Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Can’t We Build A Just Society?

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Can’t we build a just society? 

Many people look at our modern economy and ask this question. Christians especially are rightfully concerned with the justice of the systems we live within.

Answering this question requires that we tackle the first myth in our series on the eight most common myths about wealth, poverty, and free enterprise: the Nirvana Myth.

Myth #1: The Nirvana Myth – contrasting free enterprise with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives. 

The Nirvana Myth compares free enterprise with an unrealizable ideal.

It’s not simply the belief that good will triumph in the end, or the belief that the kingdom of God is already present – though not yet fully realized in history. It’s the delusion that we can build utopia on our own if we try hard enough. It makes every real society look intolerably wicked, since no real society can measure up to utopia.

The Nirvana Myth and the Kingdom of God

The Nirvana Myth expresses itself in how we view the kingdom of God.

When Christ returns, he will establish a kingdom of peace and justice in which evil and death will be vanquished forever. At the same time, God doesn’t reserve all the promises of his kingdom for the future.

Jesus said the kingdom of God is like leaven that works its way through the whole lump of dough (Matthew 13:33). We shouldn’t look for heaven on earth, but we should expect to see some of the results produced by the leaven. And as Christians, we should expect to find ourselves as part of the leavening process.

Christ will consummate his kingdom in power at the end, even though it has already come like a seed that quickly grows underground before springing up (Mark 4:26-29).

We should expect signs of God’s kingdom even in our age, when death and sin are still very much with us. The work Christians carry out to seek justice and promote human flourishing offers a foretaste of Christ’s coming kingdom.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we will establish God’s kingdom in its fullness through our own good works. God is responsible for establishing his kingdom, not us – a point Hugh Whelchel makes in this post about the differences between God’s kingdom and utopia.

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer shows us what the person seeking to establish utopia looks like:

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

When we seek utopia, we place ourselves and our vision above God and others. This isn’t what the Bible shows us: God came first in humility in Jesus. He will come again in power and glory. That hasn’t happened yet, and we can’t trigger it. If we try, we won’t just fail, we’ll do more harm than good.

For example, the grand communist experiments of the twentieth century were secularized attempts to dethrone God and establish their own idea of heaven on earth.

Marx’s story has the main elements of the Christian story:

  • Primeval paradise
  • Fall
  • Redemption
  • Eternal paradise

This narrative is, however, stripped of references to God, sin, Jesus, and the afterlife. If Christians can’t bring about heaven on earth, it’s no surprise that this secular attempt was doomed to failure as well.

To believe otherwise is to believe the Nirvana Myth, a myth that hinders us from building a more just society.

So Can’t We Build A Just Society? 

While Christians can offer a foretaste of God’s kingdom, we recognize that only God can and will bring it in full. With this in mind, when we ask whether we can build a just society we need to keep the question nailed to solid ground: “Just compared to what?”

It doesn’t do anyone any good to tear down a society that is “unjust” compared to the kingdom of God, if that society is more just than any of the ones that will replace it.

Of course a modern market-based society like the United States looks terrible compared with the kingdom of God. But that’s bad moral reasoning. The question isn’t whether free enterprise measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there is a better alternative in this life.

If we’re going to compare free enterprise with an extreme, we should compare it with a real extreme – like communism in Cambodia, China, or the former Soviet Union. Unlike Nirvana, these experiments are well within our power to bring about.

If we insist on comparing live options with live options, modern free enterprise could hardly be more different, more just, or more desirable than the outcomes produced by these communist experiments.

That doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. We should do everything we can to build a more just society. Micah 6:8 exhorts us to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with [our] God.”

The best way to do that is to stay focused on reality and the truth of scripture rather than romantic ideals.

This post is adapted from the book Money, Greed, and God

What do you think? How do we build a just society? 

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  • The Nirvana myth (from Demsetz) is most closely related to what we think we can accomplish collectively. It ignores all of the Hayekian knowledge problems involved in crafting a grand plan, ignores the public choice implications of collective action, and most importantly is vulnerable to free rider problems. We will never accomplish a utopia, we cannot even agree on how to organize a Christmas pageant most of the time.
    But what can be accomplished individually is quite different. Each of us can practice sacrificial altruism in attentive response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. God directed convictions are for the individual, and following through with them is the essence of participating in the ongoing creative process with God. Most of the time we are simply to be faithful to work hard at the tasks set before us. Good work propels the mechanisms of common grace which sustain and improve life through economic conditions. Frugal Christians who work hard have the privilege of going further into the exercising of particular grace through charity.
    A proper understanding of the drawbacks of utopianism as illuminated by the Nirvana fallacy out to impress upon us the greater importance of faithfulness and individual sacrifice in living out the kingdom of God.
    Nathanael Snow

  • Jim Price

    Taking a very microscopic view, ie, of justice right here in our small southern county; it is obvious that we are falling far short. The poor are paying the price to support our justice system. The state law makers work overtime to make laws that create work for lawyers and for the judicial system. I realize that you are talking about a larger definition of justice, but you would think that a very conservative community, both religious and political could solve this relatively small problem. Yet after hearing hundreds of local sermons, not one has mentioned the need for justice. If we are to get closer to a-just-society, the local pastors will have to see the need.

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