In Response to “What Bible is Pope Francis Reading?”

Just for kicks, I thought I would throw off the more serious, scholarly-ambitions tone of most of my blog entires to write a brief response to a truly asinine article I recently read entitled, “What Bible is Pope Francis Reading?” wherein the author argues that Jesus was a capitalist.  Putting aside that this is rather anachronistic (the type of Enlightenment individualism championed by capitalist economists didn’t really exist until, well, the Enlightenment) (I), and not wanting to introduce my own anachronism, I tend the think that Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, appears to have been pretty antiauthoritarian and pro-egalitarian (not to mention pro-altruism), which would put him at odds with the hierarchical, pro-greed, pro-inequality nature of modern capitalist economic theory.

To begin, the author writes:

The misconception that Jesus’ message is anti-capitalist probably stems from the same confusion that pervades all leftist thinking: the inability to distinguish voluntary from coerced human action. Jesus often exhorts his followers to voluntarily give to the poor. Nowhere in the gospels does he suggest that the Romans or the vassal Jewish government should be empowered to tax the wealthy to provide for the poor.

Actually, I would argue that said failure to distinguish voluntary from coerced human action falls in the capitalist camp.  As I’ve quoted Bakunin before:

The worker always has the right to leave his employer, but has he the means to do so? And if he does quit him, is it in order to lead a free existence, in which he will have no master but himself? No, he does it in order to sell himself to another employer. He is driven to it by the same hunger which forced him to sell himself to the first employer. Thus the worker’s liberty, so much exalted by the economists, jurists, and bourgeois republicans, is only a theoretical freedom, lacking any means for its possible realization, and consequently it is only a fictitious liberty, an utter falsehood.  – Mikhail Bakunin, ‘The Capitalist System’ (II)

In other words, it’s unclear to me how an economic system in which one must have money–which one can only earn by selling oneself in the market place and be subjected to the hierarchical nature of capitalist-worker relationships whereby the worker has most of the value of her labor stolen by the capitalist–constitutes true freedom.  Furthermore, it’s unclear how socialism, as an economic theory which advocates the collective ownership of the means of production, is inherently coercive.  Indeed, the point is to eliminate the coercive, exploitative, hierarchical nature of the capitalist-worker relationship, as has been noted.  Socialism does not mean–as the author seems to think–maintaining capitalism, but merely stealing from the richest members of society (who obviously work very hard and deserve every penny of their earnings) to give to the poor (who are obviously poor because they’re lazy and have a sense of “entitlement”).  That’s just a categorical misunderstanding of socialism.  So, I agree that Jesus does not advocate coercion, but for this reason I would argue that this puts him more at odds with capitalism than with socialism.

Next, the author writes,

Jesus also warns against the temptations that great wealth may expose one to. Being consumed with accumulating wealth to the exclusion of all other concerns leaves no room for devotion to God or charity to one’s fellow man. This is summed up in Luke 16:13 when Jesus says,

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

I completely agree.  This sounds like an argument against capitalist Jesus to me,  insofar as the capitalist would say that the only goal of capitalism is wealth accumulation (i.e., greed and infinite growth).

Moving on.

In the parable of the bags of gold (Matthew 25: 14-30), the servants who choose to be capitalists with the master’s money are richly rewarded upon the master’s return. The servant who chose not to be a capitalist is not only not rewarded, he is “cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

Okay, again, no one is “being capitalist”.  Capitalism did not exist.  Most of the basic ideas of capitalism did not exist.  In fact, as the author notes,

Certainly, the story is symbolic. The money in the story represents the abilities given to each individual by God. But even on that level the story does not support the anti-capitalists. First, the master, the ultimate capitalist in the parable, actually represents God. Certainly, Jesus would have found another way to make his point if capitalists were de facto sinners (like tax collectors).

So, if the story is symbolic, how again does it support capitalism?  Considering that Jesus has a lot of not-so-nice things to say about wealth, greed, the wealthy, the greedy, money, etc. throughout the Gospels, why do we suddenly assume that this parable, in which he uses metaphors that his listeners could easily understand, automatically means the he was a capitalist and that all of his hippie sayings apparently just don’t count?

Notice also that the servant who chooses not to invest the master’s money is the one given the least. Symbolically, he represents the person who has the least natural gifts or who is born to disadvantage. Does Jesus suggest that the other two servants should be taxed to help him? No. The most disadvantaged servant is expected to do the best with what he has. He isn’t punished because he achieves less. He is punished because he fails to try.

This might be a valid point if capitalism were in fact meritocratic, but clearly it is anything but.  Plenty of folks “try” their whole lives and get nowhere (economically speaking), and I doubt Jesus was naive enough to believe that the sole key to success in our uber-fair world is hard work.  Again, if this were the case, why would he advocate helping the poor if they’re just lazy bums who need to work harder?  And, again, the author’s misunderstanding of socialism, as noted above, rears its ugly head.

In two other parables, Jesus represents God as the owner of a vineyard. In Matthew 20: 1-16, he makes the point that it is never too late for salvation and that a repentant man can claim the same salvation as one who has been devout all of his life. He represents salvation as wages paid to laborers. When a laborer who worked longer complains that he is paid no more than one who only worked an hour, the master replies,

“Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.”

Again, the message is spiritual, but Jesus uses the very libertarian, capitalist idea that no one is entitled to any more wages than both parties voluntarily agree to.

Giving everyone the same regardless of the work done?  As in, not making one’s value as a human being contingent upon one’s ability to bring monetary profit to the capitalist?  This actually seems more socialist to me.

God is again depicted as the owner of a vineyard in Matthew 21: 33-41. In this parable, the vineyard owner is even more overtly capitalist. Verse 33 in particular highlights that it is the previous work of the owner in planting the vineyard, hedging around it, and building a tower that makes the land productive before it is ever rented out to the husbandmen.

In other words, the capitalist has sacrificed his own consumption in the present to invest in land and capital goods to improve the productivity of the land. This has created an opportunity for the husbandmen to be more productive by working on the owner’s land than they would be on their own, without the land or the capital goods the owner has provided.

Yeah, this passage doesn’t have anything to do with profit-making.  Are you sure you’re not just paraphrasing Locke and assuming that this is what the Bible says?

The husbandmen are evil specifically because they act like Marxists and renege on the agreement. They kill the owner’s agents and even his son, hoping to seize all of the wealth for themselves.

Sorry, but, how the hell does reneging on agreements and murdering people imply Marxism?  Again, that seems more capitalistic to me: make profit, no matter what.  The capitalist has no implicit reason to honor agreements or value human life should such inconveniences get in the way of profit-making.  If the capitalist does honor agreements and value human life, that’s great, but s/he didn’t learn that from capitalism.  In fact, s/he probably learned that from lefty socialist types who are responsible for such crazy ideas as child labor laws and a minimum wage, and other such measures to prevent the unmitigated domination of the worker by the capitalist. 

So, to answer the question of the article, I think Pope Francis is reading the same Gospels from which the author quotes.  There’s an important difference.


(I) “There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty–not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household–to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, who then must decide whether to kill each other or to swap beaver pelts.” — David Graeber

(II) And again: “If I offer my labor at the lowest price, if I consent to have you live off my labor, it is certainly not because of devotion or brotherly love for you.  And no bourgeois economist would dare to say that it was, however idyllic and naive their reasoning becomes when they begin to speak about reciprocal affections and mutual relations which should exist between employers and employees.  No, I do it because my family and I would starve to death if I did not work for an employer.  Thus I am forced to sell you my labor at the lowest possible price, and I am forced to do it by the threat of hunger.”


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