Tradition vs. Progress vs. Liberty

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In the United States as well as in many countries around the world, there is a constant three-way war being waged between the intellectual forces of social conservatism, social progressivism, and civil libertarianism.

Social conservatives aim to preserve traditional values and beliefs and enshrine them in the law. Social progressives embrace newly evolved cultural developments which are incompatible with traditional values and beliefs, wishing to see these enshrined in the law. Civil libertarians, on the other hand, emphasize personal freedom over and against any authority structures or social mores.

Adherents of these groups don’t always go by these names, but you will see them appear in almost every conflict about cultural and social norms. In the 1960s, for instance, battles raged over race relations and segregationism. Social conservatives wanted to preserve and enforce the tradition of keeping races largely separate. Civil libertarians argued that individuals should have the right to associate with each other however they want and shouldn’t be restricted by things according to their race. Social progressives took a similar position as civil libertarians, emphasizing the increasingly popular cultural value of equality.

More recently, these three forces have been fighting over the meaning of marriage. Social conservatives defend the longstanding tradition of marriage only involving one man and one woman. Social progressives find this definition outdated and restrictive, arguing that marriage should be extended to two individuals of the same gender as well. Civil libertarians assert that there is no universal definition of marriage which can be limited to some individuals and not others; rather, any two consenting adults should to be allowed to marry.

What about drugs and other potentially harmful substances? Social conservatives hold on to the time when the stigma of drug use was stronger, maintaining that addictive substances should not be allowed. Social progressives have mixed opinions about this subject simply because most Americans have mixed opinions about it: drugs are dangerous, but maybe not that dangerous. Civil libertarians disregard the potentially harmful nature of drugs and contend that individuals should have the freedom to decide for themselves whether to use them.

What about religion in the public square such as prayer in public schools, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Ten Commandments displayed in front of a courthouse? The responses should be predictable by now. Social conservatives defend the traditionally strong role of religion in culture and government, often stating that “separation of church and state” is meant to keep the state out of the church but not necessarily the church out of the state. Social progressives argue that “separation of church and state” means that the state should be indifferent and impartial to all forms of religion, which means reversing the influence Christianity has traditionally held in the public square. Civil libertarians mostly agree with progressives in this case, but emphasize that individuals should have the freedom to practice or express their beliefs in any way that does not violate the freedoms of others (such as extra-curricular Bible studies in public schools, wearing hijabs in public, or proselytizing on college campuses).

Where should Christians stand in this cultural war?

If you were to ask a committed Christian citizen of Rome in the mid 300s AD, his or her answer would likely be different than a committed Christian in America today. In the 300s AD, the Roman Empire and its culture was thoroughly polytheist, though the Christian Church was a growing subculture. Many Christians, including Saint Augustine, would be considered social progressives by today’s standards; they opposed the pagan polytheist traditions of Roman society in favor of Christian values, which had already begun to influence the broader culture.

Today, most committed American Christians believe our society and culture began as predominantly Christian in its character and thinking but has since devolved into something very opposed to Christianity. Thus, in essence, they want to preserve traditional values from the progressives who wish to neuter (as they see it) Christianity’s influence in the public square. Naturally, then, most committed American Christians identify with social conservatism.

This identity, however, has led to decades of continuous conflict with non-Christian groups in society. These non-Christian groups think that Christians are trying to force their subculture onto them. Many Christians, in turn, think that these non-Christian groups are trying to do the same. It is an endless tug-of-war match for dominance over the trajectory of cultural transformation.

Is this the way Christians are supposed to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in a dark and fallen world? Does the Bible give any guidance for this conflict of culture and politics?

I believe it does, and it starts with the difference between morality and legality.

The Bible’s Guidance on the Culture War

(1) There is a difference between morality and legality. And that difference is crucial.

Some time into Christ’s ministry, a group of scribes and Pharisees, “holding to the tradition of the elders” which had been enshrined in their law, noticed Jesus’s disciples eating with ceremonially unclean hands. “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they asked him. But in Christ’s teaching, he distinguishes between the traditional laws and morality: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of him are what defile him” (Mark 7:15).

In other words, morality starts in a person’s heart and mind and then leads to actions. Actions alone do not make a person moral or immoral. Jesus makes this distinction again numerous times in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance: It is immoral both to murder and to be angrily vindictive at someone, yet it is not unlawful merely to be angry (Matt 5:21-26). Likewise, it is unlawful to commit adultery but apparently not to lust. Yet it is immoral to lust, because that is the equivalent of committing adultery in one’s mind (Matt 5:27-28).

Paul makes a similar distinction. “All things are lawful,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.”

Paul here distinguishes between that which is “legal” for the Christian and that which is profitable or edifying (moral). They are not the same. Not everything that is “legal” is morally good or praiseworthy, and not everything that is immoral is unlawful.

A modern example in America would be divorce. Christians would affirm Christ’s teaching that marriage is meant to be permanent and divorce allowed only in cases of adultery, but American law does not require proof of unfaithfulness to obtain a divorce. At one point in our nation’s history, the initiator of the divorce did have to provide some proof of the other’s unfaithfulness, but not anymore.

The Bible seems clear about divorce, so should Christians advocate for divorce laws which reflect our biblical values?

(2) The God-Given role of the State is to bear the sword for the peace and justice of society as a whole.

Romans 13 implicitly defines the state as the authoritative organization in a given territory or territories with the role of using “the sword” to prevent evil, punish evildoers, and facilitate good conduct.

What does it mean to bear the sword? It does not necessarily mean violence, because the governing authorities can accomplish things without having to use violence. Then again, it does imply something about violence—that it is available to be used if necessary. “The sword” can refer to violent force, such as a soldier fighting in war or a policeman subduing a criminal, but it can also refer to the government’s unique ability to compel its citizens to do what it commands.

“The sword,” then, means the use or threat of force in order to carry something out. The governing authorities cannot rely on persuasion or argumentation to carry out their purposes. They have to rely on force—i.e. coercion or compulsion.

If a policeman pulls me over for speeding, he does not try to persuade me not to drive so fast. He punishes me by forcing me to pay a fine (or else face progressively more severe punishments). This is an example of “the sword” of government.

Likewise, if I were send no money to the IRS this year and next year and the year after that, it is certain that I would eventually face a harsh punishment for choosing not to comply with government’s demands. They would force me to pay or else bear a punishment even more severe than sending them money. This is another example of “the sword.”

Furthermore, at one point in this country and many other Western countries, “sodomy” (gay intercourse) was illegal. The government would punish those who were proven to have engaged in such conduct. This, too, is an example of “the sword.”

The Bible seems clear about homosexuality (or at least the act of homosexual intercourse), so should Christians advocate for sodomy laws which reflect this biblical truth?

(3) Jesus reveals the attitude that the church should have toward the government.

During the time of Jesus, Judea was ruled by the Romans, but a large number of Jews wanted to expel the Romans and rule themselves according to their traditional laws. When religious leaders tried to trap Jesus into choosing either the side of the rebellious, anti-Roman zealots or the occupying Romans, Jesus told them to bring him a Roman coin (which were widely used throughout Roman territories).

Naturally, it had Caesar’s face on it. So Jesus said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17).

There has been much debate about the meaning of this cryptic saying, but there is one thing Jesus is likely implying here: giving to the government what it requires and giving to God what He requires are not necessarily incompatible. One can both give to Caesar that which Caesar rightfully asks for and also give to God that which God rightfully asks for.

Notice the extremely important effect this answer has on Christ’s audience, which was no doubt made up of both anti-Roman zealots and pro-Roman loyalists. Everyone marveled at it. Neither side was upset. It didn’t make anyone want to revolt. Jesus threaded the needle between both sides of the cultural and political struggle of His day. He did not advocate either side’s dominance of the other.

Some other passages from the New Testament shed light on Jesus’s saying.

While the state is God’s servant, His tool, for avenging evil (Rom. 13:4), we Christians are tasked with living peaceably with all and never avenging (Rom. 12:18-19). Thus God has established different but compatible roles for the Church and the State.

When non-Christians see the Church, they ought to see peacemakers (Matt 5:9) who respectfully fulfill their obligations to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7) so long as those obligations do not require them to disobey godly ethics (Acts 5:29).

Peter echoes Paul’s teaching from Romans in 1 Peter 2:13-17: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. … Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

The “ignorance of foolish people” referenced here is the common charge the early church faced by the Romans as being anti-Roman rebels. Many early Christians refused to say the words, “Caesar is Lord,” saying instead that “Jesus is Lord.” Thus they faced many accusations as being instigators of unruly sentiments. Thus, after hundreds of years of dealing with Jewish zealots, the Romans were especially wary about these Christians. Peter is not instructing Christians to cozy up to an unmistakably wicked and overbearing government (the Roman Empire) in order to gain more political influence. He is commanding Christians to live in submission to the government so that they can go about their mission of spreading the gospel in peace.

Paul states this plainly in 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The purpose for our submission to government is to “live peaceably with all.”

This is also why Paul urges Thessalonian believers to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12).

Returning to the saying of Christ to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” we can safely interpret the meaning of this teaching as this: Pay taxes and do what you must to live peaceably in society in order to carry out the work of the gospel. Do not stir up trouble or do anything which would hinder your ability to live peaceably and spread the gospel.

Such teaching harkens back to the wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs 17:14: “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before the dispute breaks out.”

This leads naturally to the next point.

(4) The church’s mission cannot be accomplished through force.

The church can only and should only seek to bring others into the Kingdom of God and to reform people’s lives and behavior through evangelism, persuasion, prayer, and relationships, none of which are compatible with force or coercion. Can a person enter the Kingdom through pressure, compulsion, manipulation, or the threat of force? No. Faith and obedience to God must come from the heart.

Good works not done from the heart are of little to no value to God (see Isaiah 64:6).

“Thanks be to God,” says Paul in Romans 6:17, “that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”

Likewise, the inner workings of the church should be entirely voluntary and heartfelt. For instance, about donating one’s money, Paul says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).

Similarly, when Onesimus, slave of Philemon, found himself in the company of Paul, Paul wrote to Philemon entreating him to free Onesimus. Paul acknowledges that “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philemon 8-9). “I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (Philemon 13-14).

The church’s tasks, both in drawing in new believers and in dealing with fellow believers, should be carried out with as much voluntarism and wholeheartedness as possible. Indeed, our mission cannot be carried out otherwise.

(5) The church should not try to influence behavior before the heart has been changed.

This point is a natural extension of the previous point. Since the church should be engaging both unbelievers and each other with as much non-compulsion as possible, naturally we should not seek to coerce those outside the church. If the human heart cannot be forced into submission to God, and morality comes from the heart, then it is foolish to hold those who have not voluntarily and wholeheartedly submitted to God to the same moral standard as those who have.

