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Capitalism and the Sin of Self-Interest

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Yesterday, IPCC presented the first part of their new report about climate change in Stockholm, Sweden, and it was yet another reminder of the horrible catastrophy we have put ourselves into. The economic system that created climate change and other environmental problem is structurally wicked and needs to change quickly if we are going to save the lives of all the people that are in risk of dying because of environmental destruction and natural disasters. We have to challenge and change capitalism.

All the bishops of the Lutheran Church of Sweden wrote an article in our biggest newspaper today where they argued that changing our lives in response to climate change is a spiritual matter that the church has to adress. I completely agree. In fact, I think the reason why the capitalist economic system has put us into this mess is because it is detached from Christian holiness.

Of course, not everyone think this is the case. I once read an article by a Christian who claimed that the Bible supports capitalism, and he challenged the “misconception” that capitalism is based on greed and thus is sinful. This is not the case, he said, because self-interest does not equal greed, but is something all people base their lives on. Whenever we eat a sandwich we do it out of self interest, and there is nothing wrong with that, he said.

The problem with this argument is that the Bible actually says that self-interest is wrong:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” – Phil 2:3-4

The problem with capitalism is that some people stock enormous amounts of sandwiches while others are starving. When one only looks at one’s own interests is makes perfect sense to make more money through oppressing the poor and destroying the environment for present and future generations. When one looks at the interests of others, we see how disgusting capitalism is.

Capitalism glorifies growth and wealth, but the Bible tells us that it’s wrong to be rich, as we have covered in the God vs Wealth series on this blog. The early church practiced community of goods in order to establish economic equality. In our capitalist world the differences between rich and poor are enormous – another example of how sinful capitalism is.

But what then is the alternative? This I will explore in a future blog post.

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19 Comments

  1. itpastorn says:

    Sorry Micael, but this time I do not follow your reasoning. Basically its a straw man argument supported by some quote by a Christian that clearly haven’t really understood the issue even when trying to defend it.

    The essence of capitalism is not self interest, even if such an opinion could be supported by quoting Adam Smith. Capitalism was however not constructed by him. He is a philosopher within the system, not the author of the system.

    OTOH, Karl Marx equated profit as a principle with greediness as a vice. The principle of making a profit is by definition wrong according to him. (In my youth I actually read Das Kapital, but its been a while so I am not up to date on the details,) However, it seems that you are letting the ideas that emanate from Marx define the essence of capitalism. That’s probably why we disagree.

    Here is the rub, unless an entity makes a profit over time it ceases to exists. Thus we must hope that e.g Fairphone will make a profit, otherwise they won’t be able to continue doing what they do. Of course that profit can be sustained by people making educated choices and investors providing more funds, but profit must always be generated over time.

    Yes. mathematically things can be totally even between income and expenditure, but that leaves no room for growth. Capitalism was born when the idea of re-investment became prevalent in 17th-18th century Netherlands and Great Britain.

    Thus, how one defines self-interest is also up for discussion. Self-interest as a principle of sustaining oneself (eating a sandwich) is an objective usage of the word. One simply can not take that word and apply it to a verse in scripture, where the definition is different. That’s bad hermeneutics.

    The second pillar of capitalism is letting prices be determined using a process of supply and demand. That process is almost as old as mankind itself. It is a natural process that can be short circuited by monopolies, oligopolies, cartels and state regulations. In many ways it MUST be regulated since greed may very well produce the first three. (Teddy Roosevelt is therefore one of my favourite American presidents!) The second reason that states may have to intervene is that supply sometimes becomes so scarce that essentials for living are not available to the people. However, that is not the state interventions we see today. It’s more about keeping industries and farmers employed. Leading us to to absurd situations such as corn syrup being cheaper than real sugar…

    This leads me to the point I wish to make: What we need is not reform that takes away capitalism as such, but reforms within the capitalistic system, checks and balances. Medical research must be allowed to produce a return on investment while keeping medicine affordable among the poor.

    But arguing for checks and balances is not the same thing as arguing for a replacement altogether. The only other replacement mankind so far has produced and put into effect is planned economy in some shape. Every single time that has been tried the results have been far worse. Thus I find it naive to say replace the system. What we need is changes to the system.

    • Hi, Lars! Thanks for your comment.

      There are many different aspects as well as definitions of capitalism. When Marx labeled the term he was especially concerned with the ownership of the means of production, and he criticized that capitalists owned the profit their workers produced through exploiting them – something that definitely has not disappeared in our times. It creates inequality and injustice. It is thus the ownership of the profit that Marx criticised rather than profit in itself. The capitalist could either reinvest it or keep it and buy a big house, and no one can stop him (’cause it’s most often a man). Furthermore, the reinvestments often included technology that would reduce the need of workforce.

