A full evaluation of capitalism and consumerism requires a consideration of the scriptural values informing our use of wealth and possessions. The record on the productive capabilities of capitalism is clear; what is less clear is its moral culpability with respect to fostering consumerism.
If consumerism involves an unhealthy preoccupation with the acquisition of material goods, then we need a much stronger moral framework to discern the moral responsibilities associated with affluence. For Christians, that framework is initially established with the affirmation of the material order found in Genesis.
Enjoying God’s Abundance in Perfect Shalom
Genesis describes the creation of a world that God declares good (six times in Genesis 1). God directs the stewardship of the resources of this created order to the first human beings.
From Genesis onward, the remainder of the Old Testament is packed with depictions of divine material blessing, from Israel’s promised land of Canaan to the prophets’ “prospects of a rich restoration to the fruitfulness of the land” after Israel has undergone God’s judgment (Gordon McConville in his essay, “The Old Testament and the Enjoyment of Wealth,” in Christ and Consumerism: A Critical Analysis of the Spirit of the Age).
In recognition of this plentitude, Israel is told in Deuteronomy 26:11 (ESV): “You shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”
At the same time, material blessings are given with an end: to love and serve God and one’s neighbor. In general, writes McConville,
In the minds of the biblical writers, the ‘goodness’ of the created world finds a regular echo in the ‘goodness’ of right relationships and behavior. The enjoyment of the good life cannot be separated from the knowledge and service of God who gave it.
The Hebrew ideal of shalom is connected to the creation ideal of enjoying a full or whole human flourishing in right relationship with God.
Trusting in God, Not Your Riches
With the human rebellion described in Genesis 3, sin enters to fully disrupt this flourishing. Our shalom is much more difficult to achieve, for the Fall of humans means we no longer employ our possessions, nor view them in light of “the way things ought to be,” as described by Cornelius Plantinga. Now, the acquisition of wealth comes with certain warnings attached in scripture.
The Hebrew Bible presents Abraham and Job as godly, wealthy men. In the Bible’s wisdom literature, both Job and the godly female entrepreneur of Proverbs 31 are lauded. Yet, the author of Proverbs warns of the pointlessness of setting one’s hope on riches; they are like an eagle and will fly away (Prov. 23:5).
Trust placed in riches is misplaced, for it is trust directed away from God. W. R. Domeris adds,
wealth is a blessing from God (Prov. 10:22), but to pursue wealth for its own sake is a recipe for discontent, loneliness and emptiness (Eccles. 4:8; cf. Prov. 28:20).
Proverbs 11:28 declares that those who trust in riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive. If your identity is so aligned with what you own and consume that your faith is placed in them, you are bound to be disappointed; they will fail you, much like the idols that Israel pursued when they strayed from their covenant with Yahweh their Lord.
McConville explains that both Deuteronomy and Proverbs teach us that “the relationship between the moral life and the enjoyment of the good things of creation cannot be taken for granted.” The separation that makes for ungodly gain and trust in riches is evident when we consider Israel’s experience as a divided kingdom in the era of the prophets.
Once Israel occupies the land, they come to forget Yahweh the Lord, and instead pursue idols. Israel’s rebellion against the Lord with whom they’ve made covenant becomes manifest to the extent that the prophets will name the economic oppression in the form of “depriving fellow-Israelites of their rights to a share in the land (Isa. 5:8–10),” writes McConville.
Wealth is Not the Sin, Indifference Is
The drive to acquire more land and possessions is achieved by appropriating the property of the poor with the explicit or implicit aid of Israel’s rulers. We read the prophet’s charge against the indifferent attitude of the wealthy toward the economically disadvantaged in Amos 6:4–7, as John Schneider observes:
It is very important to notice and to understand that the prophets all aimed their diatribes first and foremost at the king and at the ruling classes that extended the arm of his rule. For they were the ones who were uniquely charged by God . . . to protect the poor and powerless members of society, who were otherwise completely defenseless.
Instead, these rulers impoverish and oppress the destitute for their own self-gratification. Schneider argues that one cannot claim “the evil of Israel’s rulers was simply in having ivory beds, eating good meat, drinking wine from bowls, and being bathed in oils while others elsewhere—generally—starved.” No, their sin is indifference: they “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:6, ESV). As the leaders of Israel, they are ignorant of the poor’s sorrow and grief while they engage in self-indulgence.
Here they stand in stark contrast to the excellent wife and businesswoman in Proverbs 31, who not only earns profits but also “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Prov. 31:20, ESV).
Editor’s Note: Continue reading Ed Noell’s article on capitalism and consumerism in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism.