Chapter 8: The Ethics of Economic Life
If one were to draw a diagram with a point at the center to indicate the individual person and a series of concentric circles for his major relations in society, the first circle would represent the family and the second his economic life. Next to the family, it is the “order of creation” on which his life is most dependent and with which his entire earthly existence has its most intimate connection.
But what is “economic life” or the “economic order”? This is by no means so clear-cut in its meaning or so easy to define as is the family. While it is obviously not the same as man’s spiritual life or moral ideals or intellectual achievement or aesthetic appreciation, it spills over into the whole of existence including these elements. It has to do with the material foundations of life — that is to say, with money, property, and “wealth.” Yet it is also concerned with human problems of work and vocation. If we limit the term “economic” to the traditional trilogy of the production, distribution, and consumption of material goods, it will not do to forget that in these processes human values are very intimately at stake. It matters enormously not only what goods are produced, distributed, and consumed, but how this is done. Economic life in a competitive society raises problems of power versus insecurity
— an insecurity that is psychological as well as economic. In cases of economic domination the results are seldom limited to economic circumstances, but tend to affect the entire life of an individual or people. Furthermore, when an economic system dominates the policies of a nation, as in the present clash between Communism and the democracies of the West, the line between economics and politics becomes tenuous and at points indistinguishable.
As I shall use the term, economic life means everything connected with the acquisition, possession, and use of material goods. This will necessitate a look at labor, capital, and the systems which attempt to regulate their relations. The field is enormous, and I shall make no attempt to cover all of it. After we see what the biblical foundations are, the primary matters to examine will be the Christian view of property, work and vocation, and some principles of economic justice by which a Christian may be guided amid current conflicting systems.
1. The economic ethics of the New Testament
As has been noted, Jesus had very little to say about specific social institutions of any kind. His concern was chiefly with individuals in their person-to-person, face-to-face relationships. Therefore in his recorded words there is less to be found about the structures of economic life than about the family. There is, for example, nothing comparable to Matt. 19: 5-6 to undergird a particular economic system as this passage does monogamous marriage.
Throughout the letters of Paul and in other parts of the New Testament there are scattered economic references, such as the obligation to work in self-support and not become a burden to others (II Thess. 3:6-12) and the injunction to slaves to obey their masters with due docility (Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5; Tit. 2:9). Yet there is no clear focusing on any social system as good or evil, a fact which made it possible for slavery to go unchallenged by Christians for many centuries. In the prophets there is a much more direct reference to the evils of economic exploitation with repeated, ringing denunciations of it. It is to Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah that we are most apt to turn for the biblical foundations of social and economic justice.
There are a number of reasons why the New Testament is relatively so silent at this point. First, there is the fact that the Christian message centers so largely in faith and love that justice in social relations tends to be overshadowed. In the gospel of redemption there is no overlooking of divine justice. But in the call to love one’s neighbor and even one’s enemy, to pray for one’s persecutor and to accept injury with nonresistance, to give freely and beyond necessity to those in need, the emphasis lies on uncalculating love and not on the correction of unjust systems or the punishment of evildoers. This note in Jesus was carried on into the early Church with the further emphasis on accepting Christ and finding new life in him as all-important.
In the second place, eschatology permeates the ethics of the New Testament. For reasons given in Chapter 4, the expectancy of a speedy end of the existing world scene did not basically pervert the ethical insights of the early Church, and still less those of Jesus. But it did foreshorten the perspective and divert attention away from social systems to the individual soul. Since it was the Christian believer, and he alone, who would dwell with God in his eternal kingdom, it was the soul alone that mattered. This attitude survived long after the passing of apocalyptic expectations and has not yet been surrendered.
A third factor explains at least in part the keener social conscience of the prophets as contrasted with the early Christians.
No Christian writer of the New Testament, so far as our records reveal, ever faced the responsibility of applying high moral principles to preserving the institutions of society, administering governments, handling international relationships, prosecuting social reforms, or even mitigating by public measures the inequities of an economic system.1
Their life as an “odd sect” with the simplest of economic pursuits within occupied territory did not give occasion for such responsibility. The prophets as the challengers and advisers of kings in a State struggling for political survival and economic power were much closer to the perennial problems of social injustice and conflict than were the relatively detached early Christians.
Yet Jesus stood in the succession of the prophets, and there is danger of overstressing the fact that he said nothing about economic systems. From his words and spirit has come a challenge that has persistently affected the economic order. Not only does the love commandment have a bearing on property as well as every other social issue, but in unequivocal terms he denounced some tendencies still very prevalent in modern economic life.2
There is nothing clearer in the message of Jesus than his indictment of acquisitiveness, and the putting of one’s trust in material rather than spiritual goods. Again and again this note is sounded. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt. 6.24.) “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15.) “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 6:19.) To lay up treasures on earth without being rich toward God is to follow the foolish way of the rich man who, thinking he had goods laid up for many years, heard the inescapable decree, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:16-21).