      Then we have the environmental critique of capitalism, which is different from the socialist one. Here the problems with economic growth on a finite planet are highlighted, and I believe they are right. It is impossible for the economy to grow endlessly and enjoy eternal profit. Perhaps we will enjoy such cool stuff in Heaven, but here we have to accept that our resources and labor force are limited, and we are already getting close to the limit. The hope of technological development to save the day is very speculative and naive, and you basically hang up the safety of the planet on something that yet does not exist.

      And then we have the moral critique of capitalism which I focus on above. It is rather indisputable that neo-classical theory, of which our form of capitalism is based, value self-interest and utility-maximization as something very good, hoping that the invisible hand will make sure that everyone benefit. What’s even more important is that in practice, self-interest is defended and utilised in our economic system. There is not much that stops capitalists from looking only at their self-interest, rather, it is actually encouraged.

      Finally, you criticise me for wanting to abolish capitalism instead of changing it, but if you look carefully above I did not write that we should abandon it but “challenge and change” it. I will, as mentioned above, discuss the alternatives in a coming post.

      Blessings!
      Micael

  2. Kevin Daugherty says:

    Self-interest and the profit motive was one of the foundations of capitalism. When we were under feudalism, people believed that wealth was not infinite and that it had to be shared. Of courses, feudalism was a brutal class-based society so that sharing was unequal. It was under capitalism that people came to believe that profits were the main economic factor, and that wealth was infinite. Self-interest is the major distinguishing factor of capitalism. Other economic models have had private property, markets, and class, but capitalism is the one that has really pushed for wealth creation.

    Also, that wealth creation is part of the cause of our current climate crisis. Earth is a finite space with finite resources, but then you have an economic model that is based upon the infinity of wealth. It is like growing an oak tree in a flower pot. The pot does not have enough space or soil, but we are still trying to grow that tree.

  3. stevekimes says:

    But Adam Smith’s form of capitalism was based on a foundation of mutual interest. The seller had to not only be interested in his own benefit, but also in the benefit of the one to whom he was selling. This is why his precursor to the Wealth of Nations was his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which said that the basis of morality was empathy. He built on the idea of empathy to show how it could also be used to build wealth, to focus on the other’s need, which would ultimately supply one’s own.

    http://steveseminarnotes.blogspot.com/2009/06/loving-recession-to-death.html

  4. jonte95 says:

    The Bible doesn’t say being rich is wrong. It depends what one does with the money. How can one build orphanages, bible schools, churches etc, without being rich? It costs a lot of money. One can be rich (have a very well paid job), and yet use the money for the Kingdom of God and for God’s glory, with wise stewardship.

    • Hello Jonathan!

      One can definitely not have churches, orphanages and bible schools without a fellowship of people, since it’s hard to run such things alone. Then I think it is reasonable that this community owns the funding of the ministry rather than rich individuals. I am arguing for an equalization and common ownership of wealth, just like in the book of Acts. I’m sure you’ve already read my arguments for this on Hela Pingsten.

      Blessings!

      • jonte95 says:

        Which community? The secular community? They probably wont use money for churches. Why should we have common ownership with the unbelievers? They aren’t reliable.

        What do you mean by equalization? Sometimes God can lead one to put more money on for example mission maybe, than on fighting poverty.

        • I definitely don’t agree with that all non-Christians are unreliable but in this case I was referring to the community of goods à Acts 2 which is made up of believers. That is what I mean with equalization, the richer get poorer and the poorer get richer, which is God’s vision according to Luke 3:11 and 2 Cor 8:13-15. Blessings!

  5. Brother how are you? I could not help the sense I have in my heart to tell you, that your proposal is pop culture.

    I Got A Question For You:

    Who were the people in of the book of Acts? Saved converted individuals right. Okay so let’s look at your vid… Who were they? Unsaved unconverted individuals. Okay so what are you fighting for? Be careful brother our best intentions can take us down some very long and bitter roads. Anger and hate are the next to follow…

    For everyone else who may read this…Humanitarianism IS today’s pop culture! this is not our gospel. the gospel goes far deeper than a protest for asylum seekers or for equality of same sex marriages or the freedom of speech or MY rights, etc! John3v8 says believers will be like the wind!

    This means our spiritual empire is heaven bound.

    Our fight is not against flesh and blood but spiritual powers (Eph6v12). All I’m saying to you brother is that be careful to not get so caught up in the wrong fight. First comes the message, then the repentance, then the conviction, etc. You’re very zealous I understand, Let your love grow deeper brother. Those with the money in this debate need salvation first, not a protest! Our kingdom is not a democracy, it is a theocracy (Governed by God)…

    • Hello bro!

