#196 The Economics of Imperfection

The Christian Economist with Dave Arnott

Economics in 2023: we should not expect perfection on this side of heaven.

Many people leave the church because they find that their fellow congregants are not perfect. We also hear complaints about the capitalist economy not perfectly serving everyone’s needs. The answer to both of these complaints is found at the root of the problem of all mankind: There is no perfection.

 

Church

A friend in a Bible study recently mentioned that folks won’t attend church because, in the past, the church had harmed them in some way. About 150 years ago, my Southern Baptist predecessors claimed that the Bible endorsed slavery and used the scripture from Ephesians 6:5 stating, “Slaves obey your earthly masters.”

Avoiding the church because the fallen people there have made mistakes is a sophomoric excuse. Tell me, what organizational entity will NOT hurt you? The Federal government, state government, county, city? The Rotarians, the Lions, even the Optimists will hurt you. The Salvation Army will hurt you. I wrote a series of three podcasts recently about 1) how fiscal policy harms the poor 2) how green policies impoverish the poor and 3) tax policy and the poor. I have not heard about anyone leaving the United States because they were harmed by those policies.

People who leave the church because they were harmed have a very twisted understanding of the church and the gospel. There is no doctrine of perfection in the bible. As a matter of fact, the Christian doctrine is very clear about its imperfection. Romans 3:23 reads, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The church has been described more as a hospital for wounded folks, not a museum for perfect people.

I’m trying to imagine someone moving to the Dallas area and buying season tickets for the Cowboys. At halftime, we find him at the ticket counter demanding a refund. “The receiver dropped the ball. I didn’t pay to see mistakes!” What did you expect? In the same way, I’m astounded at people who are hurt by the church and exclaim, “They’re not perfect!” Where did this idea of perfection come from?

Seeing that we’re in the Christmas season, maybe we have an answer: we believe Jesus was perfect. As you and I travel through our lives, it’s kind of hard to understand, but that IS what we, as Christians believe. Jesus was perfect, but each of the other 117 billion people, before and since, are NOT perfect.

Our pastor actually admitted from the pulpit, “Come join our church. We will hurt you.”

 

Forgiveness

Here’s what Christians should be good at: Forgiveness. We believe in it. My consulting partner and I were asked to lead a “kumbaya” session of sorts with our local city council members and school board members. They are the two most powerful bodies in our community, and the mayor thought it would be a good idea, to get them all in the same room, and say good things about one another and it went well. When we asked for closing statements from the Mayor and the School Superintendent, the Super said succinctly, “We need to learn how to forgive.” That came out of nowhere. What did she mean?  Where did she get that? Well, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that our community was still suffering some lingering racial strife from the George Floyd killing. That’s what she meant, and she was right.

Where does this model of forgiveness come from? Well, Jesus died for your sins, because there is no free lunch, someone had to pay. Jesus paid for you and me, so we have been forgiven. That’s why when the question was asked in Matthew 18:22 “How many times should I forgive?” The answer was “seventy times seven.”

A society without forgiveness is a pretty ugly place to be, and that’s what’s happening in the post-modernity stage of United States society.

When I used to do a lot of management seminars, I would often mention that every organization has to have some kind of a forgiveness system, although I didn’t use that term. I would ask the attendees for phrases, and they would mention things like, “Water under the bridge” “A come-to-Jesus meeting” or simply a progressive discipline system. Why do you suppose we do that? Why do we give people “three strikes and you’re out,” and why do we allow folks to have multiple convictions before they are sent to jail? It’s because we believe in the Christian view of forgiveness.

Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the 1830s to study the US penal system. It was very different from the French system, where they simply threw people in jail, and they stayed there. We shouldn’t be surprised, the French Revolution followed the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, which did not include forgiveness. The young American country had a Christian system of rehabilitating people. His findings were published in a book titled Democracy in America.

We believe that people are naturally fallen, but they can reach for the higher angels of their nature, even while in the fallen state. It brings to mind the Greek story about Sisyphus. He was assigned to roll a boulder up a hill all day. When he returned to work the next morning, the boulder was at the bottom of the hill again. Kinda sounds like your work, doesn’t it?! That’s a good metaphor for our Christian belief system because it shows that our fallen nature pulls us, and the organizations we belong to, down the hill. The rock has to be pushed back up. So, when we see a stone at the bottom of the hill, we’re not surprised, but when we see one at the top of a hill, we know someone pushed it there.

 

Economics

Capitalism provides the means to forgive. In a capitalist economy, individuals own private property, usually in the form of money, to use as a means of forgiveness. In socialism, goods are distributed, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” So where is what my fellow Christian economist Anne Bradley calls the “leftovers?” How could you give anything in an act of forgiveness? If you only have what you need, by definition, you have no ability to make an economic show of forgiveness.

So many books try to trim the edges of Capitalism. I read Redeeming Capitalism a few years ago. I’m now reading one titled Better Capitalism. Another is titled Compassionate Capitalism. Frankly, I don’t recommend you read any of these books. They are all feeble attempts at redirecting our fallen economic system to better serve our neighbors, but I’ve noticed that there are no books that try to trim the edges of socialism. Have you seen a book titled Better Socialism, or Improved Socialism, or Compassionate Socialism? Perhaps it’s because we assume that Socialism can’t be redeemed. It’s lost forever. Sisyphus can’t even attempt to roll the Socialism stone up the hill.

Marxism is all about the oppressed and the oppressors, but what happens if they forgive each other? Then Marxism would not be necessary. You see, the entire economic idea of Marxism is based on the lack of forgiveness. And that’s why – by the way – there is no room for Christianity in Marxism, because once people learn how to forgive each other, Marxism dies.

In Matthew 26:11, Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you,” because He knew we couldn’t run a godly economy. And, there’s great evidence that we have not. In a fallen world, there can’t be a perfect system.

 

No Utopia

My podcast #34 is titled No Utopia, takes that point from a sub-topic in my little book Economics and the Christian Worldview. That podcast makes the point that there cannot be a perfect economic system that is populated by fallen people but we can make a better one. Let’s consider a simple index, with Socialism on one end, and Capitalism on the other end.

Problem: Pure Socialism produces government-controlled monopolies, and pure Capitalism produces business-controlled monopolies. What’s the ideal way to distribute goods and services in a world where all the socialists and the capitalists are fallen? The best answer seems to be somewhere near the capitalist end, with just enough government control to maintain competition.

And, to quote the school superintendent, “We need to learn how to forgive.”

Fear God
Tell the Truth
Earn a Profit

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