The Bible and The Wealth of Nations in Context

I have been an Episcopal priest for nearly fifteen years and an economist more than twenty years. As a student and practitioner of both theology and economics it is shocking how both the Christian faith and the economics profession are implicated in largely misreading, or misrepresenting, our respective ‘sacred’ texts.

Noted biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann observes that “[W]hile we might conventionally assume, as we do in practice, that economics is an add-on or a side issue in the biblical text, an inventory of texts such as I offer here makes it unmistakably clear that economics is a core preoccupation of the biblical tradition.”¹ Brueggemann further observes that “Given such an economic map that receives many variant articulations in the Bible, it is simply astonishing that the church has willingly engaged in a misreading of the biblical text in order to avoid the centrality of money and possessions in its testimony.”²

Economics traces its emergence as a formal field of study to Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (or simply The Wealth of Nations). Often the “invisible hand” and “free market” references in The Wealth of Nations are cherry-picked by conservative economists and policy-makers in defense of unfettered capitalism. What is astonishing is how they are misreading what Adam Smith actually wrote. Even more astonishing is that most other economists willingly give way to the misrepresentation of Smith’s work. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher and clearly stated in The Wealth of Nations that economic markets, and their division of labor, needed to produce not only wealth from market activity, but also justice and freedom — particularly for the poor.

Both Christian faith and the economic profession need to take greater responsibility in recovering the centrality of economic justice concerns in both the Bible and The Wealth of nations, respectively. Our reclaiming a fervent advocacy for economic justice that is found in these texts will require an informed rearticulation of what is presented in our society as Christian faith and economic understanding.

 

Economic Justice is Central to the Biblical Tradition

Economic justice is a central part of God’s message in calling humanity to reconciliation. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), there is witness and testimony that poverty and oppression factor significantly in the sin and brokenness of the world. Because of this, God demands justice for the poor and oppressed as part of the reconciliation that must occur.

God’s sense of justice for the world began with creation as the world was created to be just – a world where poverty and oppression do not exist. God longs for this justice from humankind that has distorted God’s vision and purpose for the world. God hears the cries of the afflicted and oppressed and calls on faithful human agents to work for God’s justice.

The prophet Isaiah reveals God’s preferential option for the poor and demands distributive justice to release them from their impoverishment (e.g. Isa 61:1-2); and that God will judge the poor with righteousness (e.g. Isa. 11:4). Jeremiah proclaims that God will defend the rights of the needy (Jer. 5:26-29), and Isaiah further states that God will rescue the poor who are exiled and oppressed (Isa. 51:21-23).

The prophets and the Psalms define God as a “God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18), who “loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8; Ps. 11:17, 33:5, 37:28, 99:4), delights in justice (Jeremiah 9:23), and will execute justice for the needy (Jeremiah 5:5; Ps. 140:13). We play a role in bringing about God’s distributive justice as Deuteronomy proclaims that God demands justice from all people (Deuteronomy 16:20); and Micah reminds us that we are “to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8) We should be so persistent in this purpose that we exemplify the call of Amos to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24-25). God’s desire for justice and the justice God demands we bring to a broken world all can be found within the context of redressing poverty and oppression.

Jesus impressed this upon his first disciples. In fact, his teachings and manner of life indicate resources must be shared more equitably. And the Early Church patterned their community life and ministry after an economic fellowship in stark contrast to economic disparity in the world.

In the gospels we find that God’s concern for the conditions of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed has not changed. Neither has God’s demand for justice. Jesus’ teachings and manner of life indicate that resources must be shared more equitably by creating access to the necessary provisions for life. In fact, concern for, and service to, the poor and vulnerable of society was at the heart and purpose of Jesus’ ministry, as he announces in Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2 NRSV)

The pattern of Christian life presented in the gospels has particular relevance today in the face of extreme poverty and the increasing chasm between rich and poor. In her Magnificat (the Song of Mary), Mary rejoices in God who scatters the proud, brings down the mighty, and lifts up the poor and lowly (Luke 1:51-53). Later Jesus proclaims that the poor will have good news brought to them (Matthew 11:5). So to, God reveals something of the purpose of Christ in the world through the narrative of his birth in Luke.