Jesus was very forthright as to the perils of riches. He did not hesitate to condemn in stinging terms those who “cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity.” In his reference to the camel and the needle’s eye, it is hardly likely that he denied all access to the Kingdom to the rich, but this arresting hyperbole states with great vividness the spiritual dangers and temptations of wealth. Yet this does not mean that he thought lightly of the material foundations of life. “Give us this day our daily bread” undoubtedly means material, not spiritual bread; and in the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns against overanxiety as to what one will eat or drink or wear, it is significant that he nowhere indicates that these are unimportant. So important, indeed, are they that “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matt. 6:32).
Such passages indicate a perspective on the part of Jesus which puts material goods in their proper place as the instrument, and not the end, of man’s existence. Out of them has come an impulse within Christianity toward honesty in the acquisition and philanthropy in the use of economic goods which through the centuries has had great social influence, and which ought never to be disparaged or lost. Our chief lack has been, not in directive principles from Jesus, but in the scope of their application by Christians.
As has been noted repeatedly, it is not alone from specific words that we get our directives, but from the total spirit of Jesus in his estimate of the worth of persons to God. As a fuller awareness of this became prevalent among Christians, the scope of economic concern broadened. It was seen that economic conditions affect vitally every person and the whole man; hence they must be a Christian concern. It gradually became — or is becoming — recognized that personal integrity and Christian giving to those in need will not meet the full requirement of the Christian ethic. We have today problems more complex than those of any previous age, but we have also a fuller sense of Christian obligation in and to a “responsible society.”
2. The Christian view of property
The basic note in the Christian understanding of material possessions is stewardship. This term is often understood too narrowly to mean personal giving, usually with an emphasis on tithing. That Christians ought to give of their material resources for the support of the Church and many worthy causes, for the extension of the gospel and the relief of human need, is indisputable. That this should be on the mathematical basis of the tithe is more open to question, not because this often indicates too much to give but because for those who are well-to-do it is too little. The amount of personal sacrifice involved in setting aside the tithe varies greatly from the one-thousand- to the ten-thousand-dollar income, and still more as incomes go up. The Pauline observation that the Christian should put something aside “as he may prosper” (I Cor. 16:2) if taken seriously might yield larger gifts, and with more Christian dedication, than the Old Testament provision.
However, stewardship is not primarily a matter of personal giving. This is secondary and derivative. Stewardship means the recognition that all our goods, not some portion only, belong to God and we hold them in delegated trust.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein;
for he has founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the rivers. (Ps. 24:1-2.)
If this principle of God’s sole ownership and our stewardship, which is stated in the creation story (Gen. 1:26) and presupposed throughout the Bible, were taken seriously we should have a less acquisitive and more just society. Before it our vast disparities of wealth and poverty, wasted natural resources, and the use of God’s good gifts solely for selfish ends could not stand.
But what of private ownership in the sense of each man’s individual proprietorship of a portion of economic goods? Christians have not always agreed as to the answer. The main trend of thought, however, both in the Bible and in the history of the Church, reinforces the conviction that some measure of individual ownership is right and Christian. The very existence of the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” presupposes the right of ownership, and one of the offenses against which the prophets had most vigorously to protest was its infringement. While there was for a time in Jerusalem after Pentecost a communal sharing of goods (Acts 2:44-45; 5:1-5), there is no evidence that this became a general arrangement. It was apparently a product of Christian fellowship rather than a social policy. Christian monastic orders with surrender of personal possessions have existed since the sixth century, and outside of Christianity long before that, but there has been no general conviction on the part of Christians that society as a whole should be thus organized. Asceticism and voluntary poverty, where practiced, have been considered as a divine vocation rather than as a mandatory social practice.
Furthermore, quite apart from the biblical and traditional grounds, there are other reasons why private ownership is right and Christian. The most basic of these is that the fullest development of personality requires it. Economic insecurity, we noted, is very closely linked with personal insecurity. The child may find his security in his parents without personal ownership, though even a small child ought to have some things that he can call his own. No adult, unless the Church or some other institution has assumed for him a protective status, can feel secure without some ownership.3 Contemporary Communism has attempted to make the State assume this function, but with very doubtful results, and has been led by experience to reinstate much more private ownership than was envisaged at the beginning of the Soviet regime. In our society the “lift” one gets from owning something — whether one’s clothing or furniture, a car or a home — is more than an outcropping of acquisitiveness or the prestige of possession; it is a response to a deeply embedded craving for security and a measure of personal independence.
