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Did Jesus Oppose Capitalism, as Moore Argues?
Would Jesus Christ - the founder of the largest religion in the world, unequivocally recognized as a messenger of peace and love - support capitalism?
It's one of the questions filmmaker Michael Moore, the well-known creator of documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine and Sicko, asks in his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story.
In Capitalism, the filmmaker wonders whether Christ would support a system that, as the filmmaker stated, "has allowed the richest one per cent to have more financial wealth than the 95 per cent under them combined."
Moore, a Roman Catholic, argues that Jesus' commandments to care for others and feed the poor and hungry go against the love of money and greed that make up capitalism. He argues that one cannot be a religious Christian and a capitalist.
Clement Mehlman, a Lutheran chaplain at Dalhousie University, agrees.
"Jesus was a Jewish peasant, coming from an underprivileged tradition Himself, so He would have been what we would call a communist or a socialist," he says. "And there are elements of communism in descriptions of early Christian communities. They pooled their resources. There was not independent wealth, there was communal wealth."
The idea that Christ preached a socialist message would probably scare some conservative believers, but Mehlman has no problem with that.
"Jesus says to follow Him, you have to give everything you own to the poor," he says with a wry smile. "How many Christians do you see doing that? It's a text that should be thrown at the wealthy fat cats."
While Mehlman does not see capitalism as being compatible with the Christian faith, Rev. Gary Thorne, an Anglican minister and chaplain with Dalhousie and the Canadian Forces Reserves, thinks Christians should take a second look at the system.
"There's nothing wrong with the free market system in itself," he says. "It's how it's used. I don't think there's anything inherently evil in the free market system, in supply and demand and the exchanging of goods."
He argues that the problem is not capitalism, but what people bring to it - in particular, greed and desire for wealth.
The intent of the heart is crucial in any system, Thorne says. For him, Jesus' message is not about the market system, but about the people who make up the market.
"If the poor are those who are opposed, marginalized, persecuted and forgotten, then clearly Jesus would have us look at these people, really look them in the eye, and be with them, not just write them a cheque."
He also draws upon church history, and the beliefs of the church's most important figures, in making his argument.
"Martin Luther, John Calvin, they were really clear. They were entirely in favour of a free market system."
He says leaders like Luther viewed it as motivation to work hard, both to earn an income and to please God.
But the most important part about acquiring wealth is the willingness to share it, Thorne says. And part of that sharing comes through paying taxes.
"Any Christian who says that we pay too much in taxes is just bonkers," he says. "They should want to give more of their money to taxes, so the government can use the money to take care of the poor."
Thorne believes the core of capitalism is working hard to acquire wealth, but that one should be willing to use the wealth to help others.
"If you acquire a great deal of wealth, you should be happy to be taxed at 75 per cent because you can live comfortably with the 25 per cent you keep."
While Mehlman thinks Jesus would question capitalism, and believes that the government cannot do the work of the church, Thorne sees no problem with a free market, but is in favour of the government raising taxes to fulfill the command to feed the poor.
Is there middle ground between the two?
Russell Daye, a minister at St. Andrew's United Church in Halifax, thinks so.
"I don't think Jesus was flat out opposed to capitalism," he says. "He lived in what can best be described as a free market, and He contributed to it. Economies back then worked with small pools of capital, which is literally what capitalism is. But what capitalism has become now is a system filled with greed that has proven it can't maintain itself."
Daye says that capitalism fails when greed takes precedence over compassion.
"Look at globalization. What we've seen with rampant, unchecked globalization is First World countries hurting the Second and Third Worlds, through child labour, destroying the environment and taking away land."
Daye says Jesus would never approve of that.
Then how should Christians respond to a system that is rampant with greed and lust for money?
Rev. Brad Close, a Christian Reformed minister, says they should try to avoid supporting it as much as possible.
"If someone wants to follow Christ, they have to realize where the money they spend is going," he says.
He encourages Christians to boycott large corporations that exploit workers or the environment, and suggests buying fairly traded products instead.
Those who claim to want to follow the teachings of Christ, but wilfully profit from an unjust system, need to realize the harm they are causing to community, he says.
"You need to come to a point where you realize what you're doing is wrong. In that case, change it from the inside, or get out. Those are the only two choices."
Ultimately, despite some disagreement among theologians, Moore's argument that Jesus opposed capitalism - at least, the money worshipping form of capitalism that has grown in his country - has found much support within the Christian community.
Even Pope Benedict XVI, in his most recent encyclical, condemned the greed-driven, free market systems that helped to cause the economic collapse. He also said people's attitudes towards money must change.
It appears that the ultra-progressive Moore may have finally found an opinion with which Christians agree.