How the Christ child rescued the world from poverty
In 1849, Dr. Edmond Sears wrote a Christmas message for his congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts. Set to music, it became the beloved Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The third stanza expresses his sadness over the poverty in his community:
“And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
As sad as that poverty was to Sears, the poor in the middle of the 19th century were far richer than those in the previous century. Humanity had suffered under the crushing load of poverty since God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden. According to the best economic historians, such as Angus Maddison, the standards of living in 1800 for most of Europe were no different from those of the average person in the days of Abraham and Sarah. Standards of living began to grow, and poverty recede, for the first time in human history in the early 17th century in the Dutch Republic. Why then and there?
The Christ Child was God’s greatest gift to humanity:
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” John 1:12
That adoption as children breaks the chains of evil that enslaves all people, especially from the power of envy because that sin, and not greed, kept humanity in poverty for millennia, according to the sociologist Helmut Schoeck in his classic book, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.
Schoeck demonstrated the ubiquity of envy and how societies through history have built institutions to soothe envy by taking from the successful to give to the rest. Such institutions quench the innovation that launches economic development and alleviates poverty.
The economist Jordan Ballor offers the testimony of Alexis de Tocqueville to the dangers of envy in a democracy:
“But in the human heart a depraved taste for equality is also found that leads the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in liberty…
Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely. Every day, at the moment when people believe they have grasped equality, it escapes from their hands and flees…”
In his paper, Ballor quotes several prominent economists who declared that socialism “...is a form of institutionalized envy” and is “envy legitimized.” Christ offered the only solution to the problem of envy, according to Schoeck:
“The ethic taught by the New Testament sought to secure differentiated human existence in a world full of envious people and unlikely to evolve into a society of equals. A society from which all cause for envy had disappeared would not need the moral message of Christianity. Again and again we find parables to the tenor of which is quite clearly the immorality, the sin of envy. One should love one’s neighbor as oneself – for the very reason that this will protect him against our envy and hostility.”
Christendom took 1,500 years from the birth of Christ to instantiate Biblical principles of economics, partly due to the veneration of Aristotle by theologians, and partly due to the nearly impregnable nature of envy in the human heart. Both caused theologians to condemn commerce, manufacturing, and banking, for centuries, permitting Jews to practice only those despised occupations, then persecuting Jews out of envy when their businesses made them wealthy.
The Dutch Republic of the 17th century implemented Biblical principles of government and economics, which suppressed envy enough to allow for innovation and growth in standards of living for the first time in history. The individual rights to life, liberty, and property, distilled from natural law with support from the Bible prevented envious people from punishing the successful. They elevated commerce, manufacturing, and banking to respectable Christian vocations. Christians learned that loving your neighbor as yourself means being as happy for his success as if it were your own.
As a result, the West is 30 times wealthier than it was in 1800. That would never have happened without the babe in the manger.
Roger McKinney is the author of Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx.