Rescuing capitalism

Under capitalism, the rich try to become richer. In the process, they provide jobs for workers and products for consumers, stimulating the economy. As businessowners compete with one another for customers and for workers, they try to achieve the best balance of price and quality for their products. They try to find the right wages to pay their workers, high enough wages to keep the best workers, but low enough wages to keep their products affordable.

The Industrial Revolution offered a glut of workers because the population was growing, agricultural workers were being pushed off their land, and machines were making it possible to accomplish more work with fewer laborers. Socialists (and other enemies of capitalism) recognized the problems that the system contained; they saw the poverty of the working class. At the same time, industry and the growing population of the cities led to other problems not directly due to capitalism, such as pollution and disease. Blaming all these problems on capitalism, socialists assured their audience that changing economic systems would fix these problems and would offer workers a better life.

Karl Marx predicted that the workers would violently overthrow business owners, along with political and religious leaders and others who supported the status quo. He further predicted that the overthrow would happen earliest at the places where the Industrial Revolution began—the British Isles, followed by western Europe. Marx could not foresee a response to capitalism that would fix its problems from within. But certain things were already happening in Marx’s lifetime that would rescue capitalism from its dangers by improving the lives of the working class.

Even Moses and the prophets pronounced laws against greed, oppression, and unfair practices. They denounced cheating weights, scales, and measures; they spoke against mixing the chaff and the sweepings with the grain. According to the Bible, government represents God’s authority among people to enforce the laws, to protect the people, to limit the power of greed and other sinful tendencies. Governments in western Europe used their authority for the good of the people. They inspected stores and businesses to make sure their practices were fair and honest. They restricted pollution of the air, land, and water, establishing sewage treatment plants, water purification plants, and other needed responses to the pollution caused by industry and by urbanization. Governments placed limits upon the age of factory workers; they also limited the number of hours that could be required of workers. In many ways, governments used the force of the law to reduce the problems within capitalism, industrialism, and urbanization—and they did so without seizing the means of production, without taking farms and factories and stores out of the hands of their capitalist owners.

God’s law demands perfection. Human law cannot mandate the same level that God requires. Food contamination laws permit a small amount of insect parts, rodent hairs, and other contaminations; reading those permissions can be stomach-turning. Questions are raised, and will always be raised, about how much regulation is necessary and how much is too much. The political system exists to address such questions, and negotiation and compromise will always be part of the answer to these questions.

Perhaps the most important laws prompted by the Industrial Revolution were those that permitted workers to organize labor unions, leaders who represented the workers and negotiated with business owners for higher salaries and better working conditions. At first, business owners tried to break the unions, but governments supported the unions and insisted that business owners hear their demands and negotiate with them for the good of the workers. This process, unexpected by Marx and other revolutionary socialists, preserved capitalism in western Europe and North America. Eventually, much of the rest of the world would be persuaded to follow the same economic system. People turned to capitalism because it works. J.

Cleansing the Temple

Some years ago I was watching the movie Jesus Christ, Superstar on television after the children had gone to bed. One young daughter left her bedroom for some reason and happened to see a scene from the movie through the doorway—it was the scene in which Jesus violently disrupts the buying and selling that is taking place in the Temple. My daughter recognized that the actor in the movie was representing Jesus, but she was not familiar with this event as described in the Bible. The anger and violence with which Jesus confronted the misuse of God’s Temple puzzled and frightened her.

According to Mark, this cleansing of the Temple happened on Monday of Holy Week, the day after Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew and Luke both describe the two events without transition, but neither of them says they took place on the same day; John does not mention this cleansing of the Temple, but he includes a similar event near the beginning of his account of the Gospel. Jesus was passionate about the Temple. It provided God’s people a place to have access to God. Animals were sacrificed there as an offering to atone for sin, though they were only pictures of the ultimate Offering that would atone for sin. Prayers were said in and around the Temple. As Jesus pointed out on that Monday, God’s house was intended to be a house of prayer.

Jesus then added that the buyers and sellers had made the Temple a den of thieves. I have not been able to verify this account, but I have read that when people brought their animals to the Temple for the sacrifice, they were told that their animals were flawed and unacceptable for sacrifice to the Lord. The buyers offered to purchase the flawed lamb or goat or bull from the worshipers and sell them a proper animal for sacrifice (at a higher price, of course). After the sale, the flawed animal was taken to a pen elsewhere on Temple property until it was sold to another worshiper in a similar way.

In the same way, the money-changers were cheating the people. The priests of the Temple said that Roman money was no good in God’s house. The money-changers offered to exchange the temple shekel for Roman coins. The exchange rate was not favorable for the worshipers. Of course the money-changers and even the priests had no difficulty spending Roman coins in the marketplace. When they asked Jesus, during Holy Week, about paying taxes to Rome and he asked them to show him a Roman coin, they had no trouble finding one to show him, even though that money was supposedly no good in God’s house.

Even today enemies of the Church accuse Christians of hypocrisy and greed. Unfortunately, they often find enough examples to prove their point. Jesus does not want his people to be known for their sins. He has paid a great price to take away their sins. Jesus still wants his house to be a house of prayer and a place where people may approach the Lord to receive his grace, his forgiveness, and his love. Therefore Jesus still fumes when he sees his Temple distracted by worldly things to the point that they no longer proclaim the message God has given them to share.

The wrath of God is real, as I had the opportunity to explain to my daughter that night years ago. God’s wrath at sin is not confined to the Old Testament; Jesus himself strikes out at sinful injustice and the way some people take advantage of others in the name of the Lord. If we are like Jesus, we will oppose evil wherever we find it. We will seek to make God’s house a house of prayer, not a den of thieves. But we will also make God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ the center of our message to a sinful and needy world. J.