      Well, equality is something the Bible stands for – https://holyspiritactivism.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/god-vs-wealth-part-2-equality/ – and the video argues in favour of equality so it’s just an illustration of a biblical principle. Even if it would have been made by non-Christians (which isn’t necessarily the case) of course it doesn’t mean that it then automatically would be wrong or that sharing it is unbiblical behaviour.

      See, the Bible calls us to be activists that are passionate about social justice, asylum rights and peace. It’s what Jesus called us to in the Sermon on the Mount. So keep calm, pray on and be a humanitarian activist. It doesn’t contradict the Bible, it acts upon it. And no, we don’t have to wait until people are saved before pointing out the sins in their lives. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had even before he had chosen to follow Him (which made him decide not to do it).

      Blessings!

      • Hi. Sorry for my delayed response, here it is.

        Brother you’re talking about earthly treasures again, however it is the heavenly treasure that is the greatest before God. You will always have the poor among you said Jesus; and why did Jesus say in Mark 12 – “v43 this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. v44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she put of her poverty…”
        Brother I don’t mean to be rude, but our Kingdom operates under a totally different set of rules and parameters.

        Please hear me out to be an “activist” in this sense looks very much like our current global culture (aka world peace, etc). The real Gospel comes from the heart. Did Jesus tell those who were rich to give to this lady? No, because her blessings will never be forgotten by God. In this life and the next. To loose here on earth is to gain there in heaven. It is a world of opposites!
        This is why I say this is actually pop culture. It sounds legit. It looks nice. And it sounds like the bible…

        Again who was Jesus talking about when it came to this issue of collecting money? The little old poor widow (probably Jewish – seeking after him) and even then she was not “helped” (as activism would preach). What does that mean, but that we operate under a different system to this world. Why was she not helped? What did Jesus say to her? He said, “v43 this poor widow gives more” and “v44 all she had to live on.” Wow did someone forget to take care of her? Her faith was in God. Not begging. Not asking. But rather giving. Jesus didn’t take her to one side and give her more than she put in. Him simply commented she had given more. Why? Because our kingdom operates in a different way. To loose is to gain.

        Did you not know brother that sometimes God tells us not to “share”? I know of a case in Africa (Where I comes from) where people were sent by Satan to act as beggars and receive peoples money. Everyone who gave was then cursed with nightmares. Funnily enough after this mans deliverance he told us that it was true Christians (yes some Christians aren’t legit) who never gave him anything. Why am I writing about this? Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us. It is not our main goal to balance the scales! We are to share, absolutely! However to balance the planet’s wealth is an improper interpretation of the scriptures and an injustice to the message of God.

        Are we called to equalize the worlds wealth?

        No absolutely no! This is a distraction and something I am writing to warn strongly against. This doctrine is error and does not fulfill the great commission and our current mission here as the Bride of Christ till his return.

        I hope you return a reply, because I am interested to see how far you can preach this doctrine, as a prioritized mission for our Church as a community.

        I pray for spiritual discernment.

        Blessings, Rich

        • Hello Rich!

          Thank you for your reply. However, I strongly disagree. Here are some things that I find problematic with your argument:

          You seem to use Jesus’ words about that “the poor will always be with you” as an argument NOT to engage in poverty reduction very much. However, Jesus’ argument is the opposite, which is strengthened by the fact that the same words are used in Deut 15:11 where God says “THEREFORE I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”

          Your second argument why we should not always share is that you argue that Jesus did not command people to give money to the poor widow. That’s an argument from silence, and very weak. Of course Jesus could have ordered people to give money to her or even given money Himself even though the gospel writers did not record it. Building arguments on what the Bible does not say is much less relevant than what it does say. And Jesus did tell all his disciple to share everything they had (Lk 12:33) which all of them did (Acts 2:44-45).

          Your third argument for not giving to the poor is that you heard about possessed beggars in Africa. Well, cast those demons out and love them and meet their needs bro. This is what Scripture says:

          Be careful not to show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. (Deut 15:9)

          Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Luke 6:30)

          If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? (1 John 3:17)

          Finally, you say that we shouldn’t equalize wealth. Well, this is also opposite to what the Bible tells us:

          “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11)

          “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Cor 8:13-15)

          Social justice and equality is right at the Father’s heart and I hope and pray that you will realize this as well.

          Blessings!

          • Hi Micael,

            I engage in poverty reduction in my immediate community. I work with the homeless of Perth Western Australia creating a better life. I also used to be heavily involved in wildlife conservation in South Africa (where I was born – feeling the effects of poverty and of opulence at various stages of my life – and NONE suffice!). Protecting the environment from which-doctors and greedy local businessmen. To say to these people let’s all enjoy the wildlife, not destroy it. Didn’t work. The reason is these things are heart issues before they are physical issues. I do not disregard the giving of items to those in need – two tunics to give one. The dispersing of those items. I think you are getting confused here. However I believe the true worshipers (John 4:23) will simply offer their services – aka the book of acts. God knows the master plan. Taking money from one place to another is ONLY one (a minute one) facet of the gospel, it is NOT the main aspect of it.

