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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 17-29

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A Christian Critique of Economics

Carol Johnston
Christian Theological Seminary

Introduction: A Word About History

Contrary to the assertions of many contemporary economists, no economic model is "value-free." Both of the major models in the world today, capitalism (or neoclassical economic theory) and Marxism (or Marxian economics), have a long history in which basic assumptions and value choices were made that govern the models. Those assumptions and value choices have deep roots in Western culture, and were certainly shaped by Christianity as it has been practiced in the West (as opposed, often, to how it should have been practiced!). But in both cases, alternative choices were possible, and, as we shall see, some opportunities were missed. However, it is not my purpose to attempt to determine to what extent Christianity can be blamed or credited with the economics we must live with today. Rather, I hope to examine economics from the perspective of my Christian faith to ask how the economic models so powerful today have missed (or worked against) crucial elements of Jewish and Christian standards of justice, and how they might be transformed to create economies that are healthier for human and natural communities, and ecologically sustainable.

When Adam Smith published his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, he was asking if there could be a better way to run economies than the entrenched mercantilism of his day, which operated through state monopolies to benefit an elite. He and many others in his time were frustrated with mercantilism and searching for alternatives. They never imagined that the ideas they wrote about would some day coalesce into what we now call "capitalism," and succeed beyond their wildest dreams. They were just trying to make the system more open to more participation by a wider range of people. I believe that today we are in a similar situation. Capitalism has been wildly successful in its single goal: constant growth in the production of "goods." From a Christian perspective, this is an ambiguous goal and in and of itself cannot be supported. In addition, capitalism also has serious negative effects on both communities and the natural environment that must be dealt with, and it has a built-in tendency to leave many people marginalized—not only unemployed and often unemployable within the capitalist market system, but even worse, [End Page 17] stripped of traditional access to subsistence living. Consequently, many of us are searching for solutions—for ways to go beyond cosmetic reforms and really transform capitalism to make it a more equitable and environmentally sustainable system. Surely if Adam Smith and others of his day could think their way through to better ideas about economics than those offered in mercantilism, we can do the same with the economic models available to us today. If they could do it, we can do it.

Thinking Theologically About Economics and Acting Responsibly

As a Christian, I already approach economics with a number of assumptions, value choices, and perspectives that come from my tradition. I hope to be clear about what those are and compare them with those that are embedded in economics.

First of all, the world (which is both material and spiritual) is created by God, who recognizes it as "good" (Gen. 1). This world then is not something to be escaped (contrary to the beliefs of some Christians), but is to be lived in as fully as possible as the gracious gift of a generous and loving God. From a Christian perspective, science has for the most part focused solely on the material aspect of creation and ignored the spiritual. Insofar as economics has tried to be "scientific," it has also worked within a narrow framework of "facts" that focuses solely on "natural laws" and how things work at a material level. This is very inadequate from a Christian perspective, but as far as it goes, it is true enough. If economics would carefully stay within its own realm of "facts," Christians could have little to quarrel with. However...