“God, in giving humanity freedom, lends credence to a free enterprise system in which the primary purpose of production is to bless people by producing goods and services that meet their needs. This is what loving our neighbors as ourselves is all about (Matthew 22:37-40). In doing so, those around us “may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 author’s paraphrase).”
-Tony Campolo (Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said?)*
I’ll be honest, I’m no economist but this statement hurts my brain. The theological gymnastics that Campolo has attempted to pull off in linking free enterprise to God’s gift of free will and then linking that to the greatest of the commandments (Matthew 22:37-40) is nigh impossible. But he tries it anyway.
Admittedly, this was sort of an odd chapter in Red Letter Revolution for me. The chapter was titled “Dialogue on Economics.” I’m not sure what I was expecting from the authors, but I figured there’d at least be some sort of admonition against our current economic environment in the United States, especially as it relates to the drastically widening gap between the rich and the poor. Granted, there was some talk of taking care of those in need and how God is bigger than Wall Street, etc., but for me, Campolo threw anything valuable to the wind with the quote above.
I DO NOT think Jesus affirms the selling of goods and services to people whom, at times, cannot afford those goods and services. This concept certainly does not hold true to the commandment (and Torah law) of loving your neighbor as yourself. This is a clear example of eisegesis, of reading one’s own beliefs, thoughts, and context back into Scripture in such a way as to mold the text to mean what one wants it to mean rather than what it actually says in its own time and place in history. Historically, we Christians are very good at this practice. Take, for instance, the “biblical” justification for slavery in the South during the 1700-1800s, or the German church’s affirmation of Hitler’s Third Reich and Nazi ideology. I’m sorry, but it takes some very literalistic readings of Scripture and some very clever textual eisegeting to make those concepts gel.
Perhaps what Campolo is suggesting is that in a utopian society where everyone is relatively equal, goods and services are produced and offered in order to meet the needs of the people, thus serving the greater good. In this case, yes, this sort of producing and offering of free enterprise goods and services would be a form of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But this is not reality. Sure, it can be a goal, but this isn’t even remotely the world we live in.
The language that Campolo actually uses is that of free enterprise, not utopia and not the language of a community bound together by God. In the current US economic climate “free enterprise” tends to translate as a sort of free market capitalism. If this is not what Campolo intended, then he should have been clearer. However, if Campolo’s statement is taken at face value, there is overwhelming evidence in the New Testament that flies in the face of “free enterprise” as it is manifest in our society.
The community bound together by Christ at the end of Acts 2 is a wonderful example of how we are all still unique individuals with varying abilities, interests, skills, etc. while being joined as one for the common good. The author of Acts states, “All the believers were united and shared everything” (Acts 2:44, CEB). Folks in community even sold the land and excess goods they had for the benefit of others in need. No one went without. Everyone had enough. This was not the result of free enterprise. This was not the logical outcome of selling goods and services. This was the illogical outcome of Pentecost; the breathtaking power of the Holy Spirit to work within a people in such a way as to show them something greater than themselves and their own well-being and luxury. This is inherently a counter-cultural and counter-capitalist concept.
My point is this: we should avoid at all cost the linking of a capitalistic production of goods and services in the modern age with the words of Jesus, particularly the greatest commandment. After all, didn’t Jesus also advocate for his disciples and followers to offer both their shirt and their coat if someone in need simply asks for a shirt? He didn’t say, “Feed those who have the money to be fed; give drink to those who can afford what you have produced.” Jesus didn’t go to the wealthy business owners and kindly ask them to produce better goods or lower their prices. What he did do was tell some successful fisherman and a tax collector, “Come, follow me.” He told a rich young man to sell all of his belongings, give the money to the poor, and become a disciple. He warned against greed, and the dangers of attachment to money and possessions.
Jesus’ words are utterly radical and discomforting. Our economic systems and concepts, however hard we try, will never fit Jesus’ understanding of community. And to be sure, we should try, but we must always confessionally acknowledge that we fall short, that we do things we shouldn’t and we leave other things undone. God, forgive us.
In the end, may we hope and pray to actually do what Christ declares, but may we never do as Campolo suggests: essentially, linking capitalism with the greatest commandment.
*Claiborne, Shane and Tony Campolo. Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.