A second factor is one about which the Bible is silent but which cannot be disregarded in the modern world. This is the greater degree of economic efficiency and the higher standard of living that has ensued where the right of private ownership has been recognized. This is not to say that “enlightened self-interest” or a policy of unrestrained economic individualism will make a society either just or as a whole prosperous. The contrary is evident. Nevertheless, it is hardly disputable that not only in the production of goods but in the development of human skills and in the increased availability of both goods and skills for the service of human need, the right to possess has played no minor role. Individual ownership has produced a more advanced as well as more opulent society than has been possible under feudalism or any form of communal ownership in ancient or modern times.
A third and closely related factor is the relation of property to work. Personal ownership is necessary for economic motivation. There are some kinds of work one delights to do regardless of pay, as Bliss Perry elaborated in his book with the intriguing title And Gladly Teach. Christian leaders do not ordinarily choose their vocations chiefly from considerations of salary, or they would choose occupations better paid. Nevertheless, society as a whole with all of its hard, monotonous, and disagreeable jobs could not run without private profit and private ownership. It is fatuous to say that throughout all society there ought to be glad, voluntary co-operation; the fact is that there is not! With the human impulse what it is, it is unlikely that it will be possible to dispense entirely with personal profit as the reward of labor.
Private ownership and private profit are so deeply embedded in both our Christian and our democratic heritage that few would wish to see them eradicated if this were possible. But this is not to say that all the results are either beneficial or Christian. It is essential that the Christian conscience remain sensitive to perversions and continue to challenge evils which thrive all too frequently within this view of property.
The most common evil is the encouragement of acquisitiveness, and with it all the perils of self-aggrandizement, self-righteousness, and a false trust in material possessions against which Jesus spoke so vigorously. It is a half-truth, which when cited to justify unrestrained individualism becomes an untruth, to say that the sin does not lie in the system but in the people. Only persons can sin, but in the complex structures of present-day economic life it is impossible to draw a clear line between willful acquisitiveness and fair profit, or between individual and group sinning. Private ownership we must have, but not the amount and range of possession-centeredness that dominates our current society.
An accompanying evil is the vast disparities of wealth and poverty that have developed within every country, and in particularly acute form between opulent America and the hungry Orient. It is this which gives Communism its primary appeal, and no informed person needs to be reminded that this disparity is one of the major sources of world tension. Such vast inequalities of possession have always existed, but as the instruments of potential destruction become more deadly and the underprivileged become more conscious of the possibilities of change, the ferment of revolution and unrest becomes inevitable. Whether this will lead to global destruction in the clash of competing systems or to a greater measure of freedom and justice through the lifting of the living standards of the underprivileged peoples of the earth, no one can predict.
How much property ought a person, or a group, to possess? There is no simple answer. Competition alone cannot ensure justice, for competition encourages not only effort and skill but shrewd manipulation and the scramble for power. Equality is not the answer, for whether income and ownership are measured by earning or by need, inequalities must inevitably be reckoned with. An equal wage for all would not be an equitable one, for great differences exist both in the quality of services rendered and in family obligations, cost of training, and many other factors.
In judging what one ought to receive or possess, two simple rules may suggest the answer as well as anything more complex: (1) every person ought to have enough income to meet his basic physical and cultural needs without anxiety and with some surplus for saving and for giving; (2) no person ought to have so much that possession breeds indifference to the needs of others or becomes a peril to the soul. Within these limits a Christian society will find some latitude to be both inevitable and desirable. If this seems somewhat lacking in equalitarian justice, a higher spiritual justice is established by the principle of responsibility announced in the words, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48).
A third major evil is the linkage of power with possession of economic goods. This is not wholly evil, for power may be constructively exercised. There are rich men who manage a business benevolently without its being a benevolent despotism, and who use their money constructively for great philanthropies. These facts ought to be neither overplayed nor overlooked. Nevertheless, the temptation to an irresponsible and selfish use of power is always near at hand, and only a few at any economic level successfully resist it.
One of the major causes of social conservatism is the fact that churches, schools, and other social institutions are so largely influenced by persons whose advantage it is to preserve the status quo and who are prone to regard any departure from it as an affront to Christian morality. Not all social change is good. Yet under the guise of preserving freedom (and in the present scene, of resisting Communism) unjust conditions are perpetuated, and any attempt at social criticism is viewed as subversion. When the attitude is joined, as it frequently is, with a deep Christian piety in personal matters, the power becomes the more impregnable. Since human motives usually “come mixed,” only God is wise enough to judge how much of this resistance to social change is due to self-interest, how much to the pull of tradition, and how much to sincere Christian conviction.
