Compassion or Guilt?

Sometimes, it’s difficult to discern many of the principles found in scripture. Honest Christians oftentimes look at an issue, or they’ll hear a convincing argument based on ideas like compassion and justice, and are attracted to them. Many of the truths seem to disagree with what we believe to be fair, like spanking children, but in the end, we must hold to the truth that it is scripture that defines what is right and wrong, and not our whimsical tastes.

The PCA web magazine, By Faith Online recently posted an article by Denis Haack entitled Low Prices at a High Cost?. In this article, Mr. Haack argues that our natural desire to find the lowest prices may be “unjust”, and perhaps even violate our moral duty to love our neighbor.

The author doesn’t immediately jump into economics, but starts out by challenging Christians to consider scripture outside the typical modern boundaries of “simply” saving our souls. I heartily agree with his opening sentence, that “[t]he need [to] be discerning as Christians is not limited to certain topics, but must be pursued into every nook and cranny of our lives.” I’m thankful that he’s chosen to acknowledge scripture as the foundation for all moral issues, and it makes these discussion a bit less frustrating, since we are both agree to begin with a foundation of truth.

He also challenges us to consider whether what we think are “common sense” morals are really based on scripture, or instead developed from our fallen cultural assumptions. He correctly chastizes Christians who consider themselves “liberal or conservative”, and challenges them instead to be Biblical. With this challenge I strongly agree! Since we’ve established that common ground, we can now proceed to critique his interpretation of Scripture, and see whether he has correctly presented the truth.

After his strong challenge, he brings up the main assumption he would like to consider. He writes, “One cultural assumption that seems so self-evident as to be beyond question is the notion that finding the lowest price for a product is always the best strategy.” In a nutshell, his assumption is one of the basic notions of capitalism. The price of an item is one of the major factors in deciding which item to purchase. With little exception, a capitalistic economy has been considered “compatible” with Christian economics, if not synonymous. Haack’s statement that capitalism is an assumption, then, is probably correct.

Haack then proceeds to challenge the assumption. First, he states that Christians “may not be able to find a text of Scripture which directly teaches it”, but does go on to refer to Biblical statements on stewardship. It seems evident that he is running into some strong princples. He answers with a strong challenge:

[I]n a fallen world, brokenness permeates the economic system in which we live as readily as it permeates every other sphere of cultural life. Is it possible in a fallen world for the lowest price to come, at least at times, at too high a cost? Can the lowest price ever be unjust?

In other words, sin has infected everything in the world, so could it not infect our desire to seek low prices? At first glance, I would answer, “yes”. The sin of covetousness, and our desire to pay less for items can clearly lead to sin. Our desire to own certain items can lead us to steal, depriving their rightful owner of their use. In 1 Kings 21, we see the sin that can come from desiring “the lowest price.” Ahab, the king, wanted a vineyard that belong to another man, Naboth. Naboth refused to sell, and the king’s covetousness led to the him arranging for Naboth to be killed.

However, Haack’s question was not about sin that can come as a result of seeking the lowest price. In this case, Haack argues that sometimes seeking the lowest price itself can lead to “injustice”, and, by inference, sinful.

Haack then goes into a long paragraph describing the economic workings of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world. For some reason, though, his argument becomes very “United States-centric”, as he describes how Wal-Mart’s goal of lower prices forces their vendors to then lower their prices because they can’t compete with overseas business. He then infers that such competition, a basic element of capitalism, leads to “social injustice”.

At this point, I wasn’t able to follow the author’s logic. While I agree that the economic climate in the U.S. compared to many nations around the world makes manufacturing in the U.S. uncompetative, the factors that lead to this issue are much more complex than simply blaming Wal-Mart’s desire for low prices.

One major problem that I see with Haack’s argument is that he assumes that American Christians have more of a right to prosperity and social justice than foreign Christians. The author states that Wal-Mart’s business practices are “helping accelerate the loss of American jobs to low-wage countries such as China.” While this may be bad for American jobs, why isn’t this good for Christians around the world? According to these figures, the average salary in China is around $7,000/year, while in the United States, the average salary is around $37,000/year. The fact that China can produce goods at a lower price will cause more work to flow there. This will then increase demand, causing increased wages, and increased prices. The money and jobs will flow to China and India for a while, but just as capitalism started that flow, capitalism will lead to the equilibrium that will slow that flow. This flow is causing an increase in fairness and justice, not a decrease.

I would hope that as Christians consider the issues, they truly consider their Christian brothers around the world, and the solutions to the poverty that exists worldwide. The solution lies not in Messianic government programs, or in “fair value” coffee beans, but in trusting in the principles that God places in his Word, “Thou Shalt Not Steal”.

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