Christians, don't buy investment products based on a religious shame sell

Unsplash/John-Mark Smith
Unsplash/John-Mark Smith

In Mark's Gospel Jesus' disciples are confronted about not washing their hands before eating after coming from the marketplace.

"And the Pharisees and some of the scribes…had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed."

Mark 7

We see later that the issue was not just lack of washing, but specifically after coming from the marketplace. "…and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves".

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The word translated as "impure" is "koine", literally "common". In other words, the charge is not literally that those who were failing to wash their hands had actually touched something impure, such as a dead body, the charge is that they were touching things in common with other people. That is, simply being in the marketplace rendered one in need of cleansing whether or not there was actually any evidence of contamination.

The pharisaical reasoning was that in the marketplace one might touch something impure with the hands, and then bring that impurity from the marketplace to the dinner table. If one had touched something impure, then that impurity attached itself to the hands, and then the impurity transferred to the food when it was touched. When the defiled food was eaten, the man was also defiled. To avoid all this, hand washing was necessary.

This reasoning also demanded the washing of cups, pots and other housewares (which Mark describes with the Greek word we translate as "baptize"). The washing of hands is done in a manner that some translations render as "carefully", but literally it means with "fists". What does it mean to cleanse with fists? Translators in the past have struggled with that. That's because Christians were often not familiar with Jewish ritual practices. Rabbis such as Daniel Boyarin have pointed out that Mark's account matches Jewish ritual practices of handwashing and further suggests that Mark may well be making a point about the combative posture of the ritual (our word ‘pugnacious’ is related to the same Greek word used by Mark for the manner of washing). In other words, Jesus' critics were washing "with fists" and “baptizing” their food implements to cleanse away the impurity of the marketplace.

Jesus did not nibble around the edges of the Pharisees' flawed thinking: he cut to the heart of the problem. Their understanding of holiness was backwards, "there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man." In other words, we do not pick up defilement from the marketplace. If we are defiled, it is something we took into the marketplace with us, not something we picked up there. We are not rendered sinful by those with whom we associate, including those with whom we conduct commerce.

This pharisaical approach can be found in the modern Church in numerous places, including in the marketing of religious investment funds that are sold based on the idea that investing in the marketplace in general is sinful, and the solution is to buy funds which are cleansed of such sinful associations. Recently I spoke at a conference of Christian financial professionals and discussed Jesus' teaching in Mark 7 about the nature of holiness. I was approached afterward by someone who works for a company that sells investments which practice sin-screening. He claimed that those who do not invest this way are "participating in sin". I noticed that while we were chatting he held his iPhone in his hand, but he argued against Christians owning Apple stock: since people can download pornography on their iPhones Apple investors have benefited from sin and therefore are participating in it. I asked him why it is wrong for me to own Apple stock, but not for him to own an Apple product. He argued that that stock ownership is participating in the sin. But is it really participating in sin to own Apple stock, but not the phone? Buying a stock provides no direct benefit to the company but buying a phone does. Apple advertises its phones, not its stock, because sales of phones are revenues for the company and sales of stock are not. Buying stock in public markets is almost always a matter of paying the previous owner of the stock, not paying the company, but revenues from the sale of products actually make the activities of a company possible. Porn-downloading apps, book selling apps which discriminate against certain religious views, a corporate culture which supports legislation that weakens religious liberty: these things are done with the proceeds of iPhones, Mac computers and various apps, they are not financed through stock ownership.

Please don't misunderstand: there is nothing morally wrong with owning an iPhone (though there is definitely something morally wrong with downloading pornography on one), because it's not a sin to do business with sinners. There is no need to cleanse your hands from holding one, because the sins of others that we deal with in the marketplace do not transfer to us and we are not defiled by ingesting the benefits we get there.

For whatever reason, this young man feels no remorse at buying and using an iPhone, at organizing his life around it so thoroughly that he holds it in his hand even as he tells me I am sinning if I own stocks in the company which makes and sells it. Of course, a cynic might notice that getting through life without owning any technology that comes from companies which “don’t align with our values” is a significant sacrifice of convenience, but that using moral shame to sell religiously themed investment products, and charging fees to do so, does not involve a sacrifice. Quite to the contrary, it is a rapidly growing market niche.

The theological presuppositions that lie at the root of shaming investors for not cleansing their portfolio are the same as those used to attack Jesus in Mark 7. Both use legalism to monetize religious guilt. There are right ways to promote screened products: as Paul taught in the controversy over meat sacrificed to idols, people should follow their consciences. If they believe that eating meat sacrificed to idols, or owning stock in alcohol distillers, is sinful, then they should abstain. Christian investment managers can and do become easers of guilt, freeing people from burdens of conscience by offering products that allow Christians to exclude companies that are a stumbling block to them. But Christian investment sellers should be removers of stumbling blocks not manufacturers of stumbling blocks. Investment professionals can remove burdens of guilt, or they can bind burdens of guilt to the backs of ordinary Christians and then turn around and charge them to remove those burdens.

Interestingly, we see the early church take a different approach to the marketplace. "So he (Paul) was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present." (Acts 17) Paul, perhaps because of his earlier captivity to legalism, seemed to deeply grasp Jesus' message about true holiness. Whereas his former colleagues the Pharisees were offended by people mixing in the marketplace even in predominately Jewish Capernaum where there was some change that someone might have mixed with a defiled person, Paul mixed freely with everyone in the marketplace of the debased Pagan city of Athens, a den of idolatry. What was in Paul, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, came out of him and transformed that society, in some ways laying the foundation for Western Civilization. He did it not by retreating into a Christian ghetto, but by engaging in a marketplace filled with all types of different sinners, because where sin aboundeth, grace aboundeth more.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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