Yet it is not this exercise of power by individuals that is the most serious aspect of current society. Widespread though it is, where it can be isolated, challenged, and changed, there is the possibility of a creative use of economic power. It is corporate social sin, by great groups of persons against great groups of persons, that causes the most serious evil consequences and is hardest to reckon with. Persons are involved, as both sinners and victims, or it would not be sin. Unemployment, for example, is more than an inevitable, tragic fate; it is caused by circumstances for which human beings are morally responsible. When a worldwide depression occurs, as in the early 1930’s, many millions of persons are made to suffer acutely, and economists can give some reasons for its occurrence. But this is not to say that guilt can be precisely allocated. In less widespread but deeply disrupting conflicts, as in a clash between a giant corporation and a giant labor union, the fault is seldom all on one side; and while some persons are more responsible than others, it is seldom possible with justice to pin the responsibility wholly upon particular individuals.
This illustrates what was said in Chapter 6 — that there is social evil and there is social sin, and the two must be neither identified nor too sharply separated. The Christian view of property is that to the degree that a person is even indirectly responsible for a misuse of it which is harmful to others, his conscience must remain sensitive and he must do all in his power to turn it to just and creative ends. Not everything is within his power, but some things are. It is in those areas where he can act, as these are prayerfully and reasonably discerned, that his Christian duty lies.
3. The Christian view of work
We have been tracing some basic issues with regard to property, or “capital”; we must now look at the other side of the dual structure of economic life, namely, “labor.” No attempt was made in the previous section to discuss capitalism as such, though some things said have a direct bearing upon it, nor shall I in this section attempt to defend a rival system. The purpose at this point is simply to examine the place of work in the total life of the Christian.
a) Why work? To this question a variety of answers may be given, and these may be put in psychological or in normative Christian terms. A look from each angle may throw light on the issue as a whole.
Why does anyone work? The simplest answer is that one works because he has to. Economic pressures overcome the natural impulse to idleness. This fact is not universal, for there are those who through immaturity, illness, old age, indigence, inherited wealth, or for some other reason live by the product of the labor of others. Nevertheless, it remains normal for the mature adult who is able to do so to work for a living, either directly for pay and profit or, as in the case of the housewife, to co-operate in providing for the family.
Yet people work for other reasons. People economically secure still work because they enjoy it, or prefer activity to an empty leisure, or because they feel a responsibility for accomplishing something, or because they wish to please and serve someone who is loved. Work is any activity entered into for the sake of an end, and it is normal for the, human spirit, in contrast with animal experience, to have ends in view for which the immediate pleasures of idleness will voluntarily be surrendered. It is a cynical, and a false, view of man which regards economic forces as the sole determiners of human conduct.
Other reasons are less laudable but powerful. Some people work because of the force of social approval, letting both the nature and the amount of their work be determined by prevailing social patterns. One works as little, or as much, as those around him do. Or one works under coercion, because of fear of the disfavor of “the boss,” or from fear of penalties affixed or favors withheld in the case of failure to produce results.
Work habits are not easy to acquire, for children naturally prefer play to work, and this tendency if uncorrected carries over into adult life. But a work habit, once formed, is tenacious, and some people work simply because they always have and lack the will power to stop. This is particularly true of our high-pressured age, in which people work from a mixture of motives of which necessity, habit, and a feverish desire to keep busy are large components. Brunner calls this state “work-fanaticism” and says of it:
There is a vacuum in the soul, an inner unrest from which one escapes by work. Work-fanaticism is proportional to the poverty of the soul. As nervous people cannot keep still, man with his unrestful soul cannot but work. The modern Western world is somehow possessed with this work-fanaticism as a result of inward impoverishment.
It is a strange paradox of the present day scene that we are suffering from a work-fanaticism and work-idolatry as well as from a lack of will-to-work.
Both these phenomena come from the same root, the loss of the sense of the eternal meaning of life.4
To this current state of work-fanaticism, religion has indirectly contributed. Max Weber in his famous essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism overstates the contribution of Calvinism to the rise of capitalism; yet it is true that in the religious sanction given to the Puritan virtues of hard work, frugality, and thrift, an emerging capitalism found strong support.5 Now largely divorced from its earlier moorings, a feverishly competitive society is carried along by a combination of conscience and compulsion which will not let one rest while there is still work to be done. Thus by a curious inversion the drive to incessant work which formerly came from a sense of divine vocation becomes a symptom of the loss of a sense of life’s meaning.
If these are the reasons why people work, which of these motives are right and which wrong? Here the Christian ethic draws no clear-cut lines, but neither does it leave us without direction. Within the complex range of motives just outlined, not all are morally and spiritually on the same level. It is right to work to support one’s self and one’s family, providing for future needs as well as the present. It is right to work to express a creative impulse, contributing of one’s best to “the good of the whole.” Explicitly and centrally, it is right to serve God through serving other persons. To the degree that this is done, every vocation becomes a divine calling.
With equal certainty it may be said that it is wrong to work solely to gratify an acquisitive impulse, amassing more and more riches as the “chief and highest end of man.” Though certain social standards must be met, it is wrong to work to secure or to maintain a superficial prestige. It is wrong to fall into a state of “work-fanaticism,” finding no satisfactions through other channels and seeking escape from an inner vacuum through feverish activity.
