverty. Chapter Two defines what Waters means by markets and argues for the good in competition and cooperation that are necessary for a market economic system. In the third chapter, the author addresses the topic of creative destruction, the relationship of markets to governance, and an argument that markets represent the best means for improving human flourishing on a broad scale. Chapter Four makes a case for the good of affluence as a pathway to flourishing. The fifth chapter, which closes out the first part of the book, makes the case that affluence is the best means of eradicating poverty on a wide scale.

Part Two of Just Capitalism builds on the general affirmation of free markets, as offered in the first part, but critiques the failures in most current forms of capitalism.  The upshot of the last five chapters is that free markets without virtuous people engaged in exchange are no less evil than socialism. In Chapter Six, Waters argues that exchange is necessary for human flourishing, but it must be oriented toward that end rather than simply focusing on increasing one’s economic status. The seventh chapter shows that for markets to achieve their purpose, they must function within the context of a civil society with the purpose of sharing the goods of creation. Chapter Eight offers some provisional thoughts on possible relationships between a free, civil society that enables exchange with political orderings that prevent abuse. The ninth chapter fleshes out the concepts of freedom and justice, making an implicit case about the differences between positive and negative rights and their relationship with justice. Chapter Ten functions as a conclusion, where Waters draws together the threads of his earlier arguments to further emphasize the good that global capitalism can do to alleviate poverty.

Analysis and Conclusion

Waters is clearly not arguing that every instance of capitalism is good. Neither is he arguing that the present instantiation of global capitalism has no flaws. Many contemporary critics of global capitalism assume that the abuses that arise within existing markets are necessarily a feature and not a bug of the system. On the other hand, some proponents for markets insufficiently critique the sin that is evidenced in current markets and often make a similar assumption that some of the worst aspects of global capitalism are a necessary evil.

This book challenges assumptions on both sides. Economic systems are not inherently unjust or just. However, Waters carefully argues that free markets have a higher probability in resulting in just outcomes due to the self-corrective nature of the market system. At the same time, simply accepting capitalism without working to morally form the members of the market will lead to exclusion of potential market contributors due to social injustices. Waters’ book explains that markets can be good, but we have to work at keeping them moral.

This is the best moral case for the free market economic system that I have seen. There are points where one can disagree with Waters, but he realistically examines the benefits and risks of capitalism, showing that in the balance global capitalism is the best means of alleviating poverty.

Just Capitalism
$31.70
By Brent Waters

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The above link is an affiliate link.

More than Enough - A Review

Most of us live in this world unaware of how wealthy we are. We have much more than what we need. As people in the United States, or even much of the so-called developed world, we have more resources available than royalty in previous ages.

More-than-Enough.jpg

Lee Hull Moses seeks to address this condition and provide a Christian approach to living in our state of wealth. Her book, More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess is an attempt to navigate through the tangle ethics of a global economy, with a myriad of decisions each day. This book is focused on showing how Christians should live in light of their situation.

Moses is Senior Minister of the First Christian Church in Greensboro, NC. The congregation she leads is part of the left-leaning United Church of Christ. A liberal approach to Christianity significantly colors the volume, and helps to explain where she lands in so many ways.

The volume is comprised of thirteen chapters, in addition to an introduction and conclusion. In the first chapter, she begins by calling the reader to desire to live well as Christians; she wants her readers to delight in daily existence. Chapter Two offers the assertion that we (middle class Americans) have plenty and need to learn when to accept we have enough. The third chapter decries the complexity of living a simple life: it just isn’t as easy as the books usually suggest. Chapter Four is a lament for injustice in this world.

In Chapter Five, Moses uses two texts of Scripture to commend generosity and self-limitation to the reader. Zacchaeus and the rich young ruler represent this paradigm for her. The sixth chapter offers a confession of her own wastefulness and indulgences, like buying candy that she fears may have chocolate sourced by child slaves, and taking a vacation trip to Barcelona, Spain. Chapter Seven addresses the plague of stuff—too much of it, more of it than needed, and much of it never really appreciated. The eighth chapter speaks of the Sabbath, the theory of which Moses pulls from Walter Brueggemann, with a call to practice it in contemporary society.

