Economics (Justice,Greed,Tax) Isaiah & Micah Reader Faves B

Are Economic Matters a Moral Issue? Isaiah Thinks So.

In spite of Isaiah, and other Bible sources, we’ve all heard this – something like:

I. It is NOT the government’s place to interfere in economic matters – tell people how they should spend their money or how they should treat their employees. That warps economic process and is an abuse of freedom and a terrible threat to all of us. So it is anti-American and very unChristian. And it will lead to socialism and Communism and fascism and tyranny.

A major theme of the Bible is that there is indeed a higher standard for public behavior than the preferences of the wealthy and powerful of this world.

II. And it is not moral for any government to forcibly take money from anyone for any purpose – certainly not to use it for the benefit of someone else. When you get down to it, they feel, taxation is theft.

Are economic matters of moral concern? of Biblical concern?

Those attitudes are not actually capitalism; and of course I am stating it in extreme terms though I do hear it in those terms. Still, aside from the fact that such radical anti-government attitudes seem quite un-American in sentiment, there IS this question that bothers me.

Question 1: Why Does Isaiah Complain About the Moral Effects of Economic Practices?

Many times in Isaiah (and other places in the Bible) there is a complaint like this one in Isaiah 1 –

Your rulers are rebels,
companions of thieves;
they all love bribes
and chase after gifts
.

A bit more from Isaiah...
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares: “Ah, I will get relief from my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.”

Don’t you suppose someone should WARN these greedy and corrupt “rulers, companions of thieves” who do not protect the fatherless and the husbandless, that God intends to “get relief from” them – from their bad moral behavior? Well, somebody is warning them. Isaiah is – in the Bible.

But doesn’t such public warning risk people getting stirred up to do something about it? Somebody? Somewhere? Maybe even somebody with some clout who will try to get the government or the people to effectively interfere with the freedom of these “enemies” of God? Do we think Isaiah was out of line, and it was a mistake to include things like this in the Bible?

And there’s this in Isaiah 58.

Still, Isaiah said someone should do some loosing and untying. Don’t you wonder WHO should do the loosing and untying?

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers
.”
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Now he’s worrying about the “workers”! Doesn’t he know that “workers” often have socialistic tendencies? Doesn’t he know that the workers already have their freedom? If they’re smart enough and hard working enough to get rich like their oppressors – excellent! That’s what freedom’s for.

Still, Isaiah said someone should do some loosing and untying. You have to wonder WHO should do the loosing and untying.

Question 1 reworded: WHO does Isaiah think is going to do anything about such misbehavior?

Answer (from hyper-capitalist Christians): Only the offenders themselves can be expected to do anything about it. No one else has any right to interfere in such natural economic developments. It’s the “invisible hand” of the economy. It’s the way nature works; and we should not interfere with nature – well, at least not with THIS aspect of nature.

Morality is about relationships. Economics is about relationships.
But Isaiah, whether or not he was one of those powerful, wealthy people (probably not) WAS complaining publicly about them.

Bad or unenforced building codes which lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths in earthquakes are human-caused moral/economic events.
So I say it is a moral issue, not just an economic one. Morals have to do with how God’s creation is impacted by our behaviors, including not least the HUMAN part of creation. Morality is about relationships. Economics is about relationships. Economic theory, practice, and their consequences, which so greatly impact the human part of creation (not to mention all the rest of creation), are obviously matters of major moral interest.

Thus, for example, economist James K Galbraith can sanely argue, following world-class economist Amartya Sen, that famine is a human-caused event (see the quote below*). It could also be argued, and has been, that bad or unenforced building codes which lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths in earthquakes are human-caused moral/economic events.

But by pushing their economic hands off philosophy these super-capitalists have worked to remove economics from the realm of moral thought and judgment.

So it comes down to this: according to their way of thinking we cannot force anyone to obey general moral principles if they touch economics or the freedoms of those with money. We cannot enforce or even emphasize moral principles!! (with the exception, apparently, of principles that have to do with sex or drugs or speeding or maybe weapons).

But then we get to my

Question #2: If there is no one with freedom or responsibility to legitimately and forcefully complain about such things, why is Isaiah blathering on?