Other motives are in a more ambiguous status. To work because one enjoys doing something or because another demands it may be right or wrong according to the nature of the enjoyment or of the demands. One has to judge the total situation in the light of the relative importance of enticing occupations or of external pressures. There is always a temptation to neglect one’s main job for some trifling occupation that may soothe the conscience with a sense of busyness! Acquiescence to the demands of others is disciplinary and may be needed to curb our rebellious self-will; it may also stifle initiative and breed a rankling sense of grievance.
Is there an ideal work situation? Yes, if by “ideal” is meant not some flawless perfection but a situation that is all a human being ought to aspire to for his fullest satisfaction. A work situation is right when one works voluntarily from a service motive, under a sense of divine calling, and does the most creative job his talents permit; when one finds deep enjoyment in his work and has happy relations with his associates; when it does not overtax his physical strength or his nerves, and leaves some time for interesting and productive leisure; and when one receives for this work an income adequate to meet his needs without anxiety. So blessed is this situation, if one is blest with it, that another requirement must be added — one must know when to stop!
Such a work situation is possible. Yet few attain or possess it. Its absence is one of the major evils of our society.
b) Work as vocation. We noted above that one’s daily work ought to be viewed as a divine calling, and done as far as possible in a spirit of service. This is the expression in economic life of the demand to love God and our neighbor. But to do this is no simple and easy requirement, nor have Christians always agreed as to its meaning. A brief historical review may throw light upon it.
In the Bible it is taken for granted that work is ordained of God. To be sure, in Gen. 3:17-18 work is presented as a curse for the sin of Adam, yet in Gen. 2:15 the command to till and to keep the garden precedes sin. The explicit word of Paul, “If any one will not work, let him not eat” (II Thess. 3:10), is implicit elsewhere in the Bible, though generally on a more communal basis as it is assumed that work is the duty of the “house,” or family unit.6 There is division of labor in the Bible and there is slavery, but little suggestion of a class stratification condemning manual labor as inferior.
This was very different in Greek society, which was thoroughly aristocratic. Both Plato and Aristotle regarded the “working class” as a distinctly inferior group who must do the manual labor in order that intellectuals might have leisure for philosophy. Helots and slaves must work in order that the free man might pursue his achievements of the spirit. This stratification, along with a characteristic Hellenic dualism of body and spirit, was to have serious consequences in medieval thought.
In the Middle Ages this depreciation of manual labor was blended with the class structure of feudal society and given a religious sanction. The religious vocation of priest or monk or nun was viewed as having a higher spiritual sanctity than ordinary labor, the contemplative being ranked above the active life. Within the active life manual labor, though recognized as necessary and ordained of God, had an inferior status. In part this was due to the influence of Aristotle, in part to emphasis on the “curse” of the Fall, and in part to the ever-present tendency to give religious support to an existing social system. As a result, social stratification was tightened by the belief that every man must remain in the station in life where God had placed him and there perform faithfully its duties.
Martin Luther broke radically with one element of this medieval view — namely, the ethical dualism of the religious and the secular. His emphasis on the sacredness of the common life was a highly important new note in Reformation Protestantism. Said he:
It looks like a great thing when a monk renounces everything and goes into a cloister, carries on a life of asceticism, fasts, watches, prays, etc. . .On the other hand it looks like a small thing when a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework. But because God’s command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service to God surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns.7
Luther’s doctrine of Beruf, or calling, gave dignity to one’s daily work, however humble, and could have had a great democratizing influence. Unfortunately, however, he never surrendered the medieval idea of “my station and its duties.” It was the Christian’s duty and high calling to serve God in his appointed place, not to change his station in life. For this reason Luther sided against the peasants in the Peasants’ War, and gave added religious sanction to a social stratification which is still much in evidence in European society.
Calvin’s view of calling did not differ materially from Luther’s. Yet by his advocacy of the “middle-class virtues” of industry, frugality, honesty, and sobriety; his removal of the prohibition on the taking of interest (commonly referred to as usury); and his recognition of the right to change one’s calling if one remained in humble obedience to God and his employer, he reinforced the growing ferment of free enterprise. Through a complex set of forces which cannot here be traced,8 Calvinism by way of Puritanism gave an undergirding to both political democracy and economic individualism.
Current society is both involved in, and divorced from, this legacy from the past. In America, far more than in Europe, social stratification has broken down, and the dignity of manual labor is recognized. The characteristic American “success” story is of the person who from the humblest beginnings by his skill and persistence has won a high place for himself in income, power, or public esteem. This climb to fame and fortune has seldom more than an incidental religious connection, if any. The advantages of democratic opportunity and free enterprise, in connection with pluck, shrewdness, and persistence under difficulties, are made focal in the telling, though there is an occasional reference to being sustained by prayer and religious faith. Seldom is there a conscious sense of divine calling in one’s work, and the Reformation concept of the sacredness of the common life has virtually disappeared under the pressures of a highly competitive society.
