The Rich Young Ruler and the Least of These

By Matthew Harlan | June 29, 2020

Firstly, I must admit. This conversation we are getting ready to traverse through will require patience, honesty, and tenacity. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary. We live in a passage of time where we must not only know truth and speak it, but rightly apply it. Apart from Christ, these actions are impossible.

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.  — Mark 10:17-22 

What do we value most, and how do our personal ideologies impact society?

This is an important question we must introduce as we dialogue about the prevalent systems of oppression that have given way to anti-black sentiments. The truthful response to this question reveals our hearts and our beliefs concerning the oppressed in society, and frankly concerning God (Matthew 25:40). The question presented by the Rich Young Ruler is an important one which prompted Jesus to lay out the social oriented commandments (those that impact individuals around us)–“You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud , Honor your father and mother.’”.  Jesus did not rebuke the Ruler’s individualism, but challenged his perspective to understand his collectivism and ultimately his heart. Let’s begin the conversation here. 

Brutal Capitalism: A Pathway Into Complicity

This passage of scripture has continued to challenge my personal view of work, faith, and Christ-derived social responsibility. It exposes my belief system and rivals all idols I may have in place of Christ. It seems that Jesus is ultimately addressing the issue of privilege.

Jesus does not rebuke the ruler’s amassed wealth, but rather adds an additional criteria for him to consider to answer his question concerning the inheritance of eternal life, which is how he (the ruler) treated people and consisted of what the ruler valued most. As Christians we know that both of these things are telling of where faith lies (John 13:35, Romans 12:2).  Both of these things are indicative to how the ruler interfaced with his own privilege. Having privilege gives responsibility to the holder of privilege (Matthew 25:14-30). Ruler, what did you do with the privilege you had?

There is a litany of historical events that give way to a collective group of individuals having privilege over another. In this country in particular there are many. I want to focus specifically on the type of capitalism that has oppressive outcomes–brutal capitalism. I feel that it is only in seeing this that we can clearly see how oppression may be perpetuated across a time-horizon. In fact, any semblance of capitalism without God as the moral head is nothing more than a system of selfish ambition.

This article is not a vote for communism or socialism, rather an examination on how we can re-introduce morality into our existing structure of capitalism in order to consider our brother. We can not do this without God, the creator of morality.

Due to the individualistic nature of brutal capitalism which I feel is at work in America, we only interface with one another when it is beneficial to our own self interest. It is hard to clearly see intention, but nonetheless we are complicit in the structure of brutal capitalism if we do not have the ability to consider how our profit seeking activities may impact societies around us. Taking it a step further, we are also complicit if we understand this and choose not to take our brother’s condition into consideration. I simply want to extract the collective values of our western culture to understand the divergence between the western world we think we live in and the western world we actually live in. In order to trace the genesis of brutal capitalism, we must view the global adoption of chattel slavery. Specifically, during the era of the trans-atlantic slave trade of the 16th century.

“In fact, any semblance of capitalism without God as the moral head is nothing more than a system of selfish ambition.”

The Shared History of Slavery and Capitalism

Oppression and racism is 100% an issue of the heart that is perpetuated by systems we deploy and sustained by our inaction.

Chattel slavery and indentured labor were utilized as tools to aid in the creation of expansive economic prosperity and freedom for specific non-African ethnic groups and classes of society. The ability for slave owners to control cost and increase the marginal rate of production served not only as justification for the existence of this morally reprehensible act, but also supported its livelihood. These acts of complicity continue to perpetuate arguments for the existence of structures that benefit a market segment at the expense of a people group.

The counterargument to this statement is that the subjects of oppression within this system would be worse off if the system itself were to be removed. This is often the excuse people use to justify the current oppressive structure of brutal capitalism.  The individuals of Great Britain and North America’s adherence to the counter argument in the 17th century increased with this ideology: contribution to the slave trade was a necessary evil to help those who were enslaved and boycotting this institution would harm the lives of Africans who are co-benefactors to their enslavement. No where else in history does this logic work, except in capitalism. This section attempts to take a historic perspective to understand the factors that contribute to the illusive justification of slavery under the limited scope of its relationship with complicity and economy.