Trying to compel a certain behavior without changing a person’s heart is akin to meddling in their affairs without being invited, and the Bible contains some clear teachings about meddling.

While the church should expect to suffer in this life so as to spread the gospel, Peter tells believers: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”

“It is an honor for a man to cease from strife; but every fool will be meddling” (Prov. 20:3).

Likewise, “A person who is passing by and meddles in a quarrel that’s not his is like one who grabs a dog by the ears” (Proverbs 26:17).

It is not the role of the church to enforce a certain behavior or even to judge non-believers. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13. “Are you not to judge those inside? But those who are outside, God judges.”

Even Jesus resisted the opportunity to assert himself into others’ personal affairs: “Then someone in the crowd told him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide my family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?'” (Luke 12:13-14)

(6) The goal of the church should be peace with non-believers, not political or cultural dominance over them.

The final point again flows naturally from the others. It is a simple truth, but much more difficult than it sounds.

Our goal as the church should not be to continue this tug-of-war battle in society over whether traditional Christianity or secular humanism has more political or cultural influence. It is worth taking a sidetrack here to note the pragmatism of this way of thinking: The American church has largely fought on the side of social conservatism since the time of slavery in the 1800s, and it has lost almost every battle.

It lost the battle over slavery, which was defended overwhelmingly by biblical arguments in the South and fought by secular arguments in the North. It lost the battle over evolution in public schools in the early 1900s. It lost the battle over the traditional role of women and suffrage in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. It lost the battle over segregation in the 50s and 60s. It lost against the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. It has steadily lost battle after battle over religious icons in publicly owned spaces. In 2015, it lost the final battle over gay marriage through a Supreme Court decision which legalized it in all 50 states.

From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, to side with social conservatism in America is to bet on a losing team.

Look to Proverbs 25:8 for wisdom in this regard: “Do not bring hastily to court, for what will you do in the end if your neighbor puts you to shame?” To put this in a modern context, we can say, “Do not hastily seek to overcome the secular humanists through the courts or the law, for what will you do in the end if the secular humanists overcome you?”

Another pragmatic reason not to continue this tug-of-war match in politics and culture is that it has likely damaged the church’s image and embittered some people to our message. It becomes clear why Paul and Peter took such pains to communicate that Christians should live peaceably with all and not meddle in others’ affairs: because doing otherwise starts conflicts which will harden outsiders to the good news of Jesus Christ. It is more important for non-believers to hear that Jesus Christ loves them and gave his life to save them than that their lifestyle is incompatible with Christian values.

But the main reason we as the American church should discontinue our part in the culture war is the line of reasoning laid out in the previous points.

There is a difference between morality and legality. We as the church can and should continue to stand for our convictions about morality. We should continue to affirm that homosexuality is not God’s intention for marriage, that extramarital sexuality is contrary to God’s design, that divorce should be avoided if at all possible, that drugs are harmful and should be avoided, that women and men are equal but have separate roles in the family and the church, and so on. We are not to retreat from society and become irrelevant or live in communes. But, at the same time as we are affirming Christian virtues openly and publicly, we are also not attempting to enshrine our values and beliefs in the law.

Why? Because the law is enforced by the sword of government, and Christians are called to refrain from using the sword. Government can only accomplish its purposes by using or threatening the use of force. The church, on the other hand, can only accomplish its purposes through wholehearted compliance and voluntarism.

Rather than judging those outside the church or meddling in their personal affairs or lifestyles, thus creating conflict, we ought to live as peaceably as possible with them and try to lead them non-coercively to an acceptance of Christ. Attempting to influence behavior before acceptance of Christ is a futile endeavor, especially if done through government force.

(7) The church should seek the good of the society as a whole.

Many well-meaning Christian leaders such as Dell Tackett and James Dobson of Focus on the Family harken back to the days in American history when the majority of the population were sincere Christians and Christianity dominated culture. They want to spark a religious revival which will take us back to that time. Many of these Christian social conservatives acknowledge that American culture will only change if the population genuinely and wholeheartedly turns to God, yet they continue to support laws which will enforce good conduct, regardless of a change of heart.

This approach, as I hope you can see, is misguided. It is not the way the Church is supposed to carry out its mission on Earth.

In a society and culture that is not predominantly Christian, our goal should be to live peaceably with non-believers and to seek the good of everyone.

As God told the Israelites in exile, speaking through Jeremiah (29:7): “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Why the Free Market is Good for Social Justice

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In 2002, Princeton University Press published a book called The Free Market Innovation Machine: Analyzing the Growth Miracle of Capitalism by William Baumol. Princeton, not known to be a bastion of pro-capitalist or free market thinkers, released a book arguing that free market capitalism produces vastly more innovation than any other economic system that has ever been tried, and that this innovation results in greater economic growth. I would agree.

Capitalism does a better job than any other economic system to foster innovation, because in free and competitive markets businesses must innovate in order to succeed. If offering a similar product, businesses will compete in terms of price, but in many industries (computers, cell phones, software, vehicles, medicine, etc.) companies have to innovate and build upon previous technology simply to stay relevant. Therefore, innovation becomes a routine expenditure for most corporations, who are constantly coming out with newer and better versions of previous products. See the iPhone 4, iPhone 4s, iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, Galaxy Y, Galaxy A, Galaxy S, and so on. Entrepreneurs do the initial work of breaking ground in new product lines, while companies and corporations do the everyday work of building upon those inventions. Both are rewarded handsomely for their contributions.

(More on how innovation fuels economic growth here.)

I think it is true that, all other things being equal, a free market economy results in more innovation and technological advancement than any other economic system that has been tried. Historically, this is a rather easy argument to make. Those not in favor of free market capitalism tend to point out that the free market also produces massive inequalities and leaves poor workers at the mercy of rich capitalists. This may or may not be true (although I’ve argued elsewhere that a free market economy is better even for the poorest people), but it isn’t an objection to the claim that free market capitalism produces more innovation and growth than any other economic system. Most opponents of capitalism will admit that.

Those who object will point to specific points in history when a non-free-market country rapidly advanced in technology and economic growth. The examples are few, but noteworthy. One would be the East India Trading Company, which in a relatively short time grew to have a GDP comparable to a small European country. Their growth wasn’t due to market factors alone but also primarily the slave trade and access to European military strength. Fair enough, but I doubt opponents of capitalism want to argue that slavery and imperialism is an acceptable economic model.

Another example would be the main participant countries during World War 2 and the Cold War. It is true that large wars in general result in more rapid growth of a certain kind. Many people think that the onset of World War 2 was necessary to yank the American economy out of the Great Depression. The reality, of course, was that it employed millions of Americans either to fight the war or produce products that would help the fighters (putting the country in the deepest debt of its history up to that point). World War 2 jumpstarted the military-industrial complex in America, which may have boosted the economy as a whole and produced rapid military technology growth. A small percentage of that tech went on to be useful to the private sector, whether in America or Germany or Japan or Russia, but most of it was only useful for the task of destruction. And destruction does not help humanity in the long run, so I discount this objection.

Another example would be NASA and various military research programs. These are essentially state capitalist ventures, contracting with numerous private sector companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which do produce some non-destructive goods. Sure, NASA has produced some good things, like velcro and tang, and paved the way for future space exploration. But how much has this really aided the average person? Relatively little, compared to the huge amount of money spent on it. Private companies could have invented velcro or tang equivalents for a fraction of the cost. It may be true, though, that we wouldn’t have as good of satellite technology if not for the Space Race of the mid-20th century, and our nuclear technology wouldn’t be as advanced. Those factors can’t be discounted, but still, it is impossible to know how the world would have progressed in the absence of the Space Race or the Cold War.

Today, it is impossible to know what technological innovations we’d have without DARPA or NASA, but we must remember that military and space programs only fund that which they believe will be useful to their purposes, not necessarily the wants and needs of average people. The new DARPA-funded robots may be cool, but we need to remember they are built specifically for military purposes and perhaps only a fraction of the tech can be used for productive, peaceful purposes.

Innovation at a Cost

It seems safe to assume, then, that, all other things being equal, the free market produces more innovation and economic growth than any other economic system.

Another of the main objections, at this point, is that the invisible hand of capitalism doesn’t necessarily guide markets in the direction they ought to go. Capitalists are concerned with making money, and sometimes making money means exploiting people or ruining the environment. Price competition extends to the price of labor, which causes companies to seek out those who are willing to work for the lowest cost. And, of course, if a company produces a negative side effect felt by lots of people but no one in particular (i.e. externalities), why not save the costs of preventing that? The argument goes that in a capitalist system, where there is money to be made, someone will step up to meet the demand and make the money. So even if one or two capitalists or companies refuse to exploit people or degrade the environment, someone else will surely step up to do it in their stead.

As far as the theory of capitalism goes, the argument is not a bad one. It seems on the face of things to be valid.

However, it relies on a few mistaken beliefs. First, it assumes some portion of the population, including capitalists and companies, are something other than human. Rather, they are homo economicus, the term used by economists to describe the consistently self-interested and logical person. Think of Spock placed in the world of economics. Homo economicus cares only about the bottom line, and his reasoning is never emotional, moral, or petty.

In reality, individuals care about their reputation, and companies value their brand name. Real life capitalists don’t want to be seen as exploiting people or degrading the environment, which progressively forces them to actually reduce the amount of bad and dirty business that they do. Nike cannot afford to be seen as a company that uses sweatshop labor, and therefore they change their actions to ensure that none of their suppliers use sweatshop labor. Has Nike improved working conditions as much as it should? No. But has it improved in response to a tainted brand name? Yes. And as Nike’s trade with the third world countries hosting their factories has increased, wages in these places have also increased, and child labor has decreased.

Similarly, many textile suppliers are paying closer attention to the sourcing of their cotton because of “some Western retailers rejecting Uzbek cotton [commonly produced by forced labor] on ethical grounds.” Likewise, Intel, Tiffany & Co., and Signet Jewelers, among others, have pledged to use only “conflict free” materials (not sourced from war zones where the income would be used to finance combatants).

These companies’ decisions go beyond concern for the bottom line; brand and reputation are given a higher value than quarterly statements might suggest. Intel’s sales may not have been hurting that much by occasionally using “conflict materials,” and their sales may not rise much from pledging not to use them, but their brand name is improved. Similarly, Nike now performs inspections and publishes reports about each of its third world factories, which costs them quite a bit, but their brand name is cleaned up.

In the thinking of global corporations, the bottom line is very important, but so is brand name and reputation, because the latter can have a huge effect (positive or negative) on the former in the long run.

Conscious Capitalism

Many of the companies and brands that have grown most popular (especially with millennials) are those with socially or environmentally conscious products or services. Consumers are creating a demand for products that take care of everyone in the chain of production as well as consumption—products that don’t derive from any form of exploitation, that do minimal harm to animals, that promote sustainability and green initiatives, and that also encourage health in the consumer public.

These increasingly popular companies fall under the recently coined label “Conscious Capitalism.” John Mackey, founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Inc., proudly wears the label of a “conscious capitalist,” arguing in his book on this subject that well-run, values-centered businesses can contribute to humankind in more tangible ways than any other organization in society. Moreover, being socially conscious does not hold companies back but rather acts as a selling point. And it’s a selling point that seems to work.

Eighteen out of the twenty-eight most socially conscious publicly traded companies, according to Raj Sisoda, “outperformed the S&P 500 Index by a factor of 10.5 over the years 1996 to 2011.”

The unleashed creativity of conscious capitalism isn’t just a label companies can slap on products to widen their appeal. Socially conscious companies really do good, in this country and abroad. Take Windhorse, which creates and markets products to the huge portion of the world that lives on $2 or less a day. One of their main product lines is water bottles purified utilizing an inexpensive but effective method used by the military in remote areas.

The argument can be made that water should not be sold to extremely poor people, even at a low cost. Water should be treated as a basic right, some would say, and therefore provided to as many extremely poor people around the world as possible, free of charge. It is certainly true that there is plenty of room for charities to supply water to the undeveloped world. However, if for-profit companies can provide low-cost water to an even larger share of the global poor than charities alone, isn’t that a good thing? Furthermore, what if for-profit companies employ more native citizens of an undeveloped country than charities, thus benefiting its economy? Isn’t that preferable to charities which tend to benefit individuals without growing the country’s economy?

Conscious capitalist companies and brands include Whole Foods, Costco, BB&T Corporation, Patagonia, Etsy, Tom’s Shoes, Clif Bar, Odwalla, Honest Tea, Tesla, SolarCity, countless food trucks serving items more wholesome than hotdogs, India’s massive conglomerate the Tata Group, the members of the Social Venture Network, the over 600 companies which earned certifications from B Lab (“benefit corporations”), and to a lesser extent Avon, Southwest Airlines, and Johnson & Johnson. The latter three are examples of companies that were founded with a desire to meet all their employees needs over simply making money.

The above list, by the way, doesn’t name the numerous less-well-known companies which operate according to a “conscious capitalist” mission. This also doesn’t mention the way many traditional companies are shifting their business models to become more socially or environmentally conscious. We must never forget that, in the free market, demand will progressively create supply. Businesses will rise up to satisfy the desires and preferences of their customers.

The lesson here, then, is that in order to change the world for the better we don’t need to change or scrap capitalism. Rather, we need to change ourselves and the way we consume. Significant, meaningful change in this world almost always comes from the bottom up, not the top down. Minds need to change more than laws.

Evolution Toward Social Consciousness

In Matt Ridley’s fascinating book The Evolution of Everything, he talks about the remarkable way in which many have not taken Darwin’s full theory to heart. Evolution isn’t confined to genetics; it involves every aspect of life. No one has the intelligence to guide or predict evolution on a large scale because there are too many factors involved, too many unforeseen consequences of actions and decisions. One person’s choices and opinions cannot cause a significant shift in the evolution of history. The world is rather moved by the actions and decisions and opinions of everyone in aggregate.

Might it be, then, that the best way to promote social consciousness and environmentally friendly behavior is by our own everyday actions and decisions rather waiting for our political leaders or CEOs to act? There is something liberating about the realization that CEOs and global corporations are at the mercy of the average folks who buy (or refrain from buying) their products or services.

Average people like you and me are not helpless, they are just (often) misinformed, uninformed, or indifferent. The key to changing the course of our country’s populace is not top-down government force or legislation. After all, slavery is illegal, but it continues to exist, albeit in a different form than the slave trade of the early 1800s. Human trafficking is illegal, but it remains a problem. Hard drugs are illegal, yet their use persists. Some caps have been placed on carbon emissions in America, but emissions have risen in China, India, and developing countries. Equal rights laws are progressing in countries that are already quite socially liberal, but not in countries that aren’t.

The key to changing almost any of the world’s ills is not through force, but through persuasion. True, lasting change begins in the mind. Legislation can only be successful if it ratifies the predominant opinion of the people. And it just so happens that the efficient and innovative system of the free market can capitalize on people’s opinions far better than the government. It is a reflection of our hearts and minds, our desires, our values.

That’s why the free market, though often part of the problem, is also the best way to fight for social justice. Or, at least, it’s an indispensable partner in that fight.

What “The Other Washington” Gets Wrong About the Gig Economy

The Nick Hanauer-funded podcast “The Other Washington” covers various political and economic topics from a liberal viewpoint on a weekly basis. It is a quality production, even if the views expressed in it fall consistently and definitively on the left side of the map (figuratively and literally, since it is based in Seattle).

This week, in their fourth episode, they covered the “gig economy”—the new movement in American capitalism which includes services like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Task Rabbit, Care.com, and other “sharing economy” companies.

One of Nick Hanauer’s first points about this sharing economy, and especially Uber, was the desire to ensure “labor standards” and decent benefits to “gig” workers. He says these largely unregulated, non-traditional jobs need standards and regulations which would make them comparable to unionized jobs in similar fields. In other words, as I understood him, Hanauer would like Uber and Lyft to look more like traditional taxi unions.

That, I submit, is a terrible idea. Yes, Uber drivers have to pay for their own working expenses such as gas, maintenance, and insurance. But at the same time, they own their own means of production! Their cars are their capital. Liberal thinkers often complain that the poor have no ownership stake in the means of production, which they think necessarily leads to exploitation. Well, Uber and Lyft are what it looks like when tons and tons of people own their own capital / means of income. And it’s a good thing. It gives low-wage workers who would otherwise be working in a traditional fixed-income job with a set number of hours per week the freedom to make about a comparable (or even greater) amount of money through other means. It gives low-income people with cars more power over their own lives.

Also, Uber and Lyft drivers can actually make a lot of money driving. According to glassdoor.com, the average Lyft driver makes about $18 an hour. Time ran a story in January 2015 about how Uber drivers actually make about $6 an hour more than traditional taxi drivers, though as mentioned that doesn’t include vehicle fuel, upkeep, or insurance. Uber touts that a full-time driver could make $90 thousand per year. Factor in the roughly $15 thousand in worker expenses and that still leaves a pre-tax income of $75 thousand a year. But maybe that’s overly optimistic. What if it was only $75 thousand before working expenses? The driver still earns over $50 thousand a year. Not bad.

The other big idea Nick Hanauer had for those in the sharing economy was a “shared security” non-profit organization which would provide basic benefits and pensions to workers in the shared economy on a proportional and job-transferable basis. These benefits would be proportional to the amount one puts into the shared fund. He said it would start as a non-government organization, but he’d like it to be universalized by the government such that all “gig company” workers have access to the same benefit package. Now, I’m not at all a fan of bringing the government into the shared economy as some sort of welfare provider, but I’m a big fan of the “shared security” non-profit idea.

But actually, this idea is not new. In fact, it is very old. “Shared security” organizations are a natural byproduct of a free market system. In the late 1800s, before the rise of the welfare state, they were known as “mutual aid societies.” In historian and fellow at the Independent Institute David Beito’s book about these organizations, he says that at their height, about one-third of the adult male populations of both the United States and Great Britain were members of mutual aid societies (or “fraternal societies” as they were more often called in America, “friendly societies” in Britain). Their membership spanned the lower and middle classes, ranging from a few dozen members to tens of thousands.

In these non-profit organizations, fees were low but benefits were good. For instance, “The Independent Order of Foresters, one of the largest mutual-aid societies, frequently touted that the mortality rate of its members was 6.66 per thousand, much lower than the 9.3 per thousand for the general population.” And these mutual aid societies “helped transform the insurance industry by extending insurance benefits to the average working family.” Contrary to what Hanauer and his fellow Seattleites might think, in a free market, the demand for low-cost insurance and benefits will lead to providers of just that.

I suspect that we will see either sharing economy companies step up to provide decent health insurance plans for their best and most experienced workers (as has already begun in a very slight way through Stride Health) or the formation of non-profit organizations exactly like the ones Nick Hanauer would like to see. It won’t be necessary for government to create or fund these programs for the same reason that it wasn’t necessary for government to create a cheaper, better taxi service: because there’s already a demand there, lying dormant, waiting for someone to rise up and fill the need.

Maybe government will step in and regulate away the shiny, innovative golden egg of the gig economy. Or maybe, just maybe, we will see the return of mutual aid societies to meet people’s needs so that these workers can remain freer and richer than they would have been otherwise.

The Success and Failure of Democracy

U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump holds up a signed pledge during a press availability at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York

Let’s talk about some basic political philosophy—namely, whether democracy has hit its ceiling of how much it can improve the world.

It is important for Christians to examine these “big picture” ideas because too often in our history, the Church has sided with whatever government grants us the most political power. If the monarchy or oligarchy doesn’t support Christianity, the Church is in favor of democracy. If the monarch or oligarchs do support Christianity, the Church supports and defends the “governing authorities.” Likewise, democracy tends to be the Church’s choice in countries in which Christians make up a sizable portion of the population, but when society veers away from Christian principles, the Church tends to advocate less-than-democratic methods.

In short, ever since it got its first taste of political power after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the Church has been fascinated by political power. This fascination has often led to disastrous results. We need to re-think our basic political values and philosophy and embrace a system that will improve the lives of everyone, not just our group as opposed to other groups. We need to stop acting like a special interest group that must lobby the government to acquire and maintain political influence.

The pursuit of political power has progressively made the Church less relevant and influential in Western culture, as Greg Boyd ably argued in his book Myth of a Christian Nation. We need to change our fundamental approach to politics, and that starts with understanding the basics of political philosophy.

Democracy’s Success and Failure

Democracy is a system of government where all eligible adults get to vote. Since at least the French Revolution, Western countries have seen their ruling aristocratic class fall as the people demanded more influence in government and democracy took hold. As opposed to a feudalist society in which aristocrats own almost everything by divine right and enshrined national law, democracy has made most average people relatively happy. It has given people at least some say in the decisions of their governing authorities.

While feudalist/aristocratic rule satisfied maybe 5% of the population, democratic rule (at the end of each election) theoretically satisfies at least 51% of the population. When you compare the two, it’s easy to see how democracy is a superior system to feudalism, at least in terms of the overall population’s satisfaction. But what happens when you examine democracy on its own?

Well, think about this: in a pure, “direct” democracy, in which the population votes on specific decisions and policies rather than representatives or leaders, at least 51% of the population get what they want, but that leaves a minority of people who don’t get what they want. Direct democracy ensures that a minority, often a substantial one, will be forced to go along with decisions and policies they disagree with.