The World Council of Churches, the National Council, and some denominational agencies are attempting to restore a sense of Christian vocation with regard to daily work. A section was explicitly devoted to this study at the Second Assembly of the World Council in Evanston in l954.9 Vocational conferences of laymen to consider the implications of the Christian faith to their occupations are held with increasing frequency in Europe, and occasionally in America. It is well that this problem is coming into attention, for the frustration and loss of a sense of Christian calling in occupations other than those ostensibly religious is a serious aberration of our time. That Christian ethics demands honesty in business dealings is still recognized in principle, however much flouted in practice, but beyond this it may be doubted that laymen often think of their religion as having a connection with their daily occupations.10 Yet it is in one’s work and in one’s family that most of one’s life is spent, and it is here that both the most acute problems and the most creative opportunities of service to God and other persons are to be found.
What must be done to restore and vitalize this sense of divine calling? The principles are not difficult to state, though their application constantly confronts opposition in a secular society. There is need of a recognition not only of possessions but of the ability to work as the gift of God to be held in stewardship. Work should be chosen, where choices are open, with regard to the greatest possible service in it. If what is required affronts the Christian conscience of the worker, or if what is being produced in it is clearly not useful but harmful to society, one ought to look elsewhere for employment.
This is not to say that there is anything evil about working, as most persons must, to make a living for themselves and their families. To do this is a Christian duty, and a direct bearing on Christian service is not always easy to discover. There are dull, distasteful, routine jobs to be done, in which references to the “glory of the commonplace” are bound to seem a mockery. Yet to a greater degree than is commonly done, it is possible to look beyond the immediate task and find satisfactions in the work through its usefulness to society as a whole. One who is fortunate enough to have an ideal work situation ought to view with sympathy and understanding the plight of the many who do not; one who must earn his living under unpleasant conditions ought to try to see in his job something more than its irksome necessities.
So long as one’s job is an honest, serviceable one in which one is doing the best he can, it is a divine calling, and one should endeavor like Brother Lawrence to “practice . . . the presence of God” within it. There are high opportunities in vocations of Christian leadership such as the ministry, the mission field, and Christian education, and many more young people should be entering them; there are also rich opportunities for Christian service and witness in an endless number of occupations to which God calls the layman.11
4. What is economic justice?
We come now to an issue with which many discussions of economic ethics begin — namely, the nature of a just economic order and the principles by which such justice is to be judged. We have left it to this point, not because it is unimportant, but because the two great constituents of an economic society — property and work — must be seen in relation to God before any true perspective is possible upon their relationships.
Two cautions are in order as we move into this moot area. The first is the need to recognize that in the tangled complexity of modern society — in which not only the divergent interests of capital and labor but the pull of tradition, the uncertainties precipitated by a flood of new scientific discoveries, and the interlocking nature of the modern world are ever-present factors — perfect justice is not to be expected. This can be said without mention of sin, but when the forces of acquisitive self-interest, insistent determination to dominate others, and a deadly moral dullness are added to these other complicating factors, the result is a mixture of social evil and social sin in which no Utopia, either now or later, is attainable. A realistic economic justice is to be found in the best possible adjustment of life to life within the actual situation, not some imaginary perfection.
The second necessary caution is the need to recognize that no situation is hopeless. No situation — however impregnated with meanness and “man’s inhumanity to man” — is so bad that Christian effort to correct it is irrelevant. As the increase of love among persons is always a Christian obligation, so is the increase of justice. Furthermore, in individual circumstances, though not in society as a whole, there are situations so free from injustice that one may well “thank God and take courage.” There are persons who have money enough but not too much for their personal well-being, who have earned it honestly in work serviceable to God and humanity, and who not only acquire but use it with a Christian conscience in sensitiveness to human need. This recognition ought never to induce complacency, but it needs to be made in answer to a pessimistic view of the total injustice of human society.
The most authoritative compendiums of the principles of Christian ethics in relation to the problems of economic justice are to be found in the reports of Section III of the Oxford, Amsterdam, and Evanston Conferences of the World Council of Churches, and in a statement on Christian Principles and Assumptions for Economic Life adopted by the General Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. on September 15, 1954. These statements represent a surprising degree of unanimity of Christian thought in an area where precise unanimity is impossible, and where an authoritarian word even if obtainable would to the Protestant mind be undesirable. What follows is consistent with these statements, though necessarily in briefer form than even these relatively brief affirmations.
a) Misconceptions. Certain misconceptions must be guarded against. Though no man living is wise enough to give a complete blueprint of the “next steps” to economic justice in every concrete situation, certain widely held errors stand in the way of these steps, and their discernment is essential to moving in the right direction.
