A friend recently sent a YouTube clip of Phil Donahue interviewing Milton Friedman in 1979. Friedman was a leading economist who disputed some of the standard economic theories in the 20th Century. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976.
Friedman advocated a free market system with minimal federal regulation. Throughout the interview, Donahue, a political progressive, challenged his guest’s position. Donahue revealed his own political leanings in one of his questions. “When you see around the globe the maldistribution of wealth, the desperate plight of millions of people in underdeveloped countries, when you see so few haves and so many have-nots, when you see the greed and the concentration of power, did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed is a good idea to run on?”
Friedman responded, “Well, first of all, is there some society that you know that doesn’t run on greed?” He contended that every form of human society, including socialism and communism, operates on greed. He then asserted that the only cases in recorded history in which poverty was abated were in societies that promoted capitalism and free trade.
His understanding of greed emerges in this statement, “The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.” But what are these interests? They point to the drives natural to human life, such as self-preservation, security, love and meaning. The entrance of sin into human existence has contaminated all of these drives, or interests.
Greed, lexically, means an excessive desire for something. As it is normally used, greed usually refers to wealth. It is synonymous with covetousness. It refers to an inflated desire to pursue something beyond what is necessary to legitimately satisfy a person’s basic need. The more severe form of greed is avarice.
Both Friedman and Donahue acknowledge the distorted forms of greed in societies. They disagree on how to restrain this greed or how to correct the unjust consequences. Friedman keenly argues that the free market society eventually regulates human depravity. Donahue believes that the best way to achieve social equality is through government coercion.
This discussion may seem esoteric, reserved for those interested in economic or political theory. It actually plays a significant role in the Christian’s understanding of how to live in the world while remaining not of the world.
Jesus declared a marked contrast between his kingdom and every human system of social order, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) He called his followers to a standard of living that transcends all worldly systems of values and beliefs. With respect to power he said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord It over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Mark 10:42-43) With respect to wealth he taught, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
These instructions do not directly offer strategies for restructuring corrupted societies or for restraining greed in the social order. What he proposes is that the subjects of his kingdom practice a lifestyle that refuses to conform to the selfish habits of a kingdom where evil dominates every aspect of human existence.
The virtue that best harnesses greed is contentment. The guiding principle for our relationship to wealth is “…if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Timothy 6:8) Paul recognizes the basic human self-interest for self-preservation, but fixes a limit on its pursuit. He does not prohibit or denounce the accumulation of wealth, but calls for careful control of the desire for it.
Wealth can be used for good or it can be used for evil. It is never condemned in God’s order. In Jesus’ kingdom wealth should be generously shared with those who have needs. This is done voluntarily, not by bureaucratic coercion. Cheerful giving reflects the transcendent nature of the divine kingdom and those who live in it.
The compelling question is not whether Friedman or Donahue have the best answer to the ills of our society. Here’s the bigger question for those of us who profess to follow Christ: Are we managing our wealth (and resources and power) in a way that is noticeably different from the kingdom of the world? Are we distinguishing ourselves as belonging to a different social order than our neighbors who do not follow Christ?
Are you truly content with food and clothing? Let me ask it another way. Do you joyfully recognize God’s sovereign provision for your needs, or do you sullenly complain about what you don’t have? This question alone provides a litmus test to identify which kingdom most shapes your interests and habits.