Christopher Brooks is a Summit faculty speaker and author, economist, Christian apologist, and pastor in urban Detroit, Michigan. As a pastor who understands the power of God’s justice, he’s worked tirelessly to further the biblical worldview in his urban context, building healthy relationships between people of every race, nationality, and socio-economic class. With the riots in Ferguson, Mo., and the growing anger around race relations in the U.S., we thought this excerpt from Pastor Brooks’ recent book Urban Apologetics and his presentation at Summit’s 2014 Adult Conference would provide thoughtful insight into the issue.
Karl Marx, in The Communist Manifesto (originally published in 1848), summarized his narrative of the world by proclaiming that “the history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle.” 1 In another writing he goes on to declare war on religion, in particular Christianity, by asserting that “religion is the opium of the people.” 2 His writings convey a deep intelligence, certainly, but an even deeper hostility to religion. For Marx, God did not exist and thus could not rescue humanity. Yet he realized that humanity was flawed and that, as the great English historian Lord John Acton once observed, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 3 This means that man cannot be self-governed because our nature is corrupted and, given the opportunity, we will dominate one another and pursue personal success at the expense of the weak.
Marx and his socialist contemporaries realized the dilemma that they were trapped in: the vicious cycle of those with power enslaving those who lacked strength of voice or resources. So the answer for them was a just government that would force the rich to share their goods with the poor. In the socialist mind, the underlying assumption is that the wealthy have amassed their possessions through oppressive means and on the backs of the multitudes of working poor. Again, in the words of Marx, “The history of all … society is a history of class struggle.” If God is not an option for our salvation and we are haunted by the knowledge that we desperately need a savior, then we will turn to the state as our Messiah.
The problem with this solution is that humans run the state. There are no governments that are truly theocratic and free from the impulses and influences of corrupted human beings. So the history of socialism in every place it has been applied is that it has produced more oppression and poverty for those it aims to help. The stories of governments robbing their own people of the most basic necessities — of food, water, shelter — are told by countless millions who have been subjected to this form of flawed economics. Sadly, the predominant and most forceful approach to economic equality in urban communities has been shaped by Marxism. The rhetoric of most socially concerned politicians and community activists is laced with the speech of class warfare and the offer of an ever-growing government that will rescue individuals from their pain.
Not only is socialism a failed economic model, but it is also an attack against God. No longer are people encouraged to look to the Lord for their salvation; rather, they are told that God cannot help you, but government can. Without a doubt, government has its place, and we should all hope for righteous leaders who will act justly. However, we must guard ourselves from developing a governmental dependency. This risk is just as great for the rich as it is for the poor. Whenever we expect government to ensure outcomes instead of simply guaranteeing opportunities, we have replaced God and become dependents of the state, whether we are rich or poor.
So what is the solution? In my opinion no one speaks more eloquently and biblically on these issues than Father Robert Sirico, cofounder and president of the Acton Institute, and Dr. John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association. Both men have a profound understanding of the gospel and how the Christian worldview can produce economic shalom among the poor. Father Sirico is noted for his view that those who truly care about economic justice for the poor must ask themselves what type of economy would best help the poor. A bad economy will always produce bad results, especially for the financially powerless. In Sirico’s opinion, Christian capitalism has proven to be the most effective means for helping ensure financial freedom for all. He states, “Capitalism offers wide ownership of property, fair and equal rules for all, strict adherence to the rule of ownership, opportunities for charity, and the wise use of resources.” 4
To some this may sound naively optimistic, but Father Sirico spells out and explains his philosophy of the virtues of a market-based economic approach in his book Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. The underpinnings of his view on what makes an economy just and good is a right cosmology. Our cosmology is our belief on how the world has been created and the practical principles that should impact the way we live as a result of these beliefs. For Father Sirico, cosmology begins with the fact that an all-powerful and all-good God who has created the universe has also made man with intrinsic dignity and in His image. Therefore, a moral economy is built upon two pillars: first, cultivating humanity’s dependence upon God as creator and sustainer; second, a moral economy, which preserves a person’s intrinsic dignity by ensuring equality of opportunity, not equal outcomes.
Over time, wealth redistribution and one-way charity only cause people to feel incapable of providing for themselves. Dignity is derived from the right to enjoy the happiness that comes from earned success. True prosperity and empowerment come when a person is given equal access to education, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities, and is allowed to achieve based upon one’s own hard work and ingenuity. I am not advocating for a rugged individualism, rather a community that shows its compassion by ensuring that everyone will have the right to learn and work. I am also mindful of the balanced admonishment found in Galatians 6:2-5, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. … But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” Notice the way the apostle Paul balances the call for Christians to advocate for a compassionate community that acts justly by helping those who are in a weakened or vulnerable condition, while at the same time discouraging an unhealthy reliance on others by upholding the responsibility we each have for self-sufficiency. As apologists who care deeply about a world that is socially just, these are the things we should fight for. We should oppose any barrier that limits a person’s ability to be educated and employed. But we should also stand against the type of toxic charity that creates generation after generation of government dependency. A governmental policy that curbs a person’s affluence by forcing the reallocation of their hard-earned income is both unbiblical and unhelpful to the poor.
I realize that for some this sounds an awful lot like the greedy capitalism that produced the 2008 economic collapse. Suffice it to say that any approach to economics can go terribly off course and become harmful when selfishness rules the day. The only remedy is for Christians to promote an economic model that doesn’t lose sight of God. My assumption is that a person who produces and manages wealth with the full awareness that she was created by a moral God and will one day have to give an account to Him on how she used the resources that He blessed her with will behave more honorably and mercifully. She will also be a more careful steward of her money, even her charitable giving, making sure that she is investing in the people and projects that will have the greatest impact on humanity for the glory of God. This type of financial vision has great potential for helping the poor rise out of poverty and the rich to voluntarily distribute their wealth to causes that will bring about justice for all. Father Sirico said it best: “Capitalism, rightly understood and pursued, has lifted untold millions out of abject poverty and allowed them to use skills and talents they would never have discovered, and to build opportunities their grandparents never dreamed were possible. The free economy is a dream worthy of our spiritual imaginations.” 5
The Power of Applied Compassion
Having much in common with Father Sirico philosophically, Dr. John Perkins challenges us even further in the area of application. As a man who came back to Mississippi after leaving and finding success in California, Dr. Perkins has dedicated his life to transforming broken communities with the love of Christ and effective compassion. Unfortunately, he has found that many Christians are guilty of giving lip service to justice but being unwilling to roll up their sleeves in tangible ways. To cure this, he has established certain core values that govern the Christian Community Development Association, one of which is a commitment to “relocation.” 6 This is simply a recognition of the fact that one of the greatest challenges in our urban communities is the escapism that has led many to leave the inner city in search of success, thereby creating a vacuum of leadership. Perkins encourages Christians to move into and to work in the poorest communities in America. He is convinced that our presence will bring about transformation from the inside out. But it will never be accomplished if we continue to operate with an “arm’s length” mentality.
If we were to summarize the methods of these two voices for justice, we would say that economic freedom for the poor can only be achieved in a free economy where gifted leaders are committed to living among those whom they serve and advocating for fairness in opportunities for education, employment, and entrepreneurship. Our willingness to embrace this philosophy as urban apologists will produce results and overcome any barrier that attempts to limit the credibility of our message. Our examination of the major ethical, religious, and social challenges to the gospel has revealed that in order to be an effective witness for Christ, we must embody the truth that we believe and never shy away from giving an answer to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that lies within us! And this we will do with gentleness and respect.