But then again, this assumes a black-and-white decision in which voters decide between two mutually exclusive options. In almost every case, the decision is not merely between Choice A and Choice B. There are usually other choices as well: Choice C, or Choice D, and so on. Let’s say the vote is between four choices instead of two. Now it is easy to see how a minority of voters can win and be satisfied while a majority lose and are dissatisfied.

Beyond the mathematical problem of “direct democracy,” there is also the basic structural issue of who will enforce the decisions and policies voted into law by the people. Who will carry out everything that is passed by the voters? How did those people achieve their position? Hence why no historical society, including ancient Greece, has actually practiced a direct democratic system. Though Athenian democracy was a little closer to direct democracy, giving eligible voters (i.e. land-owning men) the chance to propose policies, the power to make large-scale decisions remained in the hands of a small minority.

Likewise, modern democratic countries aren’t direct democracies but representative ones—better known as republics. In a republic, eligible adults vote for which person will represent them in government. Theoretically, all decision-making government officials must be elected in a republic, though that isn’t the case in almost any country one might examine. Many republican (small-r) countries have central banks, for instance, whose leaders are not elected. (See the Federal Reserve.) Also, many countries in today’s world (theoretically) submit to the authority of the United Nations, whose leadership is determined not by average voters but exclusive government committees. But most of the decision-makers, in any case, are elected.

Many people think some form of a republic can solve the problem of larger groups forcing their will upon smaller groups, or majorities bullying minorities. But this isn’t true. Even if minorities have perfectly proportional representation, the governing body is still subject to a voting system in which a majority can force its will upon a minority, or a strong minority can force its will upon a divided electorate.

The Healthcare Example

Say you have a two-party republic like the one we Americans have. Democrats want a certain program, say, universal healthcare. Republicans don’t want that. Instead, Republicans want health savings accounts—something like a social security system, but specifically for healthcare.

The people vote on their representatives, and at the end of the day you come up with 55% Democrats and 45% Republicans. The governing body takes a vote and universal healthcare wins the day. 55% of America is satisfied and 45% is unsatisfied.

But actually, that’s a best-case scenario. In reality, even less people end up satisfied.

In the real world, we have a very diverse population with diverse interests and desires, yet there are effectively only two parties in which to represent those various groups and interests/desires. Let’s say not all Democrats favor universal healthcare (which in reality is true), but all or almost all Republicans do not favor universal healthcare (also true). Likewise, not all Republicans favor health savings accounts, and very few (if any) Democrats favor health savings accounts. Some Democrats instead favor single-payer healthcare, and some Republicans favor a return to free market healthcare. Let’s say the breakout looks like this:

Democrat
—Universal Healthcare = 80%
—Single-Payer Healthcare = 20%
Republican
—Health Savings Account = 80%
—Free-Market Healthcare = 20%

Now let’s suppose the same election results happen: 55% goes to the Democrats and 45% to the Republicans. Then they hold the vote on universal healthcare: yay or nay. Which side wins? Well, 80% of 55% comes to 44%—that’s 44% of the governing body in favor of universal healthcare. If the Republicans band together, their 45% of the governing body could block universal healthcare from gaining a larger share of the vote. But Democrats tend to stick together, and many advocates of a single-payer system think universal healthcare is a decent step toward that, so 50% of single-payer advocates vote for universal healthcare. Now 90% of Democrats agree to vote in favor of universal healthcare.

So when the vote is tallied, 49.5% of the governing body are in favor of universal healthcare, 45% are against it, and 5.5% abstain.

So even though only 44% of Americans cast their vote for a representative that favored universal healthcare and 56% of Americans cast their vote for a representative that opposed it, it still passed and got signed into law.

In fact, this number of 44% in favor of universal healthcare is right around the percentage of Americans who favor the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Even though most people have opposed it all along and still oppose it, everyone has to go along with it. In the house of representatives, the vote for Obamacare was very close: 219 to 212. 34 Democrats voted against it, and not a single Republican voted in favor of it.

Because of a quirk about our republican (small-r) system, a minority of American voters ended up happy while a majority were unhappy.

Also note that there don’t seem to be any other ways of organizing a representative voting process which eliminate the possibility of this happening. A multiple-party proportional system may result in voters having more satisfaction in and identification with their representative, but it would not substantially change the calculations when it comes to intra-governing-body votes like the healthcare one we just examined. Small parties would still have to ally themselves with the ideologically closest large party in order to get anything done, and those on the fringe would still have no more power than they did before.

The Ron Pauls and Bernie Sanders would still go through their entire tenure without getting much done if they were elected as members of other parties.

Representatives: More Power, Less Overall Satisfaction

Voting on representatives in one of the most diverse societies in the world (and getting more diverse every year) has certain effects.

For one, it gives more power to the presidency, a winner-take-all office. As opposed to the congress, the senate, or most state government positions, losing one election doesn’t mean losing all influence in that part of government. But when it comes to the presidency (and, on a smaller level, state governorships), the election is winner-take-all. There is only one White House, and like in the case of healthcare, a divided electorate often results in less than 50% of voters getting the person they voted for.

In 2012, for instance, 51.1% of voters voted for Obama, while 47.2% voted for Romney. But that doesn’t mean that over half of America voted for Obama. It doesn’t even mean over half of the electorate (eligible voters) voted for Obama. Only 55% of eligible voters actually voted. Most of the non-voters are probably people who just don’t care about politics, but what percentage of them didn’t vote because they felt neither candidate was worthy of their vote? Even if only 20 or 30% of the non-voters abstained from voting because neither candidate seemed attractive to them, that brings the share of eligible voters who favored Obama down below 50%.

In fact, only about 1 in 4 or 1 in 3 eligible voters actually cast a ballot in favor of the guy who is currently the President of the United States. The rest either don’t support him or don’t care.

So, in other words, as things stand now only about a third of the American electorate is needed to attain the most powerful political office in the world. That results in about one-third of voters wielding significantly more power than the rest of the population at any given point—and two-thirds of voters being forced to go along with it.

This disproportionality produces other interesting effects.

Gerrymandering: Good or Bad?

Many people criticize one of the inevitable outcomes of a republican (small-r) system—gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when political officials get to draw the boundaries of their own districts in order to give themselves a better chance of winning. This practice has born the brunt of much criticism, and for good reason. It bears little resemblance to what most people think of as democracy.

It’s likely true that the political officials who tweak the boundaries of their district do so for the purpose of shoring up their party’s dominance, but the practice actually creates an interesting by-product: more voters are satisfied with their representative. Think about it. Drawing a district’s boundary so that it includes people who mostly think and vote alike makes more people feel adequately represented by the politician who is supposed to represent them. Gerrymandering groups people with similar interests and desires so that politicians maintain their influence, but it ends up making more people in any given area feel like they have significant influence.

If all voting districts in the nation were drawn in fifteen square mile blocks, it’s easy to see how, in many cases, the electorate would be more closely divided, leaving a larger share of them dissatisfied with their representative. What if you had a fifteen square mile block that included both part of a liberal inner city and a conservative suburb? Which half of the population of that district gets to feel dissatisfied with their representative?

Gerrymandering makes this phenomenon a less frequent occurrence. That’s how politicians can get away with it.

Even so, gerrymandering treats one of the symptoms without curing the underlying sickness: democracies and republics of all kinds inevitably leave some portion of the population dissatisfied.

Alternatives

It is important not to get too carried away with the inherent unfairness of political systems in which people vote on policies or politicians. Yes, there is something inherently unfair about any decision-making system in which some people’s legitimate opinions, desires, and interests have no effect on the outcome. But then, it is difficult to imagine a system of government which doesn’t involve some measure of forcing people to go along with things they don’t agree with. The state doesn’t bear the sword in vain. The sword is there to ensure those who don’t agree with the politicians or policy decisions go along with it anyway.

Though democracy isn’t totally fair in the sense that some people are still forced to go along with things they don’t agree with, it is more fair than other systems of government. In an absolute monarchy or dictatorship, it is possible that only a very tiny minority ends up happy—maybe 5% of the population. In an oligarchy, it might be 10%. In an Athenian-style aristocratic democracy, it might reach 20 or 30%. In our American-style democratic republic, perhaps 40 or 50 or 60% of the population is happy at any given time.

This number is better than any lower number, to be sure. But is it the best humanity can produce?

The Only Way to 100% Satisfaction

As a Christian, I am convinced there is only one form of societal organization which can produce 100% satisfaction among its population. That system, paradoxically, is an absolute monarchy. It is a benevolent dictatorship in which one being wields ultimate sovereignty, and that being is the God who looks like Jesus Christ.

It sounds a bit forced and awkward to frame it this way, but only because we don’t often think in terms of God as our ultimate monarch. God as “king” or “lord” somehow don’t register in our brains as political terms, but they are. Someday, the only government extant on Earth will be headed by God. It will achieve 100% satisfaction from its citizenry, not by force or mind control but by the voluntary lifelong choices of its citizens. Every person alive when Christ rules the world will want to be there and will have in some way chosen to be there. Every person missing from this future kingdom will be someone who ignored or rejected God’s calling in their hearts throughout their lives.

But notice that, in this system, there is only one person making large-scale decisions on behalf of the people—God. The system in which all people have satisfaction and a voice is the system in which no individual or group has the power to force others to go along with things they disagree with. This leads us to the obvious question: how can we most closely approximate this on Earth in our present, sinful condition?

This is a question to chew on slowly and carefully. It deserves its own post, which will come later.

 

If You Care About the Poor, Don’t Support Big Minimum Wage Hikes

Hayek Income Pie Quote.jpg

In my last post, I talked about how Christians (and all people, really) should avoid the narrow confines of the private charity/government welfare debate when thinking about how best to help the poor. I argued that capitalist economies and free markets have historically done far more to ease the plight of the poor than either private charity or government welfare. That is because in these economies, we have seen a markedly faster rise in the overall standard of living and quality of life such that the poor of capitalist countries tend to be better off than the middle class of non-capitalist countries.

So, in short, if you care about the poor, you should care about economics. And you should support having a generally free-market economy.

One way that some who advocate for the poor err in their thinking is by supporting a significant hike in the government-imposed minimum wage. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. In a time when corporate executives are getting paid huge salaries and bonuses, supporters of minimum wage hikes tend to think that the money needed to increase employee pay will just be shifted from the corporate higher-ups to the hourly little guys. They think it will decrease income inequality and give the hourly workers a higher standard of living while not significantly affecting the life quality of the rich guys on top.

This narrative is persuasive, and if true to reality, Christians and those who care about the poor ought to seriously consider supporting a big minimum wage hike to, say, $15/hour.