In making the distinction between “slave societies” and “societies with slaves” Eric Kimball builds upon the common interest of those who are directly running slave operations, and those who are “..miles removed from plantations” (Beckert, S., Rockman, S., 2016, p.184). He noted that early 18th century New England, although miles away from the atrocities of the West Indies, utilized funding received from producing goods distributed to slave societies to benefit New England. He notes “The surplus they ran with buyers in the West Indies–by providing them with key elements to sustain the plantation complex–allowed them to make payments against their debts to England.” (Beckert, S., Rockman, S., 2016, p.184). Moreover, the commodities of New England “Oil and spermaceti candles..” (Beckert, S., Rockman, S., 2016, p.185), were used to furnish lamps which were instrumental in the sourcing of sugar globally. This discovery was important, because it directly shows the economic benefit that New England firms experienced as a result of their trade with the West Indies which was ultimately used to support slave societies.

Oppression and racism is 100% an issue of the heart that is perpetuated by systems we deploy and sustained by our inaction.

Interestingly, there was acknowledgement in Great Britain in the late 17th century of the malpractice of the slave trade in the “Strictures of an Address 1792 to the People of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West-India Sugar and Rum” which was a response to William Fox’s anonymous posting. This rebuttal only served as reasoning for the consumer to remain complicit during the slave trade. In a counter argument to the sentiment that slave trade consumption contributes to the killing of slaves, the writer argues that without this vehicle “..what are to be the employments of the poor Africans if the produce of their soil is neglected ?” (London, 1792, p.4) The writer was positioning the argument to persuade the people of Great Britain that Africans needed enslavement, and if these goods were to be boycotted they would be contributors to a more severe evil. This rebuttal to William Fox, served as an ideology to the slave trade driven by both economic and non-economic forces.

Firstly, by tying the decision to not buy goods derived from the slave trade as a way to “..ruin both planters and slaves. It would be attended with the most pernicious consequences to the planters and owners of estates, and it would reduce the slaves to wretchedness and misery in the extreme.” (London, 1792, p.4). The writer asserts that a reduction in demand for slave goods would reduce profits for planters and harm the livelihood of Africans which is considered to be a violation of morality and economy. Secondly, the writer ties this action of abstaining from slave goods consumption to health negligence, “medical authority assures me, that sugar is not a luxury; but has become, by constant use, a necessity of life” (London, 1792, p.5). This rhetoric, only served as a piston to keep the engine of the slave trade in motion and to preserve the newly found markets of goods exploitations as morally justifiable. Although consumption is seen as less egregious to the owning of a person, it is still yet accretive to the institution of exploitation of a commodity which is attributable to the illusive argument for the justification of African slave labor.

The Shared History of Slavery and Capitalism

To understand where we are currently in our society, we need to travel back in time to a pivotal moment that helped to add language and structure to our capitalistic society that we participate in today. That journey begins with Adam Smith. A Scottish born philosopher and economist, Adam Smith laid the foundations of the classical free market economic theory in his book “The Wealth of Nations”. In his book, he lays out the concept of division of labor, which has been expanded to include the rational self-interest of individual participants within a “free”  competitive market. The concept later began to be seen as the equivalent of Newtonian law, and has been the engine of wealth creation used in almost every product we know today. This way of organizing work is seen as the pillar of the free market economy.

