“Guns don’t kill people; people do,” goes the slogan of Second Amendment defenders. On the surface, this is at least partly true—firearms generally do require human hands and wills to fulfill their purposes—though critics will rightly note that the bumper sticker argument hides deeper truths about gun accidents, corporate profits, machismo, racism, classism, and policymakers’ desires for reelection. Still, some guns can be used for good purposes, others for evil; they must be treated individually. I am here going to attempt a possibly foolish thought experiment (especially for a proponent of gun control and, until recently, an unflinching enemy of the market) and draw an analogy between guns and markets.

Markets, like guns, can be viewed as instruments used by humans; they are not-entirely-neutral means to other ends. The purpose of some markets is human flourishing; of others, selfish greed. You hear it coming: Markets don’t exploit people; people do.

You will note that I am using the plural term “markets” rather than “the market” or the broader, more loaded word, “capitalism.” This is a deliberate choice and one that is necessary if knee-jerk Christian liberals like me are going to be able to take a more complex look at 21st-century economics. Speaking of “the market” in the singular implies the presence of a monolith, an impervious and impersonal machine over which humans have no control, and within which there can be no variation. Such an image stifles creative critical engagement by unwisely privileging the traditional voices of neoliberalism.

Feminist economist Julie Nelson has recently published a brief but marvelous work in which she challenges the dominant metaphor of the market system as “machine” and offers a new metaphor: the market as “beating heart,” a living entity that requires blood and oxygen for good health, rather than an automatic and impersonal hunk of mechanical technology.1 Nelson’s shift allows markets and economies to be measured according to how healthy they are in human terms, instead of assuming that “the market” is always and everywhere the same, in 1776 as in 2007, in Chile as in post-Cold War Russia.

Just as feminists and others working from the margins call into question monolithic terms like “orthodoxy” or “virtue” or “the church” (terms which often hide an individualistic and privileged norm), so must anyone with a genuine interest in liberation and human flourishing be willing to move beyond the apparently all-encompassing, apparently self-evident evil of “capitalism” (or “globalization” or “Marxism” for that matter) and allow for more particular analyses of diverse models.2

Particularity is, of course, the enemy of those who aim for universal applicability of their narratives—neoliberal economists, among others; but this is no longer the only face of economics. Men with brown faces (though still no women) have won Nobel prizes for their efforts in economic development.3 Empiricism is making a comeback; assumptions hold less sway than they used to. Christian ethicists who wish to engage in discussion with economic thinkers can look beyond the dominant paradigm. We need not throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater, the wheat with the weeds.

If we treat them plurally, markets, we must admit, vary in degrees of goodness. Markets in crack cocaine, child pornography, or sexual slavery are evils by almost anyone’s standard because they destroy human health and wholeness. Markets in food, shelter, and clothing, on the other hand, are generally received as positive developments. Who among us, after all, wants to be required to act as farmer, chef, cleaner, builder, wood-chopper, weaver, seamstress, gestator, and caregiver of children all at the same time? This list does not even touch on luxuries like entertainment—the person working to provide all the necessities of her own life certainly has no time or energy left over for music, comedy, art, poetry, video games, or film.

The person who does not exist by division of labor does not exist this side of Eden; and it’s really not fair to compare, for example, modern Minnesotans to Adam and Eve in the beginning, since the latter didn’t need clothes and didn’t have to cultivate or freeze food in order to eat all year long. (Plus there were only two of them; Minnesota, by contrast, was up to almost 5 million people as of the 2000 census).

The much-maligned Adam Smith was correct to pinpoint the division of labor among the most fundamental acts of human society, as well as among the kindest things humans could do for one another. True, Smith wrote that in market transactions, “we address ourselves, not to [the neighbor’s] humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.”4

But this is not a dismissal of benevolence altogether; if we read Smith’s second great work in light of his first, it becomes clear that his musings on self-love and the division of labor are to be interpreted in light of his earlier thoughts on tradition-formed human sympathies.5 Stripped of its Dickensian caricature, Smith’s idea of a market is simply a relationship between people who need each other. Jane needs bread, Jamal needs wool, Jin needs bricks; they trade among themselves in a way that saves each of them a lot of effort and that benefits them all. Moreover, this trading creates an interdependent community built on virtue. At least ideally, markets—even when currency is substituted for bread or wool—are a win-win, not an antagonistic zero-sum situation, as many of us tend to think.6

Of course ideals are just that, and evil markets do exist. Most markets in the real world, however, tend to fall somewhere in the grey area between good and evil. They are the media by which moderately well-off, educated, responsible and well-intentioned Christians (you know who you are) acquire objects of ambivalence, such as organic food, liberal arts educations, modest homes, Italian wine, the internet, comfortable or even fashionable shoes, air conditioning, jogging strollers, or beds. These are items that most of us not only enjoy (or hope to enjoy someday) but—let’s be honest—believe we cannot live without, even if we feel somewhat sheepish about them.