The problem is, this narrative is not true to reality. Let’s look at the case of Walmart.

Minimum wage hike supporters look at the well-paid corporate executives and heirs of the Walton family, compare them to average hourly worker pay, and naturally feel disgusted at the extreme income disparity. But think about the numbers: about 14,000 people work at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Compare that to the 2.2 million people Walmart Stores Inc. employs worldwide, including Sam’s Club (owned by Walmart). In America alone, Walmart employs about 1.4 million people.

Let’s say about 5,000 people at Wal-Mart’s headquarters are very highly paid (which is probably a high number), the rest earn enough to put them somewhere in the middle class. Those 5,000 Wal-Mart corporate higher-ups make up about 0.35% of the total Wal-Mart employees in America and about 0.23% worldwide.

Now let’s say those 5,000 Walmart Corporate employees make an average of $1 million a year (which, again, is probably high considering the CEO, Doug McMillon–the guy at the very tippy top–makes about $19 million per year in total compensation, most of that being equity in the company). The average Walmart associate, according to glassdoor.com, makes $20,656 per year. Divide McMillon’s entire compensation package evenly among all American Walmart employees and they’ll each wind up with. . . about $13.50 extra a year.

What if Walmart became completely egalitarian and divided its total employee compensation equally? Assuming that those 5,000 corporate higher-ups make an average of $1 million per year, that makes $5 billion which goes to them alone. Divide that evenly among all American Walmart employees and each employee’s yearly salary goes up by. . . about $3,500. That makes everyone’s salary about $24,000 per year. Now everyone in America who works for Walmart lives right around the poverty line.

The folks who think that minimum wage hikes can be paid for by lowering executive compensation are mistaken. If the minimum wage were set at $12 an hour, as some say it should be, the total compensation of all Walmart executives and corporate higher-ups would not be able to cover it. Thus, instead, employees would have to be laid off, prices would have to go up, and the quality of customers’ experience would go down. In other words, what made Walmart successful in the first place would cease to exist.

And this doesn’t even touch worldwide employee compensation. If Walmart divided executive compensation among all of its employees around the world, average hourly workers in America would get only half the spoils.

(This whole scenario indulges the fantasy that Walmart could continue to function if its executives were not highly compensated. It, of course, could not.)

What about profits? According to Henry Blodget at Business Insider, Walmart makes about $22 billion in pre-tax profits per year. If it divided that up evenly among its 2.2 million employees, they could each get a $10,000 salary increase per year. That sounds impressive, but it would also leave Walmart stagnant. Without profits to be used for down payments, no new stores would be able to open, and average hourly workers would only be making about $30,000 per year anyway. So current workers would benefit, but there would not be a net gain of employees or a drop in nationwide unemployment.

What if half their profits went to employees? That brings average hourly salary up to $25,000 per year, but that alone certainly doesn’t lift them out of poverty.

Minimum Wage Rises, Employment Falls

In general, it is true both in principle and in practice that rising minimum wage laws make minimum-wage employment go down. Why? Because as the cost of employing a low-skilled person goes up, that number inevitably gets closer to the cost by which companies can automate the tasks performed by that person. If the cost of employment goes up and the cost of automation (machines & robots) goes down, eventually it will be cheaper to replace jobs with machines.

We have seen this in Walmart’s case with point of sale (POS) stations. Instead of a relatively large number of employees working the checkout aisles, there are relatively few employees and an increasing number of self-checkout stations.

This can also be seen in another infamous case: minimum wage employees vs. McDonald’s. (Fast Food is an industry, like retail, that has very slim profit margins overall, which decreases its ability to raise average worker pay without also raising product prices.)

In the last five years or so, McDonald’s has devoted a large chunk of funding to the development of automation systems, including touchscreen ordering systems and robotic burger makers that can churn out 360 burgers an hour, in order to save money long term. It is cheaper to invent high-tech methods of replacing employees than it would be to employ people under the new minimum wage laws.

Walmart’s Upcoming Wage Increase

Look at what is happening now with Walmart. Because their business model has been so successful, they have decided (on their own) to raise starting pay to $10 per hour. This is up from their current starting hourly pay, $9, which is already well above the federal minimum wage. Partially, the money for this pay increase will come out of profits–about $1.5 billion. What created the circumstances wherein Walmart decided to raise minimum starting pay by its own accord?

The short answer is: market forces.

Walmart, like all retail companies, needs hard-working, reliable employees, and its low starting pay leads to high employee turnover. Employee turnover decreases productivity, which decreases profits. So one of the main reasons Walmart decided to raise its minimum starting pay is, likely, to decrease employee turnover and to attract and keep quality employees.

This raise in minimum starting pay will almost certainly affect starting wage rates at many other retail companies like Target, TJ Maxx, Ross, Marshall’s, etc., as it did when Walmart raised its starting hourly wage to $9. Likewise, Sam’s Club will be raising its wages again after the $10 starting pay is implemented. This will be a good thing for low-skilled, minimally-educated workers all over the country.

There are downsides to this starting wage increase, however. For instance, it will be partially offset by continuing the trend of decreasing bottom-rung employees’ hours and lowering full-time workers to part-time as much as possible. But, to be fair, that trend was already in place before the announcement of the wage increase. It was exacerbated far more by the Great Recession and the Affordable Care Act.

Overall, though, rising wages with decreasing hours is better than stagnant wages with decreasing hours. This shows that there is a natural market-set minimum wage. In other words, there is a market price for labor, and in the case of Walmart and many other retail stores that price is above the federal minimum wage.

What happens when the government-imposed minimum wage is set above the market minimum wage?

Walmart’s Upcoming Store Closures

Walmart has plans to close 269 stores across the United States, and many of these are closing because of rising government-imposed minimum wages. This is true in the case of the Oakland Walmart as well as the LA Chinatown Walmart. Many plans for proposed stores, such as in poorer neighborhoods of Washington DC, have been scrapped due to rising minimum wage laws.

Walmart’s profit margins, like many retailers, are already very small. Overall, Walmart’s profit margins are about 3.15%. Some stores are higher and some are lower, but that is the average. Being forced to raise employee compensation by 20-25% often makes otherwise profitable stories unprofitable, hence the reason so many are closing.

Walmart would rather shut its stores down early rather than raise its prices (corresponding to the higher minimum wage), see their sales suffer, and ultimately have to close it down eventually anyway.

Bottom Line

First, it must be acknowledged that the way Walmart works is not perfect, and it does not survive without effective subsidies from government. It’s stock buybacks (which tend to go toward executive compensation) total only a little more than the amount of food stamps Walmart’s own employees use at Walmart stores every year. If Walmart couldn’t rely on this implicit government subsidy, it would be forced to adjust its employee compensation system.

Perhaps that problem could be solved by progressively shifting food stamp (SNAP) welfare to other forms of welfare (such as housing vouchers) the longer a person has been employed at their current job. This could decrease the total amount of income Walmart gets from food stamps without altering the net benefits a low-income person receives from welfare.

Another way of incentivizing Walmart to pay its workers a higher wage would be to institute a stipulation that a person’s food stamps cannot be used at store owned by the company that employs them. So Walmart employees could use their food stamps at Target or another grocery store, but not at a Walmart store. It would be inconvenient for Walmart employees, but also for Walmart. The company would lose a lot of income, which it could gain back simply by paying its employees better. The most obvious place that money would come from would be stock buybacks, decreasing the salaries of only those who are compensated in stock options.

Second, we must remember the basic facts: most households in which minimum wage workers live (including but not limited to Walmart employees) are collectively above the poverty line (about 80%). Most of the 3 million minimum wage workers in America are young (70% under 35 years old). And somewhere around 3/4ths to 2/3rds of minimum wage workers earn a raise within a year. Lastly, since most states have minimum wage laws above the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour), only about 2.9% of workers in America work at the federal minimum wage.

The main lesson to be learned from the case of Walmart is that there is such a thing as a market minimum wage, and it is dangerous to set the government-imposed minimum wage above this rate. It would not have the unequivocally positive effects that its supporters think it would. Rather, it would result in more store closings, fewer new Walmart stores, fewer “associate”-level employees working fewer hours, more expensive products, and less customer satisfaction.

In short, in the case of Walmart, a big minimum wage hike would result in killing the goose that lays the golden egg. It would be bad for both customers and workers alike.

If We Care About the Poor, We Should Also Care About Economics

Rothbard Compassion Quote.jpg

When considering right and wrong, we cannot simply think about our intentions, nor can we only think about consequences. Our intentions may be good and pure, but if the consequences are overwhelmingly negative (and if we knew they would be), the goodness of the act is cast into doubt. And if the consequences of an action turn out to be positive but the action itself violates moral principles, then the goodness of the act is likewise cast into doubt.

Too often, when politically-minded Christians think about helping the poor, our thinking falls into one of those two categories—relying too heavily on either intentions or consequences. Sometimes the argument is made that government welfare is a more effective way of helping a larger share of poor people than any private means. This line of thinking, whether true or not, only considers the consequences of its method of helping the poor. On the other hand, the argument might be made that giving to a food bank or soup kitchen, or voting for a politician who promises to increase funds to welfare programs, is morally praiseworthy on its own because it intends to help the poor.

In my view, moral principles should determine our conscience and way we think about right and wrong. Then when we have a solid understanding of the most morally sound ends to pursue and means by which to pursue them, we can think about how best we might put them into practice. There might be multiple ends or means which comport with moral principles; real world consequences and efficiency determine which is the best to follow. Principles come first, then practicality.

Interestingly, the debate about how best (both morally and practically) to help the poor often stays within a narrow dichotomy of welfare versus private charity. This makes sense, because often the conversation centers around how those with the means ought to help those who are needy. Human beings have a natural compassion for those of us who are less fortunate and are interested to know what we can do to help them.

But what if the sum of our actions does less to help the poor than the system in which they are done? What if an action accomplishes more in one economic system than it does in another?

I’d like to suggest that, in fact, this is exactly what we see in the world. During the era of the Soviet Union, many consumer goods were of very high value because the government only ordered the production of a set amount. At the same time in the United States, the monetary value (price) of consumer goods continually dropped because the market responded to demand. An equivalent amount of money could buy you much more in the United States than it could in the Soviet Union.

That is the case today when you compare the United States with socialist-leaning European countries. In Sweden, for instance, consumer goods are about 3% higher than in the United States. In Denmark, consumer prices are about 15% higher than the United States. In Norway, consumer prices are 38% higher than the United States. More properly understood as a mostly state capitalist economy, Norway’s standard of living is relatively high but the cost of living is enormous. In other words, in these places, you’d have to pay more for the same thing.

