Monday, February 11, 2008 • 9:25 AM Comments (1)

Justice in Capitalism and Monotheistic Religions

posted by John Hill



Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and capitalism share a theme with immense potential power to protect against extremism; that theme is social-economic justice.

Ancient Judaism had the idea of a Jubilee year when the playing field would be leveled. The Jewish prophets were absolutely clear in their condemnation of injustice. Christianity shares the Golden Rule with other major religions and it has the principle of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Also, Jesus’ persistent concern for the poor demonstrated a strong sense of justice. Assuming that most readers of this blog are already somewhat familiar with the importance of justice in Judaism and Christianity, but are less familiar with Islam, allow me to write a bit more about that religion.

Justice is central in Islam. Muhammad lived in Mecca at a time of socio-economic tension as commercial values replaced Bedouin Arab community values. The message he delivered was a direct assault on socio-economic inequities in Mecca. Thus, it is no surprise that justice is repeatedly emphasized in the Koran (as presented in Kenneth Cragg’s translation). There are many references to caring for orphans, widows and the destitute. The religious duty, Zakat, almsgiving, is so important that it is one of the five pillars of Islam. Usury and other forms of dealing with people fraudulently or deceptively are condemned time and again.

Prohibition of interest has been difficult to apply in the modern world but it gives a loan, for example a mortgage, a different feel in Muslim nations than in non-Muslim countries. Interest-free loans in Muslim finance are connections between human beings, in contrast to the depersonalized derivative packages of contemporary capitalist finance. In Surah 2, the Koran states that, if a “debtor is in difficult circumstances,” it would be best for the lender to “remit the debt as a free act of charity.” People often do not live up to their religious ideals but ideals do have an impact on the nature of socio-economic systems. We might not want to go as far as interest-free loans; however, given the current subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, we might want to investigate the value of having a connection between lender and borrower, rather than dismiss the concept.

Surah 5 emphasizes the importance of justice: “Believers! Be resolute in your allegiance to God, staunch witnesses for justice. On no account let hatred against any people cause you to be perverted from what is just. Deal justly. To do so is the nearest thing to the fear of God.” Surah 53 states that God will punish evil-doers and reward those who do good. Those who are not avaricious will truly prosper, according to Surah 64. Surah 92 criticizes the miser, the person who lives only for himself. In short, it would be very difficult to overemphasize the importance of social-economic justice in Islam.

The justice theme could rescue capitalism from itself. But, you protest, where is the justice in capitalism? That is a fair question, given the casino capitalism that has replaced democracy in the United States with free trade neomercantilism (power for the wealthy and interest groups). I argued in a previous blog (Capitalism with Justice: A Hippocratic Oath for Free Market Capitalism?) that Adam Smith advocated natural liberty with justice, not savage capitalism. So, ironically, I am suggesting that capitalism be restored to its roots.

The cynic might reasonably respond that Smith’s ideal of capitalism with justice has never been practiced. I cannot think of a concrete example of a society that practices (or practiced) capitalism with justice. Sadly, the same criticism can be leveled at the monotheistic religions; more often than not there has been a huge gap between the ideal of justice and socio-economic reality in those religions.

Am I, then, naïve even to suggest this? I think not. There are developments in recent Christian thought and practice which are promising. Socio-economic justice was, indeed, virtually ignored throughout much of Christian history. However, since the late 19th Century there have been papal encyclicals and pastoral letters from bishops groups in the United States that have made clear statements of Catholic social justice positions. Similarly, many Protestants early in the 20th Century supported the Social Gospel movement, with some denominations maintaining a clear justice stance into the 21st century. One cannot ignore the role of people of faith, Jewish and Christian, in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Many evangelical Protestants still seem insensitive to justice, but some evangelicals seem to be developing greater social consciousness. Judaism has long had a strong social-justice emphasis. I do not know if there are similar stirrings of social justice in Islam but I think an ecumenical justice movement of people of the monotheistic faiths could be established and would be a powerful force.

Ah, but the cynic responds that capitalism is more powerful. I surely must be naïve to think that it could be so fundamentally changed.

Not at all, unless it is naïve to believe in democracy. Capitalism in the United States has been inoculated against democratic control in recent decades by the ideology of greed, masquerading as laissez-faire. I would be naïve if I thought this change could be accomplished quickly. Great democratic projects often take decades (remember that it was 72 years between the Seneca Falls Convention and suffrage for women in the United States.) Just as the suffragettes persisted against great opposition, an alliance of people of faith to secure social-economic justice could have the persistence necessary for success.

Fine, the cynic responds; this might be a great project for religious do-gooders. But the world is run by highly motivated, self-interested individuals.

I admit that that is indeed true today. However, those self-interested individuals do not appear to have a solution to one vexing issue threatening Muslims, Christians, Jews, and capitalists alike: terrorism. Rescuing capitalism from itself would reduce the appeal of such extremist groups. Natural liberty with justice would eliminate economic imperialism, one of the most important recruiting agents for extremists. This is not a do-gooder project; this would attack a root cause of terrorism.







Comments (1)
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Prof. Hill, Great blog post. I do think there's some promise in today's growing movement (inspired by Jim Wallis and others) to rally people of faith behind issues of justice and peace, and the accompanying efforts to promote congregation-based community organizing (see http://www.thedartcenter.org/community.html). Here in Charlottesville, VA, there is a young but very active interfaith social action group that has mobilized thousands of area residents from a diverse variety of congregations (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, etc.) to speak out on behalf of the working poor in our community. If movements like these take hold and sustain themselves, perhaps we will someday see the evolution of a more socially-conscious economic order in this country. I also think it's notable that Gov. Huckabee has been criticized so heavily by some economic conservatives for not adopting their dogmatic, adversarial position toward immigrants, the poor and the oppressed. He is about as evangelical as you can get, and for him that means taking the Bible at its word when it commands justice and mercy for the disadvantaged.
Posted by DaveNorris on 2.14.08 at 5:07
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