Our careers in academia also make things awkward for those of us who wish to critique the system; our work reading and writing books and training other people to read and write books depends largely upon the support of folks at work in markets other than the education market. The love-hate relationship between the Christian intelligentsia and the market systems under which we labor could be compared to a love-hate relationship between child and parent, or religious reformer and religious tradition—the markets in which we’ve been raised and formed have made us what we are, and yet they have also given us the conceptual and practical tools by which we can recognize their flaws and try to change them.

Take, for example, the observation that all human relationships can be read as markets of sorts. If this makes you cringe, you can feel justified. “The market,” as it’s been handed down to us for the past several decades—that is, based on the monstrous antihero, “economic man”—is a wicked paradigm indeed.

More than one economist has compared marriage to prostitution: sex-sellers, normally women, offer exclusive sex privileges on an open market in exchange for money, homes, and other material gains acquired from sex-buyers, usually men.

Others have compared the love between parents and children to a self-interested investment plan, in which people have children and raise them in particular ways based on what they hope to get out of them in the future; children, in turn, learn how to manipulate their parents so as to get what they want.

In scenarios like these, self-interest is seen as trumping love as the defining characteristic of “the market”; there’s no point in arguing for other motivations because the economists have already demonstrated that human society is constituted by self-interest alone.7 These arguments bother us because they hit close to home (whoever considered marriage without thinking about the pluses and minuses of binding ourselves to a particular person for life? who among us with children did not weigh the costs and benefits of such an undertaking?), but they should be taken as a call to make our cost-benefit analyses explicit and examine them, rather than pretend we don’t have them.

The thoughtful children of markets know that utility is not a necessary way of narrating human relationships, or even economies. Theologians, ethicists, and economists who wish to do so are free to redefine markets in more humane terms. An excellent example of this is the first installment of Deirdre McCloskey’s magnum opus, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.8 McCloskey is an “insider” in that she is a convinced libertarian economist, but she is also a philosopher, a historian, and a Christian, thus giving her a more nuanced and complex view of market behaviors than many economists allow themselves. She argues that all of the virtues—not only prudence but also courage, justice, temperance, and even the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love—are necessary to real capitalism, both as it is and in its ideal form. Capitalism as she sees it is not primarily a system of competition but rather of cooperation.

Like Smith, McCloskey insists that well-functioning markets depend upon people who are sympathetic to their neighbors (faith, hope, justice, and love), even while they are being creative in their solutions to their own economic needs and wants (prudence, courage, temperance). In this scenario—in stark contrast to capitalism’s well-earned “dismal” reputation—a market governed solely by self-interest is a perversion rather than the norm. In other words, with regard to my earlier example, family relationships are not to be likened to markets; instead markets could be likened to families. Capitalism for McCloskey is not merely a pragmatic least-of-evils; it actually has virtue built into it, as both requirement and consequence.

Thus, market economies are threatening to the Christian life only when interpreted according to a strictly utilitarian model. Such interpretation is favored by some on both the right and left, as McCloskey makes clear. (Her intended audience is the “clerisy,” intellectuals on both the right and left, some of whom find “bourgeois virtues” oxymoronic because the bourgeoisie is clearly evil; others of whom find it oxymoronic because the bourgeoisie requires no ethics in order to be bourgeois).9 But Christian ethicists are free to re-imagine markets according to new norms, and to judge them according to their particulars.

A market can indeed be built on a mix of duty, gratitude, and neighbor love, such as the philanthropic sector (a very large market in this selfish country of ours, which cannot be cynically reduced to the hobby of robber barons or lazy beggars).10 A market can be based on a mix of courage, love, and fear, such as the markets for suicide bombers, soldiers, or private elementary schools. A market can be based on perverted appetites and an utter lack of human sympathy, such as the child sex trade or sales of harmful substances to self-destructively addicted people. A market can reflect a mix of love, hope, and desperation, such as markets in fertility technologies or adoption. Though prudence is undoubtedly a factor in all of these markets, none of them need be boiled down to self-interest alone; they certainly should not all be painted with the same brush.

This wiggle room for both good and evil in the marketplace seems to be what Daniel Bell is getting at when he argues that “the alternative to capitalism [the kingdom of God] has already appeared, even if it is not yet present in its fullness.”11 Christians seek to live in contexts in which “human desire is being healed of its capitalist distortions,” especially the unbalanced self-interest that dominant theories of capitalism prescribe.