Historically, capitalist economies that are allowed to operate freely without state intervention tend to lower prices of consumer goods, even while increasing their quality. Individual examples include John Rockefeller drastically lowering the price of kerosene and thus increasing the standard of living of all Americans. Also Cornelius Vanderbilt, who greatly expanded railroads and lowered the price of travel on both land and sea, making ferry-travel economically viable for the average man. Likewise, Bill Gates innovated a way that computers (formerly enormously expensive and complicated) could be used to great benefit in average people’s lives.

Both theory and history show that capitalism increases the standard of living for all people while simultaneously increasing quality of life. In general, a dollar is worth increasingly more in a capitalist country than a non-capitalist one. This is carried out in a way that, over time, increases working conditions overall.

(There are forces that mitigate the good that capitalism does, such as central banks. See my post about how income inequality is unfairly exacerbated by central banks here.)

If you compare countries which have adopted more or less free, capitalist economic policies with countries which have not, you’ll see a marked difference in the state of their poor. Until the recent shift toward capitalism (even if largely state capitalism), China’s poor remained in a dismal state compared to America’s poor. Many things could be blamed in place of the lack of capitalist policies, but nothing correlates better than the adoption of limited capitalism by the Chinese leaders.

A similar situation is occurring in India.

In Russia, China, India, and Norway, all the private charity its citizens could offer would not have a fraction of the lasting effect capitalist economics have had. Today, the poor of America are better off than the majority of the world, not because the upper half of America’s income strata is generous and donates to charity but because capitalism has gradually (sometimes rapidly) increased our standard of living while simultaneously decreasing the cost of living.

In basically capitalist countries, the poor are better off because the threshold of “rock bottom” or “scraping by” is significantly better-off than “rock bottom” or “scraping by” in non-capitalist countries.

It would be too simplistic to say one should support capitalism simply because the consequences are good. If capitalism were exploitative of a minority, even a tiny minority, in order to increase the wellbeing of the majority, it would not be the right way to help the poor. It would be practical, but it would violate our principles.

On the contrary, capitalism allows people to show each other more compassion than they would be able to in a non-capitalist system. It not only creates more wealth, it gives people the freedom to determine whether that wealth will be used for helpful and edifying purposes or not. It is a system where no one is compelled into giving to help the poor. Rather, the poor are helped by the nature of a rising standard of living as well as a larger amount of wealth available to be earned or given to them from charitable donors.

While no system is perfect because no group of human beings on this planet is perfect, I see little reason Christians should oppose capitalism. On the contrary, Christians should embrace capitalism as an effective and morally sound method of helping the poor.

Should a Christian Carry a Concealed Firearm?

Concealed Carry Pic

In the wake of the recent San Bernadino shooting, Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University (the largest Christian university in the nation) encouraged his students to obtain concealed carry licenses and arm themselves so as to “teach those Muslims a lesson” if they ever came on Liberty’s campus.

Much blowback ensued in response to these comments, including a thorough critique from pastor and author John Piper. For Piper, the problem with concealed carry is both the act itself and the attitude behind the act. The attitude of “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever come around here” contradicts Christ’s call for Christians to live self-sacrificially. And the issues with the act itself are manifold. For present purposes, Piper’s points can be boiled down to three main issues: (1) Christians are not to seek vengeance, (2) Christians should expect and accept unjust treatment without retaliation, and (3) Christians ought to live in such a way that outsiders wonder what hope within us motivates our radically unique behavior.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a significant backlash to Piper’s article among pro-gun evangelicals. Piper is well-respected in evangelical circles, but on this subject, he has breached American Christian canon. To be fair, Piper has also breached what has been unofficial church consensus since the time of Constantine. Only when two prominent evangelical leaders publicly proclaim opposing views on the subject of concealed carry firearms does it become clear how ingrained a pro-gun culture is among American Christianity. One response, which challenges Piper on a biblical basis, calls Piper’s view shocking, appalling, and “absolutely ridiculous.”

The counterargument to Piper’s first point is that concealed carry has nothing to do with vengeance. The principle against taking vengeance and leaving room for the wrath of God is a separate issue from the purpose of carrying a concealed firearm, which is to defend oneself and innocent victims against violent aggressors. The argument goes that legal concealed firearms, on net, prevent more deaths than would otherwise occur. Someone with a concealed firearm could subdue a violent aggressor—whether that be a mass shooter or a home invader or a petty thief—before they got the chance to hurt or kill. This is preventive violence, not retributive violence.

The counterargument to Piper’s second point is that Christians are only told to accept unjust treatment as it relates to their Christian identities—such as spreading the gospel or behaving in a distinctly Christlike way. Concealed firearms are not meant to defend pastors preaching sermons or missionaries in the field; they are meant to defend innocent victims from indiscriminate violence. Christ’s prohibition of retaliation, the pro-gun folks would say, only concerns persecution of Christians for being Christian.

The counterargument to Piper’s third point is a shift of perspective: the anti-gun folks cast defensive use of firearms in a negative light, but the pro-gun folks cast it in a positive light. Pro-gun folks say that it is brave, noble, and indeed loving to one’s neighbor to put oneself in danger by using a firearm to defend that neighbor from harm. And while shooting (and possibly killing) an aggressor isn’t the ideal way to show them Christ’s love, it is exactly what Christ would do if put in that situation. In short, in order to love one’s neighbor, it is advisable and admirable for the Christian to do exactly what Falwell encouraged his students to do: carry a firearm (the more powerful the better) and be ready to shoot an attacker before he has the chance to harm innocent victims.

I believe that while some of these counterarguments to Piper make sense, the gun advocates still don’t have a biblical leg to stand on. Three New Testament principles should prevent Christians from embracing violence, even for the sake of defending innocent victims: non-retaliation, love for enemies, and kingdom peacemaking. But before I get to them, what Bible passages could lead one to support self-defense?

The Bible on Self-Defense

While there is no specific instruction in the Bible not to use violence in self-defense, there is also no instruction to do so. None whatsoever. Some self-defense advocates cite Exodus 22:2-3: “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” Notice two things about this verse. First, this is not an instruction to practice self-defense. It is an explanation for how a person is to be judged in retrospect for a certain action—namely, killing a criminal intruder. At best, this amounts to moral permission, not moral virtue or praiseworthiness. Second, notice that this provision is only in effect at night. In other words, one will not be faulted for striking a home intruder when it is dark and when accidental death is more likely, but during the daytime, one is still guilty of bloodshed for striking and killing a home intruder. This does little to support the pro-gun case.

Another passage often used by self-defense advocates comes from Luke 22, where Jesus tells his disciples to sell their belongings in order to buy swords. Gun advocates assert this must mean Jesus wasn’t entirely against his disciples defending themselves with weapons. But it is difficult to see what message we are to garner from this cryptic passage. In response to Jesus, the disciples show him the two swords in their possession, and Jesus says, “It is enough.” In this case, I believe Piper is correct to say that we cannot assume to know what Christ meant by this statement from the passage alone. It seems even the disciples don’t know what he meant. We must look elsewhere, at the whole of Christ’s teachings and the early church’s behavior, in order to understand what Jesus meant when he instructed his disciples to buy swords. When we do, we’ll find nothing at all to suggest he meant that self-defense is proper for his disciples.

The Narrow Way

Before we begin to look at our distinctive calling as Christians living in the world but not of the world, one thing is crucial to remember.

When Jesus is wrapping up His moral teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, He summarizes them with this principle: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). This handy maxim is known as the “Golden Rule.”

Then Jesus says something interesting: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (verses 13-14). Many Christians think of this verse as concerning only salvation and not the Christlike life a believer is to lead after salvation, but for Jesus, these two are inextricably linked. As Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The regeneration of spiritual rebirth leads to life in the kingdom of God.

After all, Jesus says that “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The entire sermon prior to this point (Matthew 5:1-7:12) has concerned not salvation as an isolated event but the life one lives because of salvation. Thus, when Christ says “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life,” He is saying that His teachings are difficult to follow, not that salvation is difficult to achieve. Salvation, we know from Paul, is amazingly easy to obtain, for it is “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of your own doing” (Eph 2:8). But the rewarding and abundant “life” which Christ came to bring (John 10:10) is most definitely not easy to obtain.

Therefore, as we begin to examine these teachings of Christ, we should not expect that they will allow us to live our lives or respond to things the easy, simple, intuitive way. No, Christ’s way is the hard way.

Now, it is instructive to compare Luke’s presentation of Christ’s teachings with Matthew’s presentation. Sometimes they reveal different aspects of the same teaching. The “Golden Rule” of Matthew 7:12 is one of these instructive instances, because we can turn to Luke’s gospel to see what teachings he links to the hard way of the “Golden Rule.” In Luke 6, we find that Luke links the “Golden Rule” to love for enemies and non-retaliation. It is to those principles we now turn.

The Scope of Non-Retaliation

Gun advocates (rightly, I believe) point out that Piper conflates verses about suffering for the sake of Christ with suffering at the hands of indiscriminate aggressors. But there is a significant difference. When much of the New Testament (especially 1 Peter) instructs believers not to resist their persecutors and to rejoice in their suffering, such teachings are given concerning only their church- and gospel-related contexts. Thus, gun advocates say that non-retaliation is only required in cases of persecution against Christians for being Christian.

However, just because there are many verses in the New Testament which prohibit retaliation in cases of gospel-related persecution doesn’t mean this is the only circumstance in which non-retaliation is applicable.

Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you, do not resist an evildoer.” Is this principle limited in scope to gospel-related persecution? No, it is not. The examples Jesus cite are non-religious matters: violent insults and attacks, legal battling, forced compliance by governing authorities, and lending. One of those examples refers to Roman soldiers forcing citizens to carry their heavy shields for a mile—a form of political oppression that has nothing to do with a person’s identity as a Christian.

But perhaps the prohibition of retaliation only refers to personal, private situations that don’t seriously threaten anyone’s livelihood. After all, the gun advocate would say, each of the examples given relate to personal, non-lethal situations, not matters of life and death. I offer three considerations:

First, remember that these examples are all situations the average first century Israelite would often find themselves in. It is likely that there were zealots (and zealot sympathizers) among his audience who would fight back against Roman (political) oppression. The call to “go the extra mile” is tantamount to a rejection of the zealots’ approach. It goes beyond the scope of personal, private situations.

Second, remember that the principle he gives (“do not resist an evildoer”) is spoken in response to the lex talionis (“eye for an eye”). The lex talionis, or “law of retaliation,” was the Old Testament’s way of ensuring equitable retribution for crimes committed. It governed all violent crime in Israel, whether purposeful or accidental. The principle Christ gives is incompatible with the lex talionis and thus makes it obsolete. It is now the law of non-retaliation which governs Christians’ behavior toward each other, toward outsiders, and even toward their most bitter enemies.