The ninth chapter calls for people to pursue social justice, particularly to seek the good of neighbors. In Chapter Ten, Moses celebrates hope and finds energy for her pursuit of justice in the future reconciliation of all things. The eleventh chapter documents Moses’ work to increase government expenditures on social programs some see as necessary to bring about justice. Chapter Twelve calls the reader to delight in the good things in life, which is about where the volume began. In the thirteenth chapter, Moses discusses participation in Christianity—particularly the mainline denomination—and finding continuity and future meaning related to her God’s goodness. The conclusion ends with plaintively, with a statement that there is good and bad in the world, but she hopes it gets better.

There are several strengths to this volume. First, Moses avoids the trap of idealism all too common with volumes on the topic of social justice and excessive wealth. She recognizes that sometimes we make decisions that are considered by some to be less than good because we don’t have time to research more, drive farther for a product, or simply walk instead of driving. By including a confession of her own failings and the sometimes murkiness of her own decisions, Moses captures the complexity of life in our contemporary world. This makes he volume more convincing than some advocates of a certain version of social justice.

Second, Moses recognizes the very apparent reality that the United States is awash in wealth. Much of the perceived financial pressure middle class families feel is self-caused, as they pursue a lifestyle that is just a little beyond their means. Life really is more delightful if we desire less and delight in what we have. Additionally, her assertion that Christians should be exemplars for others living in contentedness on less than others is biblically sound.

Despite these strengths, Moses’ approach has some deficiencies. The most striking is the absence of a real gospel, of propitiation, of actual forgiveness of sin. Moses does define sin in the volume, but she describes it as human action that interrupts to flow of God’s love rather than an offense against a holy God. (52) The deepest weakness of this volume is that Moses senses her own guilt, but does not seem to understand that the solution to the guilt is not marching in the state capitol or buying so-called fair trade products, but in throwing herself on the mercy of God and receiving relief from her guilt through Christ. Instead of building her faith on the completed work of Jesus Christ, Moses claims, “The faith we affirm is built on the hope of a future reconciliation, a promise that the world will be made whole.” (97) This is vastly different than Paul’s claim that the resurrection is of first importance. We have to have the resurrection before we can have that future reconciliation.

The missing gospel is due as much to the absence of a real, personal God through the volume. It appears that for Moses the most significant relationships on earth are those between her and other humans. In fact, the entire volume reflects an attempt at self-justification by attempting to mitigate human suffering. Moses puts herself at the absolute center of her Christian experience, and seems to believe others should view themselves as the center of their own. Therefore, she does not ask whether what she does pleases an almighty, holy, personal God. Rather, she asks whether she’s done enough to assuage her guilty feelings about her wealth and privilege. The book is built on a foundation of what appears to be moral therapeutic deism.

The efforts Moses suggests to bring about equality of outcomes tend to be built on growing the government and forcefully redistributing wealth. Moses claims that the government’s role is to “make sure nobody gets left out or left behind.” This is a far cry from pursuing justice, which is what Scripture repeatedly affirms as the role of government. By calling the government to enforce equality, Moses is asking it to do something that it simply cannot do in concert with pursuing justice.

In addition to a questionable definition of government, Moses also falls prey to the popular myth of a zero-sum economics. She views her own consumption as morally dubious because she sees whatever she uses as taking away from others. This approach to economics is common, but is certainly not universally accepted. It is also undermined by the fact that the percentage of the world’s population living in poverty is declining, contrary to her assertion that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” (43) While there is too much poverty in the world, Moses fails to recognize the vast improvements in human welfare that have been made possible very recently, and that many who own nearly nothing in this world’s goods are among the most wealthy.

This book holds out a great deal of promise. There is too much injustice in this world. There are structural biases in our nation that need to be addressed. Many times companies and politicians are motivated by selfish gain rather than the common good. Individuals and families waste too many resources and ignore too much evil in this world. The topic is a worthy topic.

However, Moses’ approach is unsuccessful because it lacks the potency of the gospel, which motivates the regenerate to do justice, and love mercy in this world. It is the gospel that should inspire Christians in the West to work toward economic systems that recognize the goodness of human contributions and the justice of protecting private property. It is the holiness of God that should enflame the hearts of the Church to action. What Moses offers is a motivation built on a feeling of sadness due to personal guilt. Thank God that he provided a way for so much more through the cross.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Review of Evangelical Ethics: A Reader

The recent anthology, Evangelical Ethics, from Westminster John Knox Press seemed promising. There has been no such collection focusing on scholarship from Evangelical Christian sources in wide circulation in recent decades. This is not due to a lack of ethical writing, but no one has previously taken up the mantle of chronicler to produce a volume. This lays a groundwork of expectation for the recent release from David Gushee and Isaac B. Sharp.