The kingdom of God is, of course, not an economic system per se (at least not one that any theologian-economist has yet persuasively described). It is rather a way of narrating one’s identity and one’s behavior according to an alternative logic and within an alternative context. The earthly city does not exhaust the possibilities of the heavenly city, such that Bell’s economic prescription, “Works of Mercy,” can be performed equally well under capitalism and communism.

McCloskey is right to remind Christians, however, that basing an economic system on love without the guidance of the other virtues is a dangerous game indeed. A work of mercy is not merciful, regardless of one’s intentions, if it lacks prudence or justice.

Another astute critic of capitalism, D. Stephen Long, concedes (quoting Fleischacker) that, “If this [‘a plethora of small, independent trades that fit into one another without deliberation’] is Smith’s vision, I think I could affirm it.”12 And indeed, this is what capitalism—again, speaking ideally—is about: individuals and groups working out relationships (markets) that benefit all parties involved.

But we know that this does not always describe markets as they actually are, and markets deserve critique and even intervention when they don’t live up to the ideal. People do sometimes steal from one another, cheat or lie to one another, make deals that hurt third parties, or take more than their share. But an important thing to note is that economists have ethically-laden terms for these things—to wit, “theft,” “externalities,” and “rent-seeking”—that indicate their deviance from even the competitive ideal.13

Even the most anti-sentimental economist does not envision an economy based on greed, lies, and a disregard for human dignity. Mandeville’s grumbling hive was quickly cast aside by economic thinkers as early as Smith, though for some reason it remains alive among critics, as reconstituted in the oft-quoted words of the pop everycapitalist: “Greed is good.”14

R.T. Peters rightly argues that “transformation of globalization [and, we might add, capitalism] does not require the elimination of business, or markets, or even corporations…What it does require is a metamorphosis of corporate self-identity in ways that reflect the moral norms” of justice and human flourishing.15

It’s time to get concrete about “third ways” (again in the plural) between the stereotypical extremes of spirit-crushing capitalism and imagination-crushing communism. Living in the “already but not yet” means that Christians must focus on what we, ourselves, can do, even amidst a broken world.

Quixotic attacks on a generalized capitalism can give way to fruitful interactions with particular markets and market behaviors, starting with our own and moving outward—especially with an eye toward the coercive externalities they may visit on our neighbors near and far. We must get up off the communion rail and bear witness to the “kin-dom” of God in small acts such as writing to our elected representatives about justice for migrant workers, supporting news sources that aim to reflect the truth, foregoing meat from factory farms or fresh blueberries in November, or buying carbon credits to offset the last flight we took to an annual meeting.

With God’s help, such humble acts may lead us into bolder ones. It’s not enough to sit at our marketed computers in our market-sponsored offices writing marketable books and articles about how bad “the market” is. Like “the church,” the market is people. Our economic task is to create and support just markets, while crying out against and divesting from unjust markets.

This takes effort and patience. If we hope to affect positive change, we must educate ourselves. We need to know about economic theories, understanding their assumptions and tendencies in order to compare them to Christian faiths and practices. If its reigning model tends to encourage domination of some by others, a theory most likely has a fatal flaw.17

But we must also learn about history, paying attention to the past as well as to what’s going on around us, educating ourselves in empirical evidence about economic practices and their effects. Is outsourcing necessary, and if so, does it have to be traumatic and brutal, or can it be done in a way that is beneficial to workers and communities? Does raising the minimum wage actually hurt the poor, as economists like to argue, or does history prove the model incorrect?18

Economic theory and history are intertwined; Christian critics who ignore one or both will find ourselves stuck in the coffee shop or the classroom wishing for justice, while corporate interests maintain the appearance of free reign in the marketplace.

Capitalism is not the Christian’s enemy, not only because there is more than one theory of markets (some more humane than others) but also because none of these theories is embodied in any pure way. Certain nations’ laws and policies approximate more or less closely the ideal of ‘perfect competition’ and ‘free markets’ favored by growth-driven economists (or the model of justice favored by Christians), but this doesn’t change the fact that capitalism is, like any other story, open to critique, reinterpretation, and reimagination.

As a Christian, I doubt that the kin-dom of God can accommodate the traditional baggage of “capitalism” and its presumed antagonism. Indeed, as Kathryn Tanner notes, this image of capitalism seems to be Christianity’s exact opposite.19

But God’s redeemed creation does not preclude the presence of markets based on the division of labor, forward-thinking behavior, or human cooperation. Community-building markets do exist in our homes, towns, churches and nations, where people with various gifts and capacities find ways to make exchanges that create mutual benefit. With increasing education and consciousness, these markets could be harnessed so as to alleviate the negative externalities to which they give rise. With added imagination they might even benefit those not directly involved in exchanges—the earth as well as its human inhabitants. Because markets are organisms rather than machines, the goodness of a market depends entirely on its participants.