In the first place, no economic system ought to be identified with the kingdom of God. In the past feudalism and slavery have been thus identified with the will and favor of God, and it was assumed that any change in the economic status quo was an affront to biblical teaching and to Christian morality. Not a little blood was shed to preserve these institutions with appeals to divine sanction in the process, but they had to yield to changing circumstances and a more enlightened conscience. Most American Christians now recognize the error in these particular forms of “absolutizing the relative,” but new forms of idolatry have replaced them.
The most common of these identifications is the assumption that “the American way of life,” meaning American capitalism and the free enterprise system, is ordained of God and any challenge to it a form of both political and religious subversion. Whether or not explicitly stated, this is the implicit assumption of many who inveigh against the “welfare state” and view with suspicion any criticism of economic individualism. On the other hand, there are those who espouse state socialism and a large measure of government ownership and control as the Christian answer. This view has had wide acceptance among religious liberals who saw in socialism an expression of the prophetic demand for social justice, but in recent years the evils in this system also have become apparent. Socialism ought not to be confused with Communism, which is clearly unchristian in its foundations and methods; yet two decades ago some Christians thought they discerned in Communism the way to economic justice.
In response to such identifications the Christian needs to be clear on two points: (1) that no system devised by man is completely Christian, or can be as long as human error and sin persist, and (2) that some systems are better fitted than others to be carriers of economic justice. Communism with its suppression of human freedom and ruthless violation of personal integrity cannot bring justice, though it can challenge injustice and possibly ameliorate some forms of it.12 The answer, as far as we can see it, lies in a blend of free enterprise and state control in accordance with certain positive Christian principles.
A second misconception is that benevolent intentions justify paternalistic domination by those who have superior status or power. To be sure, there can be no justice without love, for in its absence self-interest prompts to unscrupulous domination. Yet its presence in the form of attitudes of kindness is no guarantee of justice, and is too often a cloak for injustice. “Benevolent intentions have been used with sincerity at one time or another to justify slavery, to give religious sanction to white supremacy and the continuance of imperialism, to prevent the poor from having education or the suffrage, or to discourage land reform or the organization of labor.”13 Such attitudes perpetuate injustice more often unconsciously than consciously, but are a particularly insidious form of the moral dullness to which reference was made earlier. They injure personality both in the holders of such power and its victims, for as the passage above quoted goes on to say, “It is quite as true of irresponsible economic power as of irresponsible political power, that such power tends to corrupt those who exercise it.”
A third misconception, implicit in the two preceding, is that personal evangelism will automatically take care of the economic evils of society by generating Christian character. It is to the credit of the social gospel movement in American liberal Christianity that the need of changing social structures has been persistently stressed, and however far it may be necessary to go beyond it to a deeper emphasis on human sin, this must never be lost sight of. Not even John Wesley, most socially-minded of all the great religious leaders of an earlier day, fully grasped this necessity.
One looks in vain in Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Wesley, Edwards, and all the major figures of three centuries of Protestant writing, for any more than incidental treatment of the problems of the economic, political and legal structures of life. The realisation of the fluidity of social structures and the capacity of man to alter his political and economic environment is a nineteenth century insight, which became the inheritance of liberalism and neo-Protestantism as well.14
b) Positive principles. Let us now note some general principles of which the serious and determined application by Christians could, without creating a Utopia, remake society. Obviously, Christians are not the only persons who affect economic structures. Yet without waiting for all of society to become Christian — a “far-off divine event” certainly not to be anticipated in the near future — even a devoted minority of Christians could make a vast difference in the economic scene.
First, the welfare of persons should be paramount over all other interests. This applies to all the conditions regarding property and work which were examined in the early part of this chapter. It means that Christians should attempt by education, persuasion, and where necessary by legal action to secure a minimum standard of income for all, commensurate with the cost of living. Conditions of employment should be such that work can be done in physical and mental health and without undue anxiety for sickness, old age, or other forms of enforced unemployment. Young people should have equal opportunities to develop their capacities and to find the employment best suited to them. Enough economic security should be provided to permit marriage and the rearing of children in adequate housing and educational facilities, without undue luxury and without slums.
The ramifications of this primary principle are endless, but some because of frequent violation need special mention. There must be no racial discrimination in employment or housing, or in opportunities for education and for medical care. This alone, if taken seriously, would bring about a vast reconstruction in American life! And while racial prejudice creates the most obvious form of discrimination, a Christian conscience must be on guard also against economic injustices caused or perpetuated by family status, social stratification, political “pull,” or even by church connections. Much as we stress democracy, democracy is affronted on every hand by factors such as these.
