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Poverty and the People of God: Notes on Communitarian Ethics from D. Stephen Long

The following are notes from an important essay addressing Christian involvement in issues of poverty and aid from a communitarian ethic perspective.  This follows the previous post exploring this issue in Scripture more directly.

D. Stephen Long, ‘Christian Economy,’ in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition: Christian Ethics After MacIntyre, ed. Nancey Murphy, Brad J. Kallenbert, and Mark Thiessen Nation (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997):  343-360.

I.                               Introduction
A.          Aristotle, ‘Politics’:
1.  ‘Economy’ means the structure of the household, and households combine into cities.  Thus the term has to do with both: the economics of the household and of the city or country.  But Aristotle understood it as having to do with living well, not simply living, and in this way economics and politics (living well) are connected.  Both are to be regulated by the virtue of justice.  Justice regulates buying and selling, loaning, stealing, etc.
B.           Aquinas:
Building on Aristotle, Aquinas added a theological virtue to the discussion.  ‘To fulfill that measure [of ordering exchanges equitably] was to establish justice, but to rightly know that measure, justice required charity.’ Love in an infused virtue which guides justice.
C.           Modern economics severs the relationships between economics, politics, and theology (344).
1.            Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1776) initiates this change.  But earlier economists still saw the link between economics and politics, calling their work The Principles of Political Economy (so James Stuart, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill).  Economics is now thought to be distinct from theological or philosophical values.  Edwin Mansfield, Principles of Macroeconomics, 7th ed. (NY: w. W. Norton, 1992), p. 53: ‘the economic organization of a prisoner of war camp is an elementary form of economic system that illustrates certain important economic principles simply and well’ (as quoted by Long, p. 345.n.4).

II.                            Charity: A Difficult Virtue in a Capitalist Society
A.          Alasdair MacIntyre, Christianity and Marxism (Notre Dame University Press, 1995; 1st pub. in 1953) critiques capitalism as an economic system which severs internal (virtue) goods from external goods.  The problems Long notes, using MacIntyre, are: (1) the relationship of capital to labour is one-sided.  This is because capital’s purpose is to form and maximize capital, and labour is but a means to that end.  ‘Just wage,’ ‘just price’ are outside this economic system.  (2) workers do not see the connection between their work and the common good.  So labour fails to train workers in virtue.  (3) ‘One’s property is a function not of one’s work but of one’s consumption; what someone does is not rewarded, but what someone buys is.  A proper exercise of one’s property would assume some intrinsic connection between one’s character and one’s labor.  Without this connection, virtue is seldom possible’ (347).  (4) Internal goods contribute to the good of society, but external goods are obtained at the expense of others (347).  (5) Capitalism severs people from their history.  But internal goods are dependent on history and traditions, a narrative, without which one cannot adequately be a moral agent (347).  ‘By recovering the ‘narrative phenomenon of embedding,’ MacIntyre calls us to account for those inheritances that contribute to the narrative unity of our lives in their possibilities for both vice and virtue.  This recovery of the narrative unity of life should include an acknowledgment of the embeddedness of a laborer’s work in the common good of a corporate community.  But this is precisely what is not recognized when wealth is supposedly produced either by introducing a completely new idea (new growth theory) or by managing class antagonisms to favor the employment of capital (classical liberalism)’ (348).