In short, markets don’t benefit people; with God’s help, people do.


1. Julie A. Nelson, Economics for Humans (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
2. Rebecca Todd Peters, for example, recognizes and describes not one but four possible theories about globalization, distinguishing them in order to be able to critique them more fairly, thereby opening up space for a plurality of new markets, corporations, and economic systems reflective of “the values of democratizing power, caring for the planet, and attending to the social well-being of people.” In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization (New York: Continuum, 2004), 193.
3. I am thinking here of Amartya Sen of India, winner of the 1998 Prize in Economics, and Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, founder of Grameen Bank, winner of the 2006 Peace Prize. See http://nobelprize.org/index.html.
4. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 22.
5. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
6. Julie Nelson argues persuasively that money is not an external measure of value that insinuates itself into human interactions; it is rather a socially-created symbol of appreciation.Economics for Humans, 69.
7. This is not the only scientific view available to us, however. Neuroeconomists and behavioral economists are busy demonstrating that humans often choose against self-interest, for reasons that still baffle those who wish to leave ethics out of the discussion. See A.M. Kaushik Basu, “The Traveler’s Dilemma,” Scientific American, June 2007, 90-95, and Michael Shermer, “The Prospects for Homo Economicus,” Scientific American, July 2007, 40-42.
8. Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006). I suspect most Christian ethicists who read it will find themselves (like me) aching for her fourth installment, yet to be written, in which she promises to address specific critiques of capitalism on issues such as greed, poverty, wage slavery, waste, and environmental destruction.
9. Ibid., 5-6.
10. According to the Urban Institute, “the nonprofit sector accounts for 5.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 8.3 percent of wages and salaries paid in the United States. While these figures shed light on the size and scope of the sector, a complete picture cannot be obtained without considering two critical components of the sector, voluntarism and charitable giving. In 2005, individuals, corporations, and foundations gave $260 billion in charitable contributions to nonprofits and 29 percent of Americans volunteered through a formal organization.” While not all of this can be chalked up to virtue, it would be equally unfair to insist that it is all about self-interest. See http://www.urban.org/publications/311373.html.
11. Daniel Bell, “What is Wrong with Capitalism? The Problem with the Problem with Capitalism,” The Other Journal, Issue 5: Capitalism (https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=55).
12. D. Stephen Long, “The Theology of Economics: Adam Smith as ‘Church’ Father”, The Other Journal, Issue 5: Capitalism (https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=51).
13. Albino Barrera has a brilliant book on the coercive effects of unintended market consequences, in which he argues that just economic systems must expect and take rehabilitative action in response to these so-called “externalities.” Economic Compulsion and Christian Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
14. Bernard Mandeville, Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714). The grumbling hive metaphor is often mistakenly used interchangeably with Smith’s “invisible hand,” though Smith’s system does not, in fact, rely on vice but rather functions properly only among sympathy-shaped people who do not give into every viscious instinct they have. “Greed is good” comes from the mouth of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) character, Gordon Gekko, loosely based on a 1986 commencement speech by Ivan Boesky, a financier, at the Business School of the University of California, Berkeley.
15. Peters, 198.
16. A recent book designed for congregational discussion groups offers some concrete ways for people to start acting upon their desires to live justly and love mercy, both individually, in communities, and in the public sphere. “Kin-dom” is a term, coined by A.M. Isasi-Díaz, which the editors use in place of the more hierarchical “kingdom”. Pamela K. Brubaker, Rebecca Todd Peters, and Laura A. Stivers, eds., Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 3.
17. Barker and Feiner note that feminist economics aims deliberately not to justify the value system behind the status quo of domination and subordination, frequently upheld by traditional economics, thus opening a door for theologians who wish to engage in economic conversations. Drucilla K. Barker and Susan F. Feiner, Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work, and Globalization (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 18.
18. Economist Jay Corrigan concedes that historical evidence has not shown most employers to be particularly sensitive to wage hikes, but goes on to argue that wage hikes (paid for only by consumers and employers, received by all wage workers including wealthy teenage part-timers) are, both practically and theoretically, a less effective way of improving the lot of the poor than the earned income tax credit (paid for by all taxpayers, received by those working adults in need of wage supplements.) “Burning Question: Will it help or hurt to increase the minimum wage?” Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, 29:4, Spring/Summer 2007, 41.
19. Tanner argues that capitalism today provides many of the world’s presumptions and practices; thus Christian theology in the 21st century will contest capitalism, offering noncompetitive forms of exchange in the place of competition, grace in the place of just desserts, and plenitude in the place of scarcity. Economy of Grace (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005). If market systems are reimagined, however, as systems of cooperation rather than competition, then theologians might have to look elsewhere to figure out what we are not.