Second, due consideration must be given to the realities of economic life. It is customary to stress “hard facts” as canceling out the considerations put forward by a Christian conscience. “One must live,” and to live one must compete, and to compete one must do what others do. There are both rationalization and reason in this plea, and where to draw the line is an exceedingly difficult but basic need. To repeat what has been said earlier upon compromise, sin appears at the point of disparity between the actual and the best possible. To discern the highest possibility of Christian justice in a very complex world, not only a Christian conscience but technical knowledge is required. This the gospel cannot supply, though it may well provide the dynamic for acquiring and using it in a Christian frame of reference. Laymen who live close to economic realities, if they are informed and spiritually sensitive Christians, are often better equipped than ministers to judge the concrete next steps to be taken toward economic justice.
Third, a proper balance must be maintained between individual freedom and social control. Just what is “proper” has, of course, no easy answer. Much of the task of “Christianizing the social order” — to cite the title of an important book by Walter Rauschenbusch — lies at the point of determining this balance and putting it into effect. Some principles, however, may serve as norms of judgment. Every adult individual should have freedom to choose an occupation, exercise some creativity and initiative within it, earn an income sufficient for his personal and family needs, and determine within limits how he shall spend his money. Totalitarian control by the state is neither democratic nor Christian. On the other hand, unrestrained individualism leads neither to democracy nor to Christian social justice, but to the enhancement of acquisitiveness, an irresponsible use of power, exploitation of the weak, and to disregard of basic social obligations. It is right that by taxation and by legal restraints the grosser aspects of individualism should be curbed, and provision made for security against the hazards of illness, Unemployment, and old age. A “welfare state” or a “planned economy” can be a great step toward justice, provided an informed and conscientious citizenry insists that the welfare of all be taken into account.
Fourth, economic justice must be viewed in a world setting. There is a persistent provincialism which makes men tend to see political and economic issues from the standpoint of their own class or culture or nation. Few Christians fully divest themselves of it. Yet it is rooted in the Christian gospel that all men are of supreme and equal worth in the sight of God. Inequality of personal endowment or of social contribution or of economic need does not cancel out this basic equality. To the degree that we are fully Christian, we shall do our utmost to see that all men, all women and children of all races and in all lands are provided with the material foundations of healthful, wholesome living and the good life. How basic this is, we must observe in later chapters.
This chapter is, and is not, finished, for economic conditions ramify throughout the whole of the world’s social fabric. These principles of economic justice must be applied in the personal relations of the community and the market place, in corporations and labor unions, in’ national affairs and in the world scene. If they are disregarded anywhere, evil consequences occur there and elsewhere, so interdependent is our world. And if they are persistently disregarded, there may before long be no world to talk about.
1. Fosdick, op. cit., p. 80. Used by permission of Harper & Bros.
2. George F. Thomas in Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy (New York: Chas.
Scribner’s Sons, 1955), p. 307, puts this interesting and relevant query, “May it not be, therefore, that many Christian laymen resent the ‘interference’ of the Church on economic issues, not because the Gospel has little to say about them, but because what it does say is so disturbing?”
3. This applies also to adults within the family. A wife needs to have not only her husband’s protection, but some possessions of her own over which she can exercise
4. Christianity and Civilisation, Part II: Specific Problems (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1949), p. 70. Used by permission of the publisher.
5. For a fuller exposition and critique of this thesis, see my John Calvin: The Man and his Ethics (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1931), chs. viii-x.
6. Brunner, Justice and the Social Order (New York: harper & Bros., 1945), p. 148.
7. Works V. 100.
8. See R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1947); A Mervyn Davies, Foundation of American Freedom (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955); and my John Calvin for expositions of these connections.
9. The Evanston Report, ed. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, pp. 160-73. See also the report of the North American Lay Conference on The Christian and His Daily Work, held at Buffalo, New York, February 21-24, 1952.
10. A research study made by Murray H. Leiffer and reported in The Christian Advocate of March 1, 1956, p. 7, reveals that “not a single person who characterized himself as a laborer or domestic servant felt ‘called’ to his work.” The percentage of those reporting affirmatively is highest among professional people, like teachers and doctors, and among housewives.
11. For a fuller elaboration of these principles, see the chapter on “Christian Faith and the Day’s Work” in my The Modern Rival of Christian Faith. Excellent brief treatments are to be found in God and the Day’s Work by Robert L. Calhoun (New York; Association Press, 1943), and Christian Faith and My Job by Alexander Miller (New York: Association Press, 1946).
12. Further discussion of both capitalism and Communism is found in my The Modern Rival of Christian Faith, ch. 10.
13. Christian Principles and Assumptions for Economic Life, p. 3.
14. Waldo Beach and John C. Bennett in “Christian Ethics” in the symposium Protestant Thought in the Twentieth Century, ed. Arnold S. Nash (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1951), p. 138.