I wrote this letter to the journal, Interpretation, in response to an article by David Brat. The theme of the issue was "usury." You can probably figure out what his point was by my response, even if you haven't read the actual article in Interpretation.
Dear Editors of Interpretation,
David Brat succeeds in being both sophomoric and patronizingly condescending in his article, which is far beneath Interpretation’s usual standards. His self-righteous complacent triumphalism about Capitalism is the same sort of pompous prattle that every empire declaims about itself before it falls. No empire is ever “here to stay,” and this one will collapse as well, either by the revolt of the billions of people who are routinely ground under its wheels, or by the very planet it has made a virtue out of degrading. He writes: “We spend more time on market activity than God activity. Thus Calvinism.” What does that even mean?
His early paragraph attempting to show Capitalism’s benefits fails to reveal the wildly uneven distribution of those benefits. We are led to believe that Capitalism’s rising tide of prosperity in places like China and India has raised all boats, when actually the lion’s share of the benefits have been devoured by the people at the very top (though the “averages” still look wonderful).
Brat’s reduction of morality to the merely individual level, while he claims it is inherent to our Reformed tradition, would have attracted Calvin’s ire. The libertarianism Brat is trying to squeeze out of the Bible and Calvin is antithetical to the teachings of both. The Bible, Jesus, Paul, and the whole Christian tradition, including Calvin, are about the formation of healthy and blessed communities.
What Brat derisively frames as “forcing some to pay for the benefits of others” is actually the whole point of Capitalism, which deliberately jiggers the economic system for the increasing enrichment of the wealthy. But when it is reversed to benefit the poor, that statement becomes the centerpiece of biblical morality. Does Brat’s Bible not include Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 19:9, Leviticus 25, or Deuternomy 14:26, just to name a few that spring immediately to mind?
Brat implies that what Jesus demands from us as his followers is not to be extended into our responsibilities as citizens of a democratic state. “Do we have the right to coerce our fellow citizens to act in ways that follow our Christian ethical beliefs?” Yes. It’s called democracy. Within constitutional limits, the majority always “coerces” the minority to participate in its vision and agenda. Are Christians supposed to withdraw from the polity? Brat’s mistrust of democracy reflects the attitude of the rich and powerful of every age. They are generally the ones so afraid of coercion since they have the most to lose. In real life, Capitalism resists democracy at every turn, preferring to give power to capital and rights to people with capital. He ignores the inherent coercion involved in transactions between people with unequal resources. The fantasy that “all voluntary trades are beneficial to both parties and the easiest way to see this is that if one were not better off, one would not partake in such a trade” may work in the fairy-land of Friedmanian academia. But where the rest of us live such a statement is absolute nonsense.
Brat’s analysis of the current economic crisis, as: “we wanted to force low-interest loans on the banks so that the poor could magically afford houses” is so breathtakingly self-serving, cruel, and stupid, that the only other people I have heard this from are Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Great authorities. Presumably our hearts are supposed to bleed for the banks.
It may have been fruitful for the church to synthesize Christianity with other philosophies. But none of these is a godless ideology that renames sins as virtues for the purpose of enriching the wealthy by means of the wanton rape of planet and people. No synthesis between Christianity and such an ideology is possible.