(This essay is a close adaptation excerpted from the book Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, © David B. Doty, 2011, available from the author or from Wipf & Stock Publishers. This essay should be read with the thesis of Eden’s Bridge—the marketplace is an institution of God, implicit in the creation narrative of Genesis 1–2 and vital to God’s mission in the world—in full view.)
The consequences of Adam’s sin (taking Eve’s curses separately) were guilt, shame, spiritual isolation, banishment from the Garden, the cursing of the ground, toil (`itstsabown), and sweat. While Adam did work in the Garden before the Fall, the ease of access to its abundant resources apparently made for easy work, at least by comparison to how we see work afterward.
Creation outside the Garden took on a contentious nature after the Fall, producing weeds that corrupted the fields, stealing essential nutrients from Adam’s produce, and adding to the actual work needed to produce food. `Itstsabown (Strong’s 6093) is interpreted as pain, labor, hardship, sorrow, or toil. It is easy to picture Adam sowing seed, weeding, and harvesting under the heat of the sun, sweating, and groaning from muscle aches. `Itstsabown is also one of the terms used to describe Eve’s pain in childbirth in Genesis 3:16.
Through the ages work has remained tedious and physically demanding, but there have been dramatic reductions in the monotony and physical difficulty of work in developed economies. The creation and accumulation of new wealth has empowered the development of new technologies that have eased the burden and increased the productivity of work. Labor saving and productivity tools and systems are everywhere, from indoor plumbing to the Internet, from hand tools to earthmoving machinery.
There is a hierarchy to making work easier. The foundation is the essential cooperative element of the marketplace—the division of labor. While this was instituted in the Garden with the introduction of Eve as ezer (one who aids), the Bible reveals the second key, derived from the division of labor, in the very next generation: specialization. Abel was a keeper of flocks and Cain was a tiller of the ground (Genesis 4:2b). It is likely that they each brought different products, of their individual efforts and expertise, to the well-being of the family community.
Specialization fosters the third key: innovation. Practitioners enhance productive efficiencies through creating innovative processes and technologies. The creative impulse of God, apparent in our inheritance of the imago Dei, enhances human critical and imaginative thinking, such that that which is unseen might be envisioned and brought into reality. Andy Stanley calls this practice visioneering . . . “the [intellectual and action] process[es] whereby ideas and convictions take on substance.”[i] Innovation invites the fourth key: collaboration. This development moves the marketplace from its basic operations in the exchange of goods and services to include the exchange of ideas. All these—the division of labor, specialization, innovation, and collaboration—along with the right moral mindset and favorable circumstances, contribute to an upward cycle of increasing human productivity.
World religions have historically spread along trade routes, such as the roadways of the Roman Empire or along the Silk Road, and with military and colonizing conquests as invaders brought their own religions with them. Despite cultural resistance to the philosophic ideas brought by dominating powers, acceptance by elite groups in conquered societies is often a pragmatic decision as a means to bring higher social order to the receiving culture.[ii]
After the initial spread in the Middle East in its first four centuries, Christianity spread predominantly to the west into Europe and the Americas. In the last two centuries it has continued to spread and is growing dramatically in Asia and Africa.[iii]
A democratizing influence has spread to the West more or less concurrently with Christianity, especially after the Reformation undermined the centralized political power of the Roman Catholic Church. The underlying principles of the democratic movement have been appropriated from liberal Greek philosophy and conjoined to Christian personal and political ethics, especially thought development on individual liberty of conscience and responsibility. There are, however, arguments demonstrating a fair degree of formative liberal government and economic thought derived from the Jesus teachings,[iv] now evident in Roman Catholic social teaching and emerging Protestant literature.[v]
Classical liberal governance and economics have encouraged the pursuit of free enterprise and individual wealth as reactions opposing the oppression of the masses in the history of feudalism and the enslavement of monarchical tyranny. Labor and capital consolidated around individuals, households, guilds, and communities to establish their own economic engines and leave the economic fate of others to themselves.
In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes examines the influence of the Judeo-Christian value system in social and economic development, especially its views on private property, freedom, decentralization, egalitarianism, accountability, transparency, legal institutions, and so on.[vi] Orthodox Christian eschatology anticipates the re-ordering of human society, compelling it toward ever higher levels of cooperation and collaboration and furthering the institutionalization of accountability. In short, Christianity promotes economic and governmental systems based on trust, not necessarily of individuals but of the social contract and corresponding systems for avoiding or resolving conflict.[vii]
Trust creates environments conducive to complex economic activities, e.g., the emergence of sophisticated capitalism. Though its foundations may be traced even to ancient times and was somewhat developed in Medieval monastic orders, capitalism is a pursuit that has come into its own, so to speak, in the last two hundred years.[viii]
The expansion of global wealth through capitalism has brought the human family to the economic capacity to eradicate extreme hunger. But wealth tends to concentrate in high growth and complex economies rather than being distributed evenly universally. The growth of the economies of India and China in the last quarter century have accounted for the percentage reduction in global poverty. Poverty rates in other places have remained stagnant and some have actually increased.