Jesus – the Messiah – enters the world not in power, wealth and prestige; and without pomp, circumstance and fanfare; but in complete and utter vulnerability, humility and poverty.

Jesus calls his followers to a new way of living that exhibits God’s reign (Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 11:29). Christian communities across the ages are to proclaim and continually build the reign of God in all areas of life. Following Jesus involves imitating his pattern of life in service to others (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus emphasizes an interdependence (see Mark 4:25, 10:29-30, 12:1-2; Luke 12:3-9, 13:3-9) based on the ethic of family. Jesus is inviting people to experience a new community that walks in the love of God, cares for one another’s needs, shares abundantly with the suffering, and turns on its head the socio-economic-political order of the day. In bringing forth this new social behavior, Jesus calls his followers to a new way of life as exemplified in the narrative of the Rich Ruler (see Luke 18:18-30 [see also Mark 10:17-31 and Matthew 19:16-30] NRSV).

There is, perhaps, no more powerful image that Jesus presents about caring for the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed than his vivid picture of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Those who are blessed are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the imprisoned. Such action is at the heart of God and living as a follower of Jesus. We represent Jesus and God’s love when act as the heart and hands of Jesus in the world.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’(Matthew 25:40 NRSV)

Our true love for Christ is revealed in how we treat the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.

 

The Moral Philosophy of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is widely recognized as the birth of economics as an independent field of study. The Wealth of Nations is also looked at as advancing the cause of purely free-markets by proponents of unfettered capitalism. This line of economic thinking likes to quote Smith’s observation of the “invisible hand” at work guiding markets to their most efficient outcomes. The only problem is that most people who quote Smith from The Wealth of Nations have never actually read it very closely or choose to “cherry pick” select on passages out of context.

Adam Smith considered economics part of moral philosophy and stated that economic markets, and their division of labor, needed to produce not only wealth from market activity, but also justice and freedom — particularly for the poor. Smith was a critic of European empires (known for supporting crony-capitalism) and the slave trade. While Adam Smith supported free-markets over other forms economic society, he advocated that no society could be completely free and flourish unless there was equity in the sharing of a nation’s wealth produced from those markets:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.” (Wealth of Nations I.viii.36)

While Adam Smith believed in free markets over other economic systems, he was far from advocating the type of unfettered free-market capitalism promoted by neo-classical economists today. In fact, Smith stated a need for a mixed economic system where both government and the private sector had a role to play in bringing about a vibrant and happy society. He put fairness (the welfare of people in society) above the efficiency of the markets.

This is far from how he is portrayed by those who lift the “invisible hand” comment out of the context of the entirety of The Wealth of Nations. [what Smith really wrote about the “invisible hand” here]

For those who have read and consider The Wealth of Nations in its totality, rather than gleaning select passages, the clear conclusion is that Adam Smith had a sense of economic justice. To hurt in any degree the interest of any one order of citizens, for no other purpose but to promote that of some other, is evidently contrary to that justice and equality of treatment which the sovereign owes to all the different orders of his subjects.” (Wealth of Nations IV.viii.30)

Smith nuanced in that didn’t believe in government intervention, because that intervention favored merchants. He also cautioned about government controlling economies and restricting freedom, but he understood free markets operating fairly and elites not taking advantage of laborers.

So Adam Smith advocated for a commercial society based on its ability to contribute to prosperity, justice, and freedom for a nation’s citizens. What is most important to note is that Smith believed those contributions needed to be realized by all in society, particularly the poor and powerless. This was guided by his engaging deeply with economic issues first as a moral philosopher where economic decisions must be evaluated from a moral and ethical foundation.


Notes:

  1. Walter Brueggemann, Money and Possessions (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. xix.
  2. Ibid, p. xx.