In Adam’s later writings he notes that the capitalist society and division of labor can have monstrous and immoral effets. ”The worker has no occasion to exert his understanding. People simply become machines.” (Smith, The Wealth of a Nation) Is that not an attack on the fundamental human right? When we think about the advent of the industrial revolution, where systematic labor was introduced, it revolutionized how we organized work. Now, the machine controls the labor and the labor is the tool. This in turn affected social relations. We were able to have a very clear distinction between labor classes as the laborers in the factory had a very different set of relationships with each other and the tools they used to accomplish productivity in relation to factory owners–helping to grow our nation’s middle class. For centuries, academics and politicians have ignored Adam Smith’s moral dilemma at the heart of self interest within the division of labor. This raises a question of morality, not economics. Egoism vs. altruism.

Selfishness is the exclusive motivation for our economy. The “Theory of Moral Sentiments” was Adam Smith’s magnus opus. Adam Smith believed that the only way capitalism could succeed was to have healthy moral sentiments as the underpinnings of society and that these sentiments need to be God directed. Selfishness and self interest are not the only motivating factors of man. We have solidarity, sympathy, loyalty, and many more. We need to reform our economic system to exploit and utilize other motivations. If we only suspect that everyone is out to pursue their own self interest all of the time, the system will continue to run with no sense of morality. The idea of individualism and freedom in America is directly linked to our capitalistic society. In no other country, especially America have we come to glorify individualistic self interest, almost to the point of treating other human motivations as second class. This relationship between work and morality is the platform that our oppressive economics and policies thrive upon.

“We need God to continually awaken our hearts so that we do not drift into living lives of self-gratification and individualism.”

Ok, so…How do we fix this as a body?

Empathy. Empathy is what allows us to have an entryway into how our brother may be feeling. It gives us a new vantage point of revelation, that allows our hearts to become acquainted with something it hadn’t known.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.” — Galatians 6:2-3

As we live in this capitalist structure, we need to consider how our profit derived activities may impact our brother. If not, we are at risk of pride and deception, which will only lead to narcissism while faced with a need.

Consistency. We need to continue to meet at the table. As we consider the model for Christian unity exhibited in John 17, displaying the intimate nature of the God-head, we need to understand that we will not be able to walk as Christ has envisioned us to walk if we are not consistent in our gathering and conviction.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” — Hebrews 10:24-25

This is specifically for those who are in the body, as we seek to have hard conversations regarding race, we must tolerate one another and hold fast to speaking truth to injustice.

Perspective. I’m sure many of you may feel brain fatigue from all of the “new” information you are receiving regarding race, the history of race, and the current display of that ugliness publicly today. DON’T QUIT. This is the time to press into God to acquaint ourselves with His Heart. In that place, He will sustain you, give you perspective, and lead you onward. 

Oftentimes, I ask the Lord to remind me of who He is. I forget, become dull and slowly drift away. If I don’t re-engage with His worth in my heart I will take advantage of his grace and goodness, distorting my understanding of Him and His purposes.

Our cry should be Psalms 27:4–we need a throne room perspective to help us have an understanding of morality within this perverse system. We need God to continually awaken our hearts so that we do not drift into living lives of self-gratification and individualism.

“One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.” — Psalms 27:4-5

Co-suffering. Godly Suffering is a pathway into Godly intimacy. Feel, lament and allow God to meet you there.

In John 14, Jesus tells us that he goes to prepare a place for us. Who would prepare a place for someone you did not care about? In fact, he even wills for us to be in this world (John 17:15) so that our love amidst crisis would be a testament to non-believers concerning His love (John 13:35).

Church, let’s empathize, consistently gather amidst suffering and gain God’s perspective for the time. We are at a hinge-point of history.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. — Galatians 6:9

Beckert, S., Rockman, S. (2016). Eric Kimbal ‘What have we to do with slavery?’ New Englanders and the Slave Economies of the West Indies, in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 181–194.

(1792). Strictures on an Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Abstaining from West-India Sugar and Rum (London), 1–10.

Fox, W. (1791). An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum (London), 1–12.

Smith, Adam, and Edwin Cannan. The Wealth of Nations. New York, N.Y: Bantam Classic, 2003. Print.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. London: Printed for A. Millar, and A. Kincaid and J. Bell, 1759. Internet resource.