III.                         The Divine Economy: The Order of Charity
A.          ‘The sources for a Christian economy are the virtues of charity and justice, the practices of repentance and reconciliation embedded in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and the narrative of God’s self-revelation in Jesus and his continual presence in the life of the church’ (349).  In all these, Jesus is central.
B.           Aquinas defines justice as ‘some work adequate to another according to some mode of equality’ (Summa Theologica IiaIIae, q. 57, art. 1).  This is similar to Ulpian’s (Roman jurist) definition that justice is rendering to each person his due.  Justice, then, has to do with a right ordering of things [remember Plato’s Republic].  But Aquinas ‘drastically alters this order by finding the ultimate good to which all things are to be ordered to exist outside human nature, in God.  This poses a serious problem for the traditional rendering of justice.  As MacIntyre notes, Thomas Aquinas does not find our ultimate good to be related to any ‘state available in this created world.’  Instead, Thomas draws upon Scripture to argue that the summum bonum is God’ (350).
C.           ‘What we discover embedded in the Eucharist is a glimpse and foretaste of the ultimate good for God’s creation.  Resources are not scarce or subject to competition, but everyone can be satisfied and each person’s satisfaction only increases that of her neighbor.  Distribution is made subject only to the condition of one’s baptism and willingness to repent and seek reconciliation’ (352).  ‘A Christian economy assumes a life of charity ordered toward God and one’s neighbor’ (352). ‘The natural law is the creation’s inevitable participation in God’s economy in varying degrees.  Christians should not be surprised that such participation is discovered even outside faith in such virtues as prudence, justice, courage, and temperance [the four classical, cardinal virtues of Greek philosophers].  But even these natural virtues have their rightful place within the order of charity’ (352f).  The first table of the 10 Commandments orients us towards God and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, whereas the second, dependent on the first, orients us towards our neighbour and natural virtues.  The latter require faith, hope and love ‘for their intelligibility’ (353).  Aquinas’ definition of injustice assumes the role of love in justice: it is when one wants ‘more of goods, namely wealth and honor, and less of evils, namely labor and toil’ (Summa IiaIIae, q. 59, art. 1).
D.          ‘Our property, like our virtue, finds its purpose in the life of charity.  Thus, any right to our property is directed by charity.  We are to use our property in service to ourselves, our family, and our immediate neighbors.  If we have a neighbor in need and we do not share our goods with her, our neighbor does not steal by taking our surplus property to meet her basic needs,’ according to Aquinas (355).  ‘However, any neighbor who is unwilling to share from his surplus with his neighbor has violated the tenth commandment.  God has given him his property not as an inalienable right but as a means for him to participate in a life of charity’ (355).
E.           So also just wages.  ‘Because a worker’s labor contributes to the common good, he should be rewarded for his labor with a wage sufficient for the basic necessities of life and enough surplus that he can use his property to contribute to the common good of both his family and neighborhood’ (355).  Otherwise the laborer is not ordered towards the life of charity.
F.            Lending, expecting nothing in return (Lk. 6.35)
No usury was allowed until modern economies.  Adam Smith: there should be a fee for the use of money because gain could be made from it (Wealth of Nations (NY: Modern Library, 1965), 52).  Jeremy Bentham [founder of Utilitarian Ethics—doing the greatest good to the greatest number of people] wrote ‘Defense of Usury’: ‘only a person’s will to enter into contracts should limit contracts’ (356).  Eugen von B√∂hmBawerk, Ludwig von Mises, and the early Joseph Schumpeter opposed theological and political interference in the market (356).  But what medieval scholars objected to was not profit made from money but avarice, understood in terms of gathering riches without work (money does no work, people do) or one’s own suffering versus the suffering of other people (so Albert the Great, Aquinas’ teacher) (356).
G.          Buying and Selling
Tertullian (2/3 c. AD Christian writer): examine how you earn your living before baptism (do not make idols or engage in trade requiring mendacity or covetousness).
Aquinas: truth-telling must regulate exchanges.  To guard against greed, prohibit trading only to make gain.  [This is the argument against gambling too, as stated also in the prohibition of usury.]  Trading is a means, getting its ‘moral species from the end it serves’ (357).

IV.                         Conclusion

‘The first task of any Christian reflection on the economy is not to speculate whether Christianity sides with capitalism or socialism but to seek to interpret our ‘economic activity,’ that is, our producing, buying, selling, and consuming, within the larger narrative of God’s economy’ (358).  Socialism and capitalism focus on the profitability of things, but God’s economy is ultimately about their proper enjoyment (358).  So, ‘the first task of a Christian economics is to narrate the order of charity, which is to move our will and intellect toward Christ.  It is to orient our life toward beatitude, toward living out of and into the grace that Jesus gave his disciples. This ordering of creation is the life of charity that lives, moves, and has its being from the Triune life’ (358).  The state must not enforce the virtue of love, which is a gift from God.  ‘The first social institution that bears the practices of a charitable justice is the church’ (358).  [This notion gives ground for charitable work of the Church, not solely for evangelism.]  Writing against the welfare state in The Needs of Strangers: An Essay on Privacy, Solidarity, and the Politics of Being Human, Michael Ignatieff (NY: Penguin, 1986), p. 10) says that it turns ‘relationships’ into contractual transactions between strangers (359).  ‘How can we fulfill the command to love our neighbors when we are no longer neighbors but strangers?’ (359).  [This also seems to apply to the way in which we engage in development work.  It is better to fund work in which we are engaged ourselves than supplying funds, since we need to know the needs through our own experience and not simply through reports and requests for funding.]