But their touchiness about it very clearly implies it is not the business of any writer or preacher or prophet or moral voice to complain
The Biblical truth is that Isaiah, as a well-known and respected prophet of the Most High, of the God his people worship in the Temple, IS an authority and his words carry weight. And he IS interfering with the wealth and behavior of the wealthy.

Is that OK?

I ask because I “get yelled at” for even bringing the issue up. Why can’t I even TALK about it? I’m a long-time Bible student and even a preacher of the Bible, after all!

But their touchiness about it very clearly implies it is not the business of any writer or preacher or prophet or moral voice to complain about how things go
– in the economy
– and in the tax system
– and in the enforced redistribution of wealth that is an unavoidable part of ANY functioning governmental system.

We have to choose which judges we will listen to and submit to; and our choices WILL show up in what we talk about and advocate for.
According to their line of thought no agent or imagined agent of God, of the government, or of any opposition person or party can be permitted to speak about
– greed or
– tax inequity or
– poor pay or
– lousy working conditions or
– unfair lending practices or
– dishonest banks and brokerages
because such things are just the outworking of the (economic) Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.

But I’m sorry; I ain’t buyin’ it. And I don’t think any of us should buy it.  Is the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market our Real God?  No.

A major theme of the Bible is that there is indeed a higher standard for public behavior than the preferences of the wealthy and powerful of this world. Isaiah shows there is a higher Judge of morality than the invisible laws of economics. And that higher Judge does know how to ask questions.

We have to talk about that. We have to allow each other the freedom to TALK about that. We have to choose which judges we will listen to and submit to; and our choices WILL show up in what we talk about and advocate for.

Isaiah did it responsibly and faithfully. We can too.

Further, those who claim to be followers of Jesus – who talked so much about such issues, and who referred to Isaiah frequently – should be especially well-informed and out-spoken about it.


See also:


* Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, p xv. Galbraith’s opening words in the book:

Famine is a political event. It is not caused by drought, flood, or other natural disaster alone. . . everywhere and always one finds the mark of policy – specific governmental actions that deprived the poor of their livelihoods or their incomes.
We owe this teaching to Amartya Sen, and few economists dispute it.
. . .
This book is a reflection on the power of economic policy to achieve an evil result.


(This article is a slight revision of one published here in 2010.)

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7 Comments

  • “A major theme of the Bible is that there is indeed a higher standard for public behavior than the preferences of the wealthy and powerful of this world.”

    For the most part this existed in Keynesian economic theory. Democracy was designed to be the best system for the most people while adhering t the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They also seemed to coalesce with basic Christian beliefs and values at the time.

    A key element was some level of control to insure corporations did not get too powerful and exploit the variances in the economic and social structure for their own gain.

    Post WWII, when Milton Friedman gained influenced, this was abandoned and the mantra became growth perpetuates growth and growth and economic benefit are all that matter. The market takes care of itself and government should step aside.

    Enter a budding era of unbridled consumerism and uncontrolled illogical growth. It’s result is most of us celebrate at the alters of work and the regional mall. The coming of the messiah has become the buying of a bigger house or buying a new car.

    Responsibility has fallen away. Government has become the bed fellow of the corporation who seem only concerned about increasing the bottom line to benefit the stock holders.

    When they, the corporations, do engage in socially or environmental causes one can be assured it is only because they have found a way they can use this to increase stock holder equity.

    The heroes of the modern day world are the captains of industry like Welsch and Greenspan who are really the Devil’s spawn. The theory of “cost the least to benefit the most” has been replaced by “regardless of the cost as long as it benefits the selected few” is destroying out country.

    As a society we have failed. Corporations and especially the Health Care industry led by “physician leaders” (oxymoron), MBA degreed administrators, hospitals, drug company’s and device manufacturers are the new robber barons.

    It is once again time to reign them in. Government has the last chance to do this effectively however they need to “get religion” and return to the values of by gone days to do this effectively.

    We all need to realize it is not the government we should fear but is current form which is only an extension of the megalomaniacal corporations that control most of our lives.

    They have become our Gods.

  • What some people have forgotten in the 30 years since Reagan re-introduced the laissez faire policies of Andrew Mellon (which, depending on your history book, may have led to the Great Depression), is that it is the job of government to govern. It is not government’s job to sit back and do nothing when its citizens may, or do, suffer. It is the reason why Paulson, Bernanke, and Bush did not sit back and do nothing when the economy collapsed, and it is the reason why Obama does not sit back and do nothing now.

    When Reagan re-introduced laissez faire polices, it was a time of 20-something technology millionaires who made fortunes in their parent’s garages, and people came to believe that with these polices, anyone could become wealthy. What we should have learned in September 2008 is that anyone of us could just as easily become poor.

    I have a feeling that many of the people complaining about socialism or fascism (and I wish someone could explain to Glen Beck that these philosophies are opposite in principle) are having a difficult time accepting that we could all just as easily be poor. If they cannot see the value in policies that help the needy on biblical terms, I would hope that eventually they would see value in policies that help the needy because they could one day need to benefit from these policies themselves.

    When it comes to the health care issue specifically, as this is the issue many conservatives are complaining about at the moment, it might help to remind them that the polls are split almost 50-50 on the issues. Contrary to what Sarah Palin and John McCain said just yesterday, there is not an overwhelming majority opposed to health care reform. Many people will not believe they will repeal and re-issue a new bill because they offered no alternatives when they had the chance. At the moment they may think that the rhetoric will work in their favor for the mid-term elections, but it can also rally those who know there is a lack of truth in the rhetoric.

  • Great thought-provoking post. May its weight carry it to the hearts of many.

    Here is what happens when people close their eyes to economic malfeasance: you can’t see Babylon.

    Remember one time we talked about Babylon being a kind of “divine idiot test?”

    This is a burning (literally) theme not only for the church but in particular for the US, which prove to be the most economically illiterate people on earth. They can’t follow money. This is why they can’t perceive corruption at any level higher than their next door neighbor’s behavior. This is why words like Isaiah’s are rendered like gibberish to people.

    But Larry, I have to tell you, I have noticed a lot of people becoming really weird of late. Stress and insecurity never do anything for anyone, of course, and I think perhaps we are seeing different tips of the same iceberg – there is a huge force of denial afoot, as to what is happening.

    Unfortunately in the realm of economics, another point of faulty education is not seeing how government works. In particular people get caught up in the cult of personality of presidents and therefore can not perceive the revolving back door of the White House, Treasury, Fed, IMF and World Bank to Goldman Sachs – hence Babylon. I’m not saying the president is 100% ineffective, just that certain commissions, panels, offices and entities have infinitely more voice on economic affairs than any president does. Most of the powers that be are not subject to electoral politics.

    Take Henry Kissinger (Oh Lord, please take him…). He is the author of the predominant piece of statecraft guiding the nation’s external affairs. These days I doubt young people even know his name. He has coined the bulwark of statecraft for some fifty years now, and operates entirely outside the electoral sphere of things. We should be outraged over this, but instead – in the divisive name of electoral politics – the public is caught up in criticizing the little guy.

    I am going to leave two links. One is an editorial opinion about this ignominious piece of statecraft coined by Kissinger which is a veritable declaration of manifest destiny towards the rest of the planet, a manifesto declaring US’ right to spoil other nations of its natural resources in the putative interest of US national security TO GUARANTEE THE US ECONOMY.

    The second is a link to this horrible document itself (1974), in which it is spelled out how public relations will con the public to believe that the economic measures taken are instead intended to control worldwide population growth – something a disturbing number of Americans actually believe (when heavy industry is the culprit using up resources).

    I agree with the author of the editorial in this: this policy is purely genocidal. Most US people have no idea what it is, who wrote it or how it works.

    Unfortunately worldwide, other people are better at spotting Babylon. They can follow money much better. They realize just whose economic doctrine is costing so many people their lives.

    Here is the editorial: http://onlinejournal.com/artman/publish/article_2757.shtml

    And House Security Memo 200 itself (pdf): http://wlym.com/text/NSSM200.htm

    A teaser paragraph for you and your readers:

    In 1974, a year after orchestrating a mass terror bombing of Cambodia — after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his National Security Council completed “National Security Study Memo 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests.” This document, whose sharp edges are dulled by page after leaden page of how to reduce overpopulation in the Third World through birth control and “other” population-reduction programs, was classified until 1989, but was almost immediately accepted as US policy, and remains the US blueprint for ethnic cleansing today.

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