Two opposing approaches to the alleviation of poverty, or at least economic and political inequality, seem to have reached their polar zeniths in the last century. One extreme seems right for leveling the playing field for all members of a society. Collectivism and social engineering, top-down efforts, have obviously failed in real ways but still draw the support of a broad audience as the shortest route to the equitable redistribution of resources and wealth. The political left in democratic societies, while not always collectivists per se, favor coerced redistribution through government interventions of taxation and social programs. These interventions are intended to offset the apparent evils (in their minds) of greed and economic oppression inherent in concentrations of wealth in free market economies. They make a good point that money corrupts political power.
There is a downside, however, to the interventionists’ approach. Free societies designed to protect religious, political, and philosophic freedoms and populated by a broad mix of sub-cultures and ideologies bring a wide variety of views and beliefs to the table. To honor the rights of all value systems governance is forced to become theologically neutral. Interventionist idealism is motivated by compassion and moral zeal but moral oversight in a pluralistic, free society must ultimately descend to the lowest common denominator allowing all parties to pursue what “is right in their own eyes” (Prov 21:2).
All that is not to say, however, that the motivations of any political leaders are ideologically neutral. Philosophically-based value systems always have guiding hands in the mix. “Theologically neutral” simply removes God’s Word, along with the sacred texts of other religions, from the public conversation on moral guidance.
The other pole, libertarianism, focuses on liberty as uncoerced personal and corporate responsibility and tends to favor unfettered free markets. Libertarianism would remove all but essential government functions and regulation from bureaucratic hands and leave each person to pursue what “is right in their own eyes”. Sound familiar?
Libertarianism relies on personal character and motivation to supply the needs of society and encourages each individual to optimize their lives according to their wits and resources without the hindrance of overly burdensome regulation or taxes. But like interventionism, libertarianism also has serious failings. For one, it discounts the fallen nature of the human heart. Without reasonable legal or cultural restraint corruption abounds. It also offers less protection for those who cannot provide for or protect themselves. Libertarianism undermines recourse to hold abusive wealth and its power to manipulate economies to account.
Both systems stand on moral ground. The left expresses a ready willingness toward personal sacrifice for the greater good. The right favors individual liberty and opportunity. Both have merit on moral grounds, as said, but fail in application.
Within the same time frames which exposed the political and economic failings of socialism, free trade has enhanced the creature comfort of human experience. Newly created wealth does trickle down, but does so slowly. Two problems present themselves in open market systems. One is the current trends in wealth concentration. The other is libertarianism’s willingness to forego government protection against predatory business practices and ensuring reasonable provision for the economically vulnerable. Pervasive sin demonstrates the need for social protection of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40; 25:45).
The political left has demonstrated a particular righteousness in protecting the economically vulnerable from falling through the cracks. While both sides of the political aisle advocate for government involvement in the public and private lives of the citizenry, the right continues to argue for less government control and decreasing government bureaucracy. They favor privatization to use market competitiveness to reduce the inefficiencies inherent in non-competitive government bureaucracies.
Market advocates regularly cite government inefficiency due to the lack of price indexing as a legitimate value indicator. Judging government performance can be arbitrary subject to the assumptions of the reviewer’s agenda. The political right views the cost of government programs, mostly funded by taxes on corporate and private incomes, as a drain on economic productivity. And in recent history governments and private individuals have relied on increasing debt to pay for the goods and services the public wants.
Public and private debt is overwhelming both rich and poor nations. High concentrations of wealth, which enslaves debtors, in the hands of a small elite is politically dangerous and socially unjust as interest costs drain economic strength from states and households. There is upside potential to high concentrations of wealth if it is invested to increase productivity or is disbursed philanthropically. The downside is not unlike central planning operating from the top down. Wealthy investors and donors form a virtual economic oligarchy and have inordinate say as to what is useful in society. Their decisions affect millions of people in the middle and lower classes. This concentration of economic power, and in turn, social and political power, is a real danger of trickle-down economic philosophy.
No money ever leaves the global economy and even non-productive[ix] government expenditures are repeatedly cycled through the marketplace. But the more funds are used to support administrative, non-productive work, the less ability those funds have to fuel increasing productive output, and its growth potential is diminished. Government is inefficient by its nature and especially hinders the efficiency of markets where it over-taxes incomes and over-regulates market activities.
A pervasive problem in government is the same self-centeredness (sin) of politicians and bureaucrats that affects markets. Fear motivates actors to take self-protective and self-serving measures by creating impenetrable fiefdoms and serving their greed. Legislators have the ability to line their own pockets, as shown by the generosity of the retirement and benefits programs of the U.S. House and Senate. The growth of government agencies, which further hinders the efficiency of the economy, allows the career entrenchment of bureaucrats. Both causes, self-service and bureaucracy, are protected and economic justice is undermined when the players in the game are allowed to make their own rules. Business is subject to government oversight but still experiences abusive practices. The oversight of government by an ill-informed, lackadaisical electorate exacerbates base human tendencies and abuse which is no less prevalent than in the business world.
