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Does the Bible Favor Capitalism or Occupiers?

Two items arrived at about the same time yesterday morning that made for interesting dialogue on the voice of the Bible in our current context.
One was Drew Smith’s excellent article on reading the Bible theologically, with a careful study of the ancient assumptions that accompany its writing and our modern assumptions that accompany its reading.

The other was a specialcorrespondence to CNN by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council on seeing the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11-27 as a clear expression of biblical support for free-market capitalism and a rejection of the challenge of those who would criticize it (i.e., the occupiers).

My first reaction was that Brother Perkins would be a good candidate for the editorial board of a new “Capitalist Bible” (in the same vein as the recent “Patriot’s Bible,” which advocates a flag-wavin’ and gun-totin’ discipleship as an undercurrent of its effort to honor those who bravely serve our country in military ways). 

But then I read Smith’s article and thought further about listening carefully to Scripture in light of what it is rather than what I would like for it to be.

You see, I would tend to propose an “Occupier’s Bible,” which would underscore and emphasize those passages that support my (and I believe their) perspective on the prophetic voice of protest against our tendency to worship mammon.

But that places what I want it to affirm above my willingness to listen to what it could be inviting me to think about that just might transform my understanding and level of concern.

Peter Rhea Jones, in his book, “The Teaching of the Parables,” offers the helpful insight that a parable has two dimensions that often get confused: one is the main point of the story (the essential message it intends to convey), and the second consists of the features of the story that reflect the everyday practices of life around which it is framed.

The obvious point of Luke’s parable of the pounds is the importance of responsible and creative stewardship of the resources that are entrusted to our care and use, and Perkins makes this valid point very well.

But to use the features of the story to suggest that Jesus was sanctifying capitalism and denigrating anyone who would criticize its distortions is a good example of eisegesis (reading into) rather than exegesis (reading out of) a text. 

Perkins might have looked at Jesus’ reaction to those who “capitalized” the Temple’s sacrificial system, turning worship into a profitable business, or the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20), where the opposite of what he proposes is suggested.

The bottom line of this kind of reflection is that we can usually find something in the Bible that will support whatever ideological perspective we want to push.

The particular feature of Perkins’ perspective that I find troubling is in one of his concluding paragraphs:

“Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.”

This seems to be a pretty simplistic assessment of the consequences of the systemic economic irresponsibility that has crippled so many lives while broadening the chasm between the rich and the poor. If individuals had only been a little more diligent and determined …

In addition, he seems to see the “occupiers” as challenging capitalism itself rather than its distortions, and it is that kind of limited view that keeps us locked in the conflict of dueling ideologies rather than liberated into the dialogue of theological deliberation that seeks a higher, common ground.

Cavalier dismissals of the occupiers’ challenge, such as candidate Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that they “get a job after they take a bath” don’t contribute much to any kind of dialogue.

Does the biblical portrait of the journey of God’s people toward the fulfillment of the covenant promise point us toward free-market capitalism (as Perkins suggests from Luke’s parable), or socialism (as we might see in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-37), or any other economic system that a society might choose?

Or does it point us toward a quality of justice, compassion and a commitment to cultivate a context where every person is afforded the opportunity and assistance to fulfill a meaningful destiny as part of the human family, whatever the economic system?

It would seem that the free-market capitalist who succeeds by ethical means and uses the fruits of his or her success to enhance the common good – as well as the occupier who calls out those who exploit the system, and indeed the system itself, for gains that benefit the few at the expense of the many – might both receive a “well done” from the Master whose mission was to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed.

ColinHarris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.