What Kind of Evangelical?

Unfortunately, this book suffers from excessive editorial interference. In the introduction, the editors acknowledge there are different understandings of Evangelicalism.

This dates back to the sociological versus doctrinal understandings that have formed a fissure between so-called progressive Evangelicals and conservative Evangelicals. The main qualification for the sociological understanding of Evangelical is claiming the title and being from a historically Evangelical tradition.

Often there is a residual discussion of the centrality of the gospel, but the many times the personal impact of the gospel is obscured by an emphasis on social activity. For conservative Evangelicals, the qualifications for the title are primarily doctrinal.

Doctrinally centered Evangelicals ask question like: Is Scripture understood to be the supreme norm? Is the gospel, including its impact on individual salvation, central to the life of the Christian? These are the primary concerns.

Gushee and Sharp acknowledge the division and then largely dismiss those who hold to a doctrinal understanding of Evangelicalism.

As a result, the most clearly identifiable Evangelicals in the list of included authors are Carl F. H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer. The selection from Henry is from The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which was chosen to illustrate how Henry had an interest in social ethics. A valid selection and a good one. Schaeffer’s selection is from How Should We Then Live. This, too is a worthy selection, though the introduction notes that his tone is “declinist” and that it seems to center on the issue of abortion, as if that was unwarranted in 1976 with Roe V. Wade a distant memory of three years previous .

Emphasis on Social Ethics

The volume is structured to minimize the significance of personal ethics. In fact, the only social issues considered in any depth in this text are economics and race. These are two worthy issues, but by avoiding personal ethics including abortion and sexual ethics, a false portrait is painted.

The image represented is also one of support for only one position on the issues discussed, as if there had been no ongoing conversation with differing views. Additionally, the issue of environmentalism is largely ignored, which is not representative of the last several decades of Evangelical thought, whether progressive or doctrinally centered.

Missing Voices

Instead of selecting texts that represent Evangelicalism as it is, the editors have selected texts that represent Evangelicalism as it is in their idealized world.

As such, minorities are significantly over-represented. This is not to discount the voice of those minorities, but if the major voices of a movement are mainly white men, then a reader that purports to describe that movement should represent the reality not the rosy vision of the chroniclers. The selections in this volume amount to historical revisionism.

The book is only about 160 pages. Most readers are at least twice that length. There was no lack of source material, so it is unclear why the volume turned out so unbalanced.

Missing from the relatively slim volume are John Stott, Oliver O’Donovan, Daniel Heimbach, the Feinberg brothers, John Jefferson Davis, John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Wayne Grudem, Arthur Holmes, Stanley Grenz and others. Instead, a crowd of individuals who have largely rejected the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, which has typically been a hallmark of Evangelical theology.

In other words, this is a misrepresentation of the actual history and content of Evangelical ethics. If, as the title implies, the intent was to provide representative samples of the field, then it has largely failed.

Mixed Voices

That being said, some of the essays included are powerful. John Perkins’ testimony of being beaten and through that experience seeing the need for white men to hear the gospel is powerful. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s essay on the holistic power of the gospel for changing and redeeming the world is helpful.

Both the essay by Henry and the one by Schaeffer fairly represent a significant segment of doctrinally faithful Evangelicalism. There is some quality, but it is such a corpus permixtum that the volume has lost its center in Evangelical identity.

Certainly this highly massaged image will please those hoping to pull the Evangelical movement away from their traditional reliance on Scripture and interest in orthodoxy. That is exactly why the volume drew praise on the back cover from Lisa Sowle Cahill, who is theologically liberal. If the goal is to try to “redeem” the perception of Evangelical ethics from an emphasis traditional concern for doctrinal orthodoxy, then this book is a masterpiece.

Tragedy of homogeneity

One of the most beneficial aspects of my seminary education, both at the graduate and postgraduate level, have been the opportunities to read opposing viewpoints and figure out what makes those thinkers believe what they do. In other words, it is good to read people you don’t agree with.