Government is necessary to provide for the common good, especially in defense, safety, and public works, such as managing infrastructure, disbursing aid, and providing police protection. Government is also necessary to house the legal institutions that protect against abuses of power by the tyranny of both independent wealth and over-reaching government. In a republic the ultimate responsibility of government falls to the constituency and freedom tends to undermine itself due to the fallen nature of the human heart. Personal liberty requires personal responsibility which appears to be tenuous at best. Living in a “free” society, the electorate gets exactly the government it creates, and changing the system is stymied by the vested interest of those with economic and political power.
As becomes obvious, the views of the interventionists and the libertarians both have legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of the other.
One way to help overcome sweat, as the laborious burdens of economic inefficiency, is to re-engineer government to perform its functions in efficient and accountable ways. This requires the electorate to establish new standards of performance, such as demanding balanced budgets. All parties must recognize that material scarcity limits having all that we want and demands compromise and efficiency.
Incorporating a second strategy, through the cooperation, collaboration, and collective creativity of varied points of view working together, enormous good can be done through emerging commercial strategies like social venture. These models, funded by donations or loans, provide jobs and support charitable needs rather than new high-end subdivisions. Social venture uses market mechanisms to serve public needs without relying on government intervention and thereby reduces the need and size of non-productive bureaucracies.
Overcoming sweat requires a focus that walks in the delicate balance between compassion, realistic and reasoned expectations, and a sacrificial willingness to accept delayed gratification. By enhancing just trade and the economic viability of all, even outrageous goals, like redirecting the industrial-military complex to unleash capital and intellectual potential toward more favorable ends, and ecological and economic sustainability have greater chances of becoming realities.
Trade and expanding wealth, as we have seen, can contribute significantly to the development of peace. While colonialism and imperialism have distorted the expansion of wealth, righteous trade across cultural and political borders reduces international strife. Economic aggression, through corporations seeking to manipulate governments and governments pursuing protectionist policies, continues to perpetuate widespread injustice, and results in the unintended consequences of political backlash. Global business has a role to play in overcoming economic injustice and promoting peace. International trade focused on achieving equitable, win-win relationships reduces political tension and expands wealth, fostering peaceful and prosperous outcomes.
Overcoming sweat hinges on recognizing the good of cooperation and collaboration founded on trust, the necessity of free-will redistribution through just investment and charitable giving, and the political will to bring them about. That vision of a hopeful eschatology rests on the choices of human will in submission to God. Given the corrupted nature of the human will, Christian vision abides patiently in grace, aligning itself with the movement of God, and encouraging human obedience. The mission of God, the missio Dei, was set on its path before creation, invigorated by Christ’s obedience to the Cross, and empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. Changed hearts embrace cooperation, giving, and political good-will, and are changing the world toward Kingdom culmination at Christ’s return and the restoration of Edenic shalom.
Hearts transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and attuned to the Kingdom of God as a functional, temporal reality are the impetus to create the groundswell for radical social change. Just as unfettered capitalism and socialism result in economic and political oligarchies, grassroots entrepreneurial and political movements, guided by the Holy Spirit, offer the greatest future hope for humankind.
This groundswell needs to occur both in the marketplace and the halls of justice to find the appropriate balance between the marketplace and governance. Then “they will hammer their swords into plowshares” (Isa 2:4). The contrast of these instruments of competitive strife (swords) and economic productivity (plowshares) offers an encouraging vision of the peaceful, just, and life-feeding aims of the actively coming Kingdom.
[ii] Mongomery, Robert L. The Diffusion of Religions: A Sociological Perspective. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1996, 156.
[iii] Jenkins, Philip. “The Future Demographics of Religion,” in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 89–92. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
[iv] Such as, Wilson, Clarence True. “Jesus Christ, the Embodiment of Democratic Ideals,” in The Divine Right of Democracy, 46–62. New York: Abingdon Press, 1922.
[v] Three excellent resources: Claar, Victor V. and Robin J. Klay. Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007; Piedra, Alberto M. Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004; and, Woods, Thomas E., Jr. The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005.
[vi] Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999, 33–35.
[vii] This is not to say that any particular known form of government or economic system is directly or absolutely endorsed by God or the biblical record. The church has flourished under other systems.
[viii] Novak, Michael. Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. New York: The Free Press, 1996. Oxford University Press, 80.
[ix] Government is unproductive when revenues are not used efficiently to promote increasing productivity and wealth. Corporations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, and households face the realities of living within their means. Government has limited accountability and little overt motivation to pursue efficiency