            So when considering a life dedicated to poverty reduction vs that of preaching the Kingdom of God is at hand – healing the sick; raising the dead; cleansing the leper; etc (Matthew 10:7) I think it will help any ministry a lot more to focus this as their main priority.

            Like I mentioned in my previous article, sometimes God will not have you give. Why because he has another intention for that person/place. Does this mean we shouldn’t be ready to give? No. It means be ready but be lead by the spirit. (John 3:8)

            I have seen the Lord guide me in many situations, having traveled to Jamaica, South Africa, and now Australia with words from the Lord and they have all come to pass. Glory to God alone! I am not coming against taking care of people, or giving to the needy. What I am coming against is this being our first cause to go to the nations. Our first cause is the gospel not poverty.

            The reason I am so wounded about this thing at the moment is because I see a lot of my churches here caught on the activist train. I believe in pro-activism rather if that is the case. In other words before activism, comes the preaching of the word of God. God is seeking those who worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

            Finally brother I do not agree with multimillionaire people. Don’t get me wrong! But I don’t get angry at them not sharing the love; I get angry for they are being deceived into thinking their money will save them. Again it is an issue of the heart. Basically the issue is this: money should not be your God. And whether in poverty or in riches money should not be your God.

            Yes I say in poverty, because your life can become so consumed with the issue of money, that you loose sight of your God and maker Jesus Christ! And so the scripture comes into effect by Jesus,

            “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:25-26)

            He’s telling us there is more to life than distribution of wealth. These are heart issues. These are faith issues. If God desires not to give, in hope of a deeper faith, so be it. Who are we to judge God? Did Job in the bible question his maker – yes ultimately he did, but he was wrong, God corrected him and then restored him from poverty to plenty.

            So don’t get me wrong with this whole giving thing. God is simply interested more in the heart than anything, this I can and do see this in the bible- matters of the heart.

            Also I can add the following scripture:

            “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-3)

            This is what I am saying to you. We should not be so Noisy about this issue, because this is an issue of the heart. Be lead by the spirit brother. Our first order calling is to preach the Kingdom of heaven is at hand – heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, restore sight to the blind, open deaf ears – freely you have received freely give. (Matthew 10:8)

            Also in this same passage Jesus commands to take no gold or silver in your money bags. And saying a worker is worth his pay.(Matthew 10:10) This is to say our main objective to labor at winning souls not dispersing wealth. This is the job of the Church currently. Does this mean we forget the people around us? No. But be lead by the spirit, because this is not your or my first calling – it is the preaching of the Kingdom is at hand.

            Blessings.

  6. I believe that serious Christians live in community and hold property in common. I believe that capitalists “Christians” are false Christians and active servants of the anti-Christ.

    I believe that anyone who believes it’s acceptable to profit from the labor of another (thus stealing “surplus value”) is equivalent to a rapist or slaver: it is an action that gratifies unwholesome lust by consuming the bodies and time of God’s children.

    “Adam Smith’s Mistake: How a Moral Philosopher Invented Economics and Ended Morality” by Ken Lux is an excellent analysis of the poison of selfishness at the heart of capitalism.

  7. fabio says:

    In my opinion, Christ and Capitalism go separate ways. Capitalism trives on the desires of the flash, thus will provide us with an abundant harvast of corruption. Christ works on the spirit providing a harvast of life. So let just pray for his kingdom to come. Since It is our only hope, Thus Jesus said the last days would be like the days of Noah.

  8. James says:

    This is utter foolishness. I give no credence to any system that denies human nature. Human nature dictates that some people have greater intellect, talent, etc., than others, and some people are just plain lazy. I am not going to give up any advantage I might naturally possess just to make lazy, less talented people feel better about themselves.

    • Hello James!

      Well, most poor people in Africa work harder than most middle class people in the West, so capitalism does suck when it comes to distributing wealth to those who work hardest. Furthermore, the Biblical vision is economic equality (Acts 2:43-44, 2 Cor 8:13-15). To say that you don’t want to give up any advantage for others is a sin called egoism:

      “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

      God bless you!

  9. James says:

    This is utter foolishness. I give no credence to any system that denies human nature. Human nature dictates that some people have greater intellect, talent, etc., than others, and some people are just plain lazy. I am not going to deny any advantage I might naturally possess just to make lazy, less talented people feel better about themselves.

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The author

Micael Grenholm - a Swedish charismactivist residing with the Jesus Army in the UK.

Micael Grenholm - a Swedish charismactivist residing with the Jesus Army in the UK.

Check out my YouTube channel!

A Living Alternative

God vs Inequality

Goodreads

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