This is why I read what David Gushee writes, as a general rule. He is generally sound in his reasoning even when I find his premises or conclusions unacceptable. Here I think he, along with Strong, have deprived future progressives of the benefit of an accessible, curated volume of primary sources that reflect historical reality.

The editors have thus increased the likelihood that some progressive Evangelicals and more liberal thinkers that read this volume will remain in the echo chamber of their own tradition and remain unexposed to conservative theologians. This minimizes the potential benefit of what could have been a significant volume for the long term.

Evangelical Ethics: A Reader (Library of Theological Ethics)
$29.38
By David P. Gushee, Isaac B. Sharp

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was received from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians

Dorothy Day holding up a prison dress. Photo courtesy of Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.

The Armchair Theologians series from Westminster John Knox is, as one expects by the title, designed to be an accessible and entertaining approach to the biographies of some of the most significant theologians. The authors for these volumes are always fans of the biographical subject. Therefore, there tends to be a bias toward the views of the subject, with a very minimal critique offered.

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty’s recent contribution to the series on the socialist Catholic, Dorothy Day fits into the series well. On the whole, Hinson-Hasty celebrates the life and work of Day, only stopping to critique Day in those places where she was not sufficiently feminist. Therefore, Day’s negative view of abortion, willingness to get married, and traditional views on sexual orientation are noted as blemishes on her record and excused based on chronologically inferior cultural influence.

Setting aside the somewhat hagiographic aspects of this work, and the series in general, which are native to this approach, this volume in particular is a very helpful means of getting introduced to the lives of significant theologians. In fact, the whole series by Westminster John Knox is enjoyable because the authors like the subject. This makes the prose more lively in many cases.

At just about 200 pages, Hinson-Hasty provides an overview of Day’s life and work that covers the major epochs in her life, the main thrust of her work, and helps to place Day in her cultural context. Additionally, the author shows how Day’s ideas have been appropriated and applied to contemporary social justice movements. This makes the book a useful introduction into the topic.

Before reading Hinson-Hasty’s book, Dorothy Day was relatively unknown to me. In fact, this is one of the reasons I requested this book for review. I have read excerpts of her writing in my time as a seminary student, but had learned very little about her. 

Dorothy's last meeting with Mother Teresa. This occurred in Dorothy's room at Maryhouse in Manhattan. Eileen Egan is on the left. The photo was taken in 1979, the year before Dorothy's death, by Bill Barrett. (Marquette University Archives) Photo Credit to Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.

Dorothy's last meeting with Mother Teresa. This occurred in Dorothy's room at Maryhouse in Manhattan. Eileen Egan is on the left. The photo was taken in 1979, the year before Dorothy's death, by Bill Barrett. (Marquette University Archives) Photo Credit to Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.


Dorothy Day was not a professional theologian or ethicist. In fact, she had no academic credentials to speak of. She was, however, a writer and a social activist who was key in the labor movement in a particular era of American history. Day’s life demonstrates that all the degrees in the world do not make one influential, and that influence can be gained by continual, faithful witness.

Day was nothing if not a legitimate practitioner of her views. She was a socialist, and so she lived in community. She was a strong advocate of a “peace ethic” and so she went to a great distance not to have hierarchical relationships, or even rules, in the open communities in which she lived.

Dorothy Day was influential for some of the liberation theologians. Her writing in the Catholic Worker, as pro-socialist newspaper, helped to shape the thinking of many of the Latin American liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez. Much like Gutierrez would later do, Day lived in poverty in the slums rather than doing her philanthropic theologizing from a distant suburban neighborhood.

It is for her integrity that Day deserves the most praise. She authentically lived in community with people from any and every social background. She sought to do her work for the poor from among the poor. This helped keep her faithful to her message, and lends credibility to her writing. Hinson-Hasty helped me gain a new appreciation for Dorothy Day through her presentation of Day’s life in this biography.

In the end, while I do not agree with the author’s theological positions, this is a helpful book. In fact, all of the Armchair Theologians are worthwhile reads when you are trying to get a quick overview of the life of a significant Christian thinker.

I commend this book and the entire series to readers because, in a world awash with information, such brief biographies provide engaging and informative introductions. While not suitable for academic research, they are beneficial for personal edification.

Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians
$14.56
By Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty


Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. All opinions expressed are my own.