The argument could be made that “eye for an eye” is attempting to do the same thing Jesus is doing here, because it prevents a person who has been harmed from retaliating beyond the limits of equitable retribution. No one could retaliate against an injury by killing the injurer in return. It limited retaliation, which, the argument goes, is exactly what Christ is doing. But Jesus isn’t merely limiting retaliation; he teaches that retaliation shouldn’t merely be limited but done away with completely.

The word for “resist” here is anthistemi, which means to take an equal and opposite stand against something. Anthistemi was also a military term in Ancient Greek meaning “to strongly resist an opponent.” It calls to mind the image of two armies facing each other in battle and refers to fighting “fire with fire.” Let’s see how this applies to the first example Christ uses: turning the other cheek.

Luke’s gospel, more so than Matthew’s, makes clear that the instruction to “turn the other cheek” doesn’t merely refer to personal insults but also physical violence. Matthew uses the word “slap,” and specifies the right cheek. This leads some to believe that, since most people are right-handed, the slap is backhanded, meant to shame more than hurt. But in Luke’s version, Jesus says, “To the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:29). The word for “strike” unambiguously refers to physical violence. It is used, for instance, in contrast to “slap” in Matthew 26:67: “Then they spit in his [Jesus’s] face and struck him, and others slapped him…” The New American Standard Bible translates “struck” in this verse as “beat Him with their fists.”

So then we could say that “turn the other cheek” applies to both personal insults and violent attacks. Rather than trading insult for insult or blow for blow, followers of Jesus are to eschew both insults and fighting. This is what it means to “not resist the evildoer.”

One might say, at this point, that we are still only talking about how Christians are to handle situations in the personal, private sphere — that we are to eschew retaliation in our personal lives but still ought to pursue it through legal means. If a person punches me in the face, I am not to punch him back, but I am permitted to press charges on him for physical assault and do everything I can from a legal standpoint to ensure he pays for his crime against me.

However, Jesus also applies this principle of non-retaliation to a legal situation: “If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:40). Just like the summary principle of “eye for an eye,” Christ’s summary principle of “don’t fight fire with fire” applies to all areas of life, including legal settings.

Christ’s principle of non-retaliation, then, basically means, “Don’t fight fire with fire. Don’t attempt to enforce ‘eye for eye.’ Whatever evil methods your enemy uses to attack you, do not to respond in kind. Do not combat violence with violence. Do not combat legal subterfuge with legal subterfuge. Do not combat coercive force with coercive force. Do not combat hurtful words with hurtful words. Do not respond to someone who has put a financial burden on you by putting a financial burden on them.” This principle is neither to fight nor to flee, but to follow Christ’s example: engage them through disarming love with the goal of reconciliation. Hence why the command to love one’s enemies directly follows the principle of non-retaliation in Matthew and is unequivocally linked in Luke (6:27-36).

The third consideration is that this principle does not apply for those outside the Kingdom of God. In other words, the principle of non-retaliation is only meant for followers of Jesus who are citizens of His not-of-this-world Kingdom. Hence why Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 5:12: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Thus non-retaliation and “turn the other cheek” is not meant to be applied to earthly governments, police forces, or militaries. More on this below.

So the pro-gun (and just war) argument that Christ’s principle of non-retaliation is limited to either gospel-related persecution or non-violent situations simply doesn’t hold up. The Mosaic law of “eye for an eye” governed all scenarios in the Old Testament, and the Christian law of non-retaliation governs all scenarios in the New Testament.

Love Which Enemies?

Gun advocates will point out that Jesus didn’t invent the principle of love for enemies. Rather, love for enemies can be found in the Old Testament. For instance, Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” Likewise, Exodus 23:4-5 commands compassionate treatment of an enemy’s pack animals. Gun advocates, who often craft their arguments from a Reformed framework which sees no moral inconsistency between Old and New Testaments, will say that Christ is perfectly in line with this limited sense in which one should love one’s enemies.

It is probable that in these few Old Testament verses enemy-love is basically wrapped up in love of neighbor. They basically call for Old Testament Jews to love even those fellow Jews they consider to be personal enemies. After all, there is little evidence of Jews showing such kindness to their political or military enemies. And since the Mosaic Law does not permit Jews to live amongst the Canaanites (though they often did), it is unlikely the Exodus verses refer to non-Jews.

One could argue that there are some enemies we are justified in hating. Some gun advocates say we ought to agree with the Psalmist, who wrote: “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them as my enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22).

Jesus radically expands and intensifies the command to love one’s enemies. The instances from the OT in which people are taught to love their enemies are nonviolent, personal, and probably confined to fellow Jews. But the examples Jesus uses do concern violence (striking on the cheek), legal situations (suing for one’s tunic), and non-Jews (carrying a Roman soldier’s shield a mile) situations. Indeed, there is no indication that love of enemies is meant to be limited to any type of person or situation.

Thus, just as Jesus expands and intensifies other OT principles such as murder > anger (Matt. 5:21-26) and adultery > lust (Matt. 5:27-30), he expands and intensifies enemy-love to include both Jew and Gentile, violent and nonviolent, public and personal. There are no enemies which are left out of this calling of love, including violent aggressors. Just as our Father in Heaven’s love is all-inclusive (Matt 5:45), so also should His children’s love be all-inclusive.

At this point, it would be natural to ask why? Why are Christians called to refrain from retaliating against violent aggressors and instead to love them even though it feels so unnatural? The simple answer is: we are citizens of a different kingdom.

The Kingdom of Peace

It is crucial that we keep in mind the doctrine of the two kingdoms: the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of the world. This world belongs, in a proximate sense, to Satan (Luke 4:6; 1 John 5:19), and thus it stands in stark contrast to the Kingdom of God.

Though the Kingdom of God is not here on this earth in its entirety, it is present here on earth to the extent that Christians live it out. Both John the Baptist and Jesus began their ministries by proclaiming that the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2, 4:17). Jesus said in Luke 4:43 that preaching “the good news of the kingdom of God” was the very purpose for which he was sent. Likewise, Jesus told His disciples to preach the same message (Matt 10:7). When questioned by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God will arrive, Jesus answers that “the kingdom of God is within you,” also translated as “within your reach” (Luke 17:21). The Kingdom of God has arrived. It is here. Now. In our midst. It is available to be entered into.

To his hearer’s surprise, Jesus announced the arrival (though not total fulfillment) of the very same Kingdom about which is prophesied in the Old Testament. The very same passage which prophesies the “shoot” that “will spring from the stem of Jesse”—talking about Jesus—speaks of a Kingdom in which “they will not hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain” (Is 11:1-9; 65:25). We know that this Kingdom has not reached its completion because “the mountain of the house of the Lord” has not yet fully been “established as the chief of the mountains,” and God does not yet “judge between the nations” (Is 2:2-4).

And yet, this Kingdom has been inaugurated and established in principle. The king who rides a donkey, prophesied in Zechariah 9:9-10 (Jesus), has come, and one of the characteristics of His reign is His “speaking peace to the nations.” In this Kingdom, “Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety” (Hos 2:18). Again, it is crucial to remember that while this Peaceful Kingdom has not fully arrived — earthly governments still wield the sword (Rom 13) — it has arrived to the extent that Christians live it out or “produce its fruit” (Matt 21:43). Echoing the statement in Jeremiah 2:3 about Israel being the “firstfruits of [God’s] harvest,” James also refers to Christians as “a kind of firstfruits of all He created” (James 1:18).

To be a first fruit is to showcase in a limited capacity the full and bountiful harvest to come. Christians are called to showcase, to the best of our ability in this age, the peaceful and nonviolent Kingdom which is yet to arrive in its fullness.

So back to the basics: the distinction between Kingdom of God and kingdom of this world.

Christians belong to the Kingdom of God, because God has “rescued us from the domain of darkness and transformed us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). This Kingdom is characterized by Christ and His teachings. We believers are its citizens, and the Kingdom of God commands our total devotion. The way of Christ is meant to influence every aspect of a person’s life, not merely “gospel-related” or personal aspects. There is no biblical distinction between sacred and secular portions of a believer’s life, nor holy and non-holy, nor personal and public. Christians are nowhere allowed to have secular (public) lives in which they can behave differently than in their sacred (private) lives.

Rather, the “secular” is the way of the world, the kingdom of Satan. That which doesn’t serve the Kingdom of God must then serve this other kingdom. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate the one and love the other, or will be devoted to one and despise the other.” The immediate context of this saying concerns God and money, but the principle can be applied to multiple subjects. After all, Jesus also told his disciples that “anyone who loves their father or mother… or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). Indeed, any one who “does not bear his own cross” and “renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27, 33).

In other words, our devotion as believers ought to be first and foremost to Christ and His Kingdom, which means living as He did and conforming our lives to His teachings. And this devotion is not meant to be merely dutiful but also joyful and heartfelt. The Kingdom of God, remember, is like a great treasure which, when discovered, will inspire a person to sell everything he or she has in order to obtain it (Matt 13:44-46).

In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

So it must never be forgotten that we believers are citizens of Heaven (Phil. 3:20) and are called to model the heavenly kingdom’s virtues in all aspects of our behavior.

Paul expresses this truth in stark terms: “Those who live according to the flesh [the world] have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:5-6). We believers are “not of this world, even as I [Christ] am not of it” (John 17:16). Therefore, now that we have died to the world, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Even our enemies. Even those who hurt us or treat us unjustly.

Everything about our lives is to be characterized by Christ’s Kingdom and to stand in contrast to the ways of the world. In Christ’s Kingdom, our struggle is not against flesh and blood and thus we do not fight (Eph 6:12). If His Kingdom were of this world, our struggle would be against flesh and blood (John 18:36). If we don’t fight for any heavenly or gospel-related reason, we shouldn’t fight for any worldly reason either, because to do so would be tantamount to fighting for the kingdom of Satan.

Here I will “jump the gun,” if you will, by stating my ultimate view on this subject: The case of carrying a concealed firearm to use against evildoers is to fight the world through worldly means. It is to return evil for evil.

As people of Christ’s kingdom, we are to be recognizable by such qualities as peacemaking, gentleness, self-control, and unqualified love for enemies.”Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, and one of the fruits of the Spirit is “peace.” We are called to live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18) and to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts (Col 3:15). Likewise, we are called to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). James reminds us that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17-18).

This is part of what it means to be salt and light. When the world looks at Christians, they are supposed to see a remarkable, otherworldly peace, both in our demeanor and in our behavior. We don’t merely have peace of mind or tranquility of spirit, we make peace where there is violence and strife. Peace isn’t merely an end that we have been graciously given by God, it is also a means to an end. We don’t just have peace, nor do we merely long for peace, we sow the seeds of peace, which leads to righteousness.

