Ross Gittins Sydney Morning Herald 6 April , 2015
At this time of our greatest Christian holy-days, what does the Bible have to say about economics? A lot more than you may think. That's according to the Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, whose book, Economics of Good and Evil, I'll be heavily relying on in this column.
When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had disobeyed him, part of their punishment was that "by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" – they'd have to work for their living.
But Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone". So we have to be concerned about making our living, but we also have to be concerned about more than that. "We were endowed with both body and soul, and we are both spiritual and material beings . . . Without the material, we die; without the spiritual, we stop being people," Sedlacek says. Christianity doesn't condemn the material, but it does condemn materialism. It's not money that's the problem, it's the love of money. Keep too much of it for yourself and you've probably crossed the line.
It's true Jesus chased from the temple "men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money", but he didn't chase them any further. His problem was not with their commerce but with their mixture of the sacred with the profane.
Jesus's teaching is often based on paradox, we're told. Jesus considers more valuable two mites that a poor widow drops on to the collection plate than the golden gifts of the rich. Implicitly, this legitimises the role of money. But, to economists, it also shows Jesus understood the concept of marginal disutility. The widow's mite involved much greater sacrifice than the rich person's gold.
Sedlacek notes the New Testament's extensive use of economic metaphors. Of Jesus's 30 parables, 19 are set in an economic or social context: the parable of the lost coin; of talents (money), where Jesus rebukes a servant who didn't "put my money on deposit with the bankers"; of the unjust steward; of the workers in the vineyard; of the two debtors; of the rich fool, and so forth. But get this: the most central concept in the Easter story of Christ's death and resurrection – redemption – originally had a purely economic meaning. You need to know that, in New Testament Greek, sin and debt were the same word.
People who were unable to pay their debts became debt slaves. Once you fell into slavery, the only escape was for someone to ransom you, to pay your bail. Jesus's role was to redeem us, purchase us at a price, buying us out of our debt of sins. The price was the shedding of his blood on the cross, just as the sacrificial lamb's blood was shed at Passover. "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace," St Paul said.
Western civilisation has been shaped by Christianity and Christian values, which means Christianity has also shaped economics. Sedlacek says the prayer "forgive us our sins", meaning "cancel our debts", could be heard from the West's leading banks in the global financial crisis. Our modern economy cannot function without institutions that deliver the unfair forgiveness of debt. Bankrupts, for instance, are discharged even though they've paid back only a fraction of what they owe. When a company goes bust owing millions, the liability of its shareholders is limited to the face-value of their shares, paid long before by the original purchaser of the shares. As for the GFC, Sedlacek says, "It would be hard to imagine the financial Armageddon that would follow if the government actually did not pay the ransom and redeem banks and some large companies".
"This, of course, goes against all principles of sound reason and of basic fairness. We also breached many rules of competition on which capitalism is built. Why did the most indebted banks and companies, which did not compete very well, receive the largest forgiveness?" Why? It had to be done, in order to redeem not only these particular troubled and highly indebted companies, but also others that would fail if these few were not saved.
You've heard of "positive discrimination", but Sedlacek says Christian thought emphasises the concept of "positive unfairness": the more you've sinned, the bigger dollop of forgiveness you get. "It doesn't matter how hard you try – everyone gets the same reward" (something the prodigal son's brother had trouble accepting). "Christianity thus largely abolishes the accounting of good and evil. God forgives, which is positively unfair," he concludes.