Recently, there was a lot of hullaballoo among Christians on Twitter over a tweet that made this claim:
God’s justice is relentlessly merit-based. Jesus is the ultimate Capitalist, and He would rather see you burn in Hell than give you what you need, unless you confess that you don’t deserve what you need from Him. If you hate Capitalism, you very likely will hate Christ.
There is a lot to unpack here, and many commentators noted that this reads like the heresy of Pelagianism (the belief that by our works and asceticism we could receive salvation)—particularly the claim that our confession that we don’t deserve what we need from Jesus is what saves us from hell. But what I found more perplexing are the claims about capitalism and its relationship to God’s justice. I’m primarily going to question the idea that merit is the basis for capitalism or that it can be the basis for any economic order. We only live, move, and have our being through the means of God’s sheer grace, and our life with one another—including and especially our economic life—must be permeated with that grace, because none of us have merited any part of our existence.
First, the question of whether capitalism is, in fact, “merit-based,” which is the center of the comparison between God’s justice and capitalism. To assess this claim, it would make sense to ask whether the distribution of wealth in society is based on merit. Economic libertarians typically say that just distribution of goods is not based on any idea of equality, but whether property was attained through a chain of mutually and freely made transactions that can be traced back to the original acquisition of that particular part of the world.
But almost instantly, we run into a problem here: there is almost no property in the United States whose original acquisition was not based on the dispossession of the many human civilizations who already occupied this land. Do we say that since European colonizers were able to take the land, they earned it by their merit? I’m sure that if I beat you up and stole your car you would not shrug and say that I deserved to keep it it simply because I was able to wrest it away from you.
So if the initial distribution of wealth in the US was not based on merit, has the accumulation of wealth since then been meritocratic? I think this is wildly variable based on your definition of “merit.” Does owning stuff make you “merit” more than someone who does not own stuff, but works much harder?
Capitalism inherently rewards those who are already owners: people who have worked hard their entire lives with dedication and selflessness nearly always wind up with very little wealth to speak of, while the heirs to the Walton fortune received it simply by luck of birth, and make huge amounts of income from that wealth without lifting a finger. Is there anything inherent to the job of investment banking that makes it more “deserving” of higher pay than, say, the job of registered nurse? Sometimes people will come in at this point and simply define whatever job makes more money as more meritorious by the fact that it makes more money and thus the economy has deemed it to be more deserving. But the claim that capitalism rewards merit relies on the existence of some outside standard for what counts as merit. Otherwise, we wind up with a completely circular argument.
Were we to use the Christian conception for our external standard of “merit," however, the idea that capitalism rewards merit falls apart even faster. Christianity claims that no one truly merits anything—we are all by nature of our sin destined to die. By this standard, then, no one would get anything at all in a “meritocratic” economy.
And this is precisely why “merit” is not a meaningful basis for any economic order: were we to distribute the goods of the earth by God’s standard whether we merit salvation in ourselves, we would all simply starve. But God sends his rain to both the just and the unjust. The whole earth was given to us as sheer gift, and each of us are born into it as a gift anew—none of us “deserve” the world, the common inheritence of language, civilization, and technological development, or even our families.
God does not owe any of this to us, but gives it because he sees it fit to give it to us. In the same way, God saw it to be good and beautiful to rescue humanity through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of his only son Jesus Christ. For a Christian to imagine an economy based on merit is impossible because not a single atom of the world we start with is given by merit. The justice of God is not what human beings deserve in themselves, but what he by his infinite goodness bestows upon us—and what he commands us to give to one another.
We, the recipients of this divine grace and the salvation offered through Jesus Christ, ought to know not to make the mistake of the servant Jesus spoke of who was forgiven of a huge debt but who failed to forgive an insignificant debt owed to him (Matt 18:21-35). God’s justice will surely condemn us if we refuse to live our lives—and not just our personal, but our economic lives—in accordance with the abundant grace that God gives to his people.
The revelation of God’s character and will is that he desires the flourishing of all his children to be able to fulfill their vocation as images of God, and that his anger burns incandescently against all who step on and crush those who are made in his image. If we trick ourselves into believing that we are doing “justice” by “merit” in depriving some of the material means to life, we are bringing down God’s condemnation on ourselves. We are doing nothing more than withholding precisely the gift that God has given freely to us. However we arrange our economic lives, we have no grounds to claim that the poor and the rich have simply gotten what they deserve.