It is difficult to see how any form of lethal violence fits with these characteristics. And if lethal violence is incompatible with the characteristics we are supposed to display as people of Christ’s Kingdom, how can we act in such a way that risks lethal violence? How can we carry guns when they hold the staggering power to kill or maim at the twitch of a finger? Such quick and deadly violence may indeed save lives, but it doesn’t make peace. The absence of violence does not equal peace. Peace happens when a conflict, whether violent or not, is resolved, not when one party is forced into submission. When one party is forced into submission through violence, the conflict doesn’t really end; it continues, only without the violence. If the party is killed, it negates even the possibility of peace, because it negates the possibility of resolution or reconciliation.

In the New Testament, peace is almost synonymous with reconciliation (e.g. Col 1:20), thus reconciliation ought to be our primary goal as peacemakers.

I agree with John Piper here in that there is no straightforward answer from the New Testament on the questions of violence for the sake of self-defense and defense of innocent victims. On the one hand, we are called to love our neighbor as ourself, which inclines us to act in defense of our victimized neighbor. But the way we are to stand in defense of our victimized neighbor is not as sword-(or gun-)bearing upholder of justice or destroyer of evildoers but as peacemaker. Our distinctive job as ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor 5:20) is to facilitate reconciliation between person to person and person to God (2 Cor 5:18). How can this be possible when we are using a gun to fight back against a gunman?

Such a use of defensive force may be common sense, but it doesn’t do anything to display or advance the Kingdom of God as taught and modeled by Christ. Thus, we ought to view it as a “worldly” way of responding to evil. It is an attempt to overcome evil with evil. The Christian response ought to model distinctly Christian principles and virtues, and there’s nothing distinctly Christian about the use of violent force to take out a violent evildoer.

It is crucial to realize, however, that the moral principles of Christ’s kingdom are not meant to be applied to those outside the Kingdom of God. The only way believers are able to refrain from fighting “against flesh and blood” but instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness” and the “spiritual forces of evil” is by putting on “the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11-13). Without the empowering indwelling of the Spirit, it is impossible to put on the armor of God, because “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17).

These principles of non-retaliation, love of enemies, and peacemaking are distinctly Christian precisely because we have supernatural empowerment to live them out. Therefore, it is both wrongheaded and pointless to try to force those outside the church, whether individuals or nations, to take on a role which is specifically meant for the church. Hence why Paul asks, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor 5:12).

He Who Lives by the Gun Will Die by the Gun

When it comes to the question of whether we Christians ought to arm ourselves, we should draw wisdom from Christ’s saying to Peter in Gethsemane.

When an angry mob (who Matthew describes as “a great crowd with swords and clubs”) came to apprehend Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest. Think about the act itself: Peter used violence in defense of a truly innocent victim against violent aggressors. And yet, when Christ rebukes him, he does not merely say that this must be done to fulfill prophecy. He also gives a moral principle which critiques Peter’s action: “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” In our present-day context, the saying would go, “He who lives by the gun will die by the gun.”

The statement is structured like a proverb, expressing a general (though perhaps not absolute) truth. Again, it may be argued that this principle holds true only in a limited context, applying only to gospel- or church-related violence. But again, even if this is correct, it makes little sense to say violence in defense of Christ is inherently wrong but violence in defense of other innocent victims is permissible or virtuous.

The general truth of the saying negates the legitimacy of applying violent force for the sake of defending the innocent, because violence begets violence. The use of weapons elicits counteractive use of weapons. Note that, like other proverbial wisdom, this may not hold true in all cases; there may be some instances where a quick shot to an attacker’s head undoubtedly saves lives. But Christ’s saying is a general truth that followers of Christ are to live by.

We are not called to be armed utilitarians—trying to mentally calculate when retaliatory force will save more lives than it kills. We are not to view the end as justifying the means. Rather, we are called to display outrageous love toward both neighbor and enemy.

Love Your Neighbor and Your Enemy

Gun advocates often make the argument that Christians are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and since there’s nothing loving about sitting by and letting a person be victimized by a violent aggressor, the only proper Christian response to that violent aggressor is to use whatever means necessary to subdue them. Hence carrying a concealed firearm.

There are two flaws in this argument. The first flaw is that it ignores all the New Testament principles which are discussed above. We are called to respond to every situation as Christ would respond to it, and as Christ taught His disciples to respond. The second flaw is the assumption that a nonviolent response is tantamount to passivity—i.e. letting the violent aggressor rape, torture, or kill whomever they want.

To stand by and do nothing while innocent victims are harmed would be unloving. Christians are not called to cower in fear or run away from a violent aggressor harming an innocent person. Nor, I think, are we called merely to pray for God to intervene. On the contrary, I think a distinctly Christian response of the person-being-mugged-in-an-alleyway scenario would be to intervene — but to do so in a way that marks us as loving, peacemaking children of God (Matt 5:45).

The ideal way to intervene in any conflict, as we have already said, would be to act as a mediator and peacemaker, risking our own livelihoods for the sake of mutual reconciliation. Since most violent conflicts begin with an argument that leads to verbal threats, the ideal time to insert oneself is in this buildup to violence. Of course, reconciliation is not always possible, especially when we enter the conflict at its most heated point. If we pass by the alleyway and see a man pointing a gun at a woman, preventive reconciliation may not be possible.

The next best option, I think, would be to put ourselves in harm’s way in order to save the innocent victim. Putting oneself in the line of fire with hands up and a calm, unthreatening face is protective of the victim but also loving and gentle toward the attacker. Sometimes this disarming approach de-escalates the situation—that is the goal. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the attacker instead uses his weapon on you. Hopefully, this at least gives the victim time to escape. In any case, when a Christian identifies him or herself as a follower of Jesus who will do no harm, there is power in that. There is power in the name of Jesus Christ, and invoking His name can never hurt the situation.

Consider this: the moment a Christian inserts himself into a conflict, making clear that he is a follower of Jesus and refuses to fight the attacker no matter what, any suffering he endures after that will be a form of persecution. And as such, it will put on display the loving and self-sacrificial disposition of Christ. What better, more disarming way to show the love of Christ than being willing to lay down one’s life for a friend (John 15:13) — or even an enemy (Rom 5:10)?

And, of course, it is never a bad idea to call the police, if it seems like there’s a reasonable chance they would arrive in time. It is not a sin for a Christian to rely on the police. Policemen are trained to take control of conflict situations and de-escalate violence using the least amount of force necessary. Granted, there are plenty of cases where the police have abused their power, but in general, we must trust in the God-ordained legitimacy of sword-bearing authorities. Christians should not call the police as a way to shirk their enemy-loving, peacemaking duty but rather as a form of “backup” in case our own peacemaking efforts fail.

Again, though, sometimes there is no time to call the police or even to insert oneself between the attacker and the victim. Sometimes the attacker is mentally unstable or drunk or high on drugs or doesn’t speak your language or hardened in some extreme ideology. Even this person we are called to love. But we are also called to love and protect the innocent victim. Sometimes it is most loving to use some measure of physical force to restrain the attacker (tackling, pinning down, pepper-spraying, stun-gunning, tasering) in order to prevent them from committing a heinous sin. It will prevent them from doing something that they may someday deeply regret.

This physical force is not to be carried out in a way that fights “fire with fire” but rather a way that gives the victim a chance to escape without causing permanent injury to the attacker. Permanent injury severely reduces the likelihood of bringing about eventual reconciliation. The point is to restrain or incapacitate immediately, not to engage in a fight. Thus, kicking, punching, slapping, and tripping make little sense as they more often escalate the violence rather than de-escalate it.

How far can we take this line of reasoning? How much physical force can be used while still holding onto our Christian principles of love, peacemaking, and self-sacrifice? If it is sometimes, in dire circumstances, the most loving thing to all parties to use pepper-spray, a stun-gun, or a taser, that means those objects must be carried on a person. So what’s the difference between carrying a stun-gun and carrying a handgun?

The difference, I submit, is in both intention and degree of severity. A stun-gun says that I wish to restrain the violent aggressor without seriously harming him or her. A handgun says that I will harm the violent aggressor however necessary in order to defeat them. The goal, however, is not to defeat one’s enemy but to love them and make peace with them. A handgun may forever destroy one’s chances of making peace with their enemy. A stun-gun merely restrains the person until further peacemaking can be done.

I believe that sometimes, in the direst of circumstances, it is permissible for a Christian to use a limited measure of physical force in order to restrain a violent person. I don’t think of this as “violence” because violence is physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill. It intends to overcome evil by fighting and defeating it. The Christian, however, should never intend to fight or defeat, but rather to love and make peace. Only when absolutely necessary should physical force be used, and only in order to restrain or temporarily impair.

The handgun does more than restrain or impair. Never forget that it is a weapon designed to maim or kill, and that is precisely what it does. Even if a bullet wound doesn’t kill a person, it will leave a lasting wound and a permanent scar. It may even leave the person disabled for life. We may be tempted to think that some people deserve nothing less. Consider the rapist: doesn’t he deserve to die or bear a lifelong wound for the lifelong wound he has undoubtedly caused?

Here we must return to the hard teaching of the New Testament not to retaliate or seek vengeance, for to do so would be to repay evil for evil. Even when everything in us cries out to hurt and destroy the one who has deeply hurt us or our loved ones or innocent strangers, we are taught to love, to have mercy, to make peace, to forgive. Though it may be the hardest thing we ever do, we Christians are called to respond to violent aggressors as Jesus did.

A Father and His Children

Christians are called to love our enemies and to make peace with them because God the Father does precisely this with us (Matt 5:9, 45; Luke 6:35, Rom 5:10). God doesn’t only love those who love him. God loves the whole world (John 3:16), even sinners (Rom 5:8).

So what does God feel when one of his beloved creatures violently attacks another? If a third creature intervenes in this conflict between two of God’s beloved creatures, how would God want him to handle it? Isn’t it obvious why God wants His children to be peacemakers?

Imagine if you were a father or mother, and one of your children comes home one night in a bad mood. Maybe they are drunk or high, or maybe they’ve been influenced by some hateful extremist, or maybe they are mentally disturbed. But in any case, you love them and you know their true worth as a human being. Imagine if that child of yours becomes violent and attacks another one of your children. What do you do? What is your instinctive reaction? Do you immediately go find the gun in the house and shoot your violent child?

No, of course not. No loving parent’s initial reaction is to harm their child, even if he or she is violent. Rather, I would imagine most loving parents would walk through each of the options of peacemaking above before resorting to violence, if they resorted to violence at all. In fact, there would be no greater display of love for that child than for the parent to sacrifice him or herself for the sake of saving his children—all his children, even the hostile one.

This, I believe, is why the author of Hebrews urges Christians to “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

May God grant us the strength to love and make peace with everyone —friend and enemy alike — with the same love and peace He has given us.