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Theology of Trade

(Published in Harambee Change Maker’s Journal, TEAR Australia, July 2009)

Jonathan Cornford


For some time now, Christians have become increasingly concerned about the level of injustice inherent in our international trading system. This has particularly been the case for Christians in the West who have slowly begun to understand that we are somehow implicated in this injustice. The way in which local church congregations provided the early seedbed for the fair trade movement is a good illustration of this growing concern.

 However, anyone who has scratched the surface knows that international trade, and how it affects different people, is a horrendously complex thing. Unfortunately, critical discussions about trade often gets pushed into simplistic opposing positions of ‘pro-trade’ and ‘anti-trade’, which quite rightly makes many feel uncomfortable. And then there is the nagging doubt for many Christians that all this justice stuff about complex global issues is somehow taking us away from our ‘true vocation’ which is about spiritual stuff.

 So what, if anything, does the Bible have to say about all of this? Can the Bible help us to make critical judgements about the role of trade in human affairs, and how does it inform our ethical frameworks in doing this?

 Trade as a basic human activity

To try to arrive at any useful theology of trade, we need to understand the practice of trade in its particular context. So before we begin to unpack what the Bible has to say, we need first to acknowledge that trade is older than history itself and is common to all human societies. When writing first began in Sumeria around 3000BC we find humans recording trading relations which were already highly developed. Australian Aborigines, although they had no monetary economy, still had extensive trading networks criss-crossing the continent. The hill-tribes of Laos, who are in most things self-sufficient, have always traded forest produce for sea salt, for which they have no source and without which they fall victim to goitre (iodine deficiency).

 This tells us that trade serves a very basic and useful function for human societies – to make use of our excess in a way that can supplement our deficiencies. However over human history, trade has developed in complex ways, and by Biblical times the trading activity of the Near East was already inextricably bound up in issues of politics, military power, social structure, and questions of religion and culture. What does the Bible have to say about all of this?

 Trade & Israel

Right from the early accounts of Abraham in Genesis, trade and trading activity is an assumed part of the normal background of the ancient world being described, and is little remarked upon. The code of living set down for Israel in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) has little to say about trade and trading ethics compared to the older Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c.1260BC). The sections of the Torah most relevant to the life of merchants were: (i) a strong injunction against using false weights and measures (a common practice in ancient times) to cheat people (Deut 25:13-16); and (ii) the prohibition on charging interest to fellow countrymen, which probably would have served to relegate larger and more risky endeavours in trade and commerce to foreigners.

 Indeed, the overall ideal of ‘the Promised Land’ which seems to be envisaged in the Torah is a nation of largely self-sufficient small-holders, in which trading activity does not seem to play a significant part other than to supply commodities that cannot be produced at home.

 By the time we get to the Biblical account of King Solomon, it is clear that the ideal of a self-sufficient nation has been abandoned. In chapters 9 & 10 of 1 Kings we are given are substantial account of Solomon’s international commercial dealings, and in particular all of the luxuries which he imported. On the surface level this seems to be an account of ‘Solomon’s splendour’ without editorial comment. However, reading between lines there may be an implicit critique of these activities – the passage moves from an account of Solomon’s foreign imports to a description of his love for foreign women (11:1) and how these eventually ‘turned his heart after other gods’ (11:4).

 The Prophets

If 1 Kings provides a subtle critique, the prophets offer a number of powerful and strenuous critiques of the trading activities of Israel and her neighbours. At one point the prophet Zephaniah proclaims:

‘Wail, you who live in the market district;
       all your merchants will be wiped out,
       all who trade with silver will be ruined.’  (Zeph 1:11)

 The language is strong, but what exactly is the complaint? If we look across the prophetic texts, we find a number of concerns being consistently expressed. These are all inter-related, but we can perhaps list them in four categories:

 (i)         The relationship between international trade and religious compromise

In the observation of the prophets, the motivation behind trade in their time had gone well beyond suppling needs not met at home, and had become driven by seduction to the way of life of foreign countries. This seduction may have begun with material goods, but flowed inevitably to ideas and religion (see Isaiah 2:6-8).

 (ii)        The relationship between international trade and unjust social structures

Much of the prophetic criticism relates to the luxury goods being imported by the wealthy elite (eg. Isaiah 3:13-26). In this respect, what is being called into question is not necessarily the goods themselves but the unjust economic systems by which the rich  ‘grind the face of the poor’ to enable their lives of comfortable excess.

 (iii)       Trade which is itself exploitative

Although not necessarily explicitly addressing the activities of international trade, in the observation of the prophets much of the commercial activity of their time was essentially exploitative, extracting a surplus from the poor (see Amos 5:11, 8:4-6). The prophet Nahum makes this accusation directly against the international trading activity of Nineveh:

‘You have increased the number of your merchants
       till they are more than the stars of the sky,
       but like locusts they strip the land
       and then fly away.’  (Nahum 3:16)

 (iv)       Trade as a source of power

Two of the most substantial critiques of international trading, Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 27, are both denouncements of the city of Tyre, the great Phoenician trading power of the ancient world. The complaint here is against both the power and the seductive influence wielded through its extensive international trade.

 The Book of Revelation

The New Testament makes very little explicit reference to macroeconomic issues of international trade (although, as we will see, much of what Jesus has to say has significant relevance).  There is however one powerful exception: the Book of Revelation perhaps provides the strongest Biblical statement concerning the trading relations of its time (the time of the Roman Empire), and it is not a pretty picture. What should be alarming for us is that it is commenting on an international trading structure which is not so dissimilar from our own.

 In chapter six of Revelation, the third horseman of the apocalypse rides forth to a cry which unveils the fundamental trading distortion of the Roman Empire: ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, but do not damage the oil and the wine’ (Rev 6:6). It is a statement that says the poor can barely afford to supply their basic food needs, while they labour to supply the extensive luxuries of empire. In chapter thirteen, the particular significance of the mark of the beast – that is alignment with anti-Jesus forces - is that it enables participation in the trading economy (13:16-17). In chapter 18, the three groups of people who lament the fall of Babylon (Rome) are all closely implicated in her trade: the kings of the earth ‘who share in her luxury’; the merchants of the earth; and the sea captains. This chapter provides us with an extensive list of the luxuries in which Babylon traded, ending with the chilling insight that this trade included ‘the souls of men’ (18:11-13).


While Jesus did not directly address issues of international trade, he had many forceful things to say about money, wealth, greed, and commerce, all of which must be taken into account when discerning a biblical ethic concerning trade. These teachings are too numerous to explore adequately here, other than to sample some striking examples:

(i)                  ‘You cannot serve two masters ..  You cannot serve both God and Money’ (Luke 16:13) – this statement clearly poses huge questions for those whose lives are structured around commerce.

(ii)                ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18:24) – again, this poses significant challenges for merchants and traders who tend to reside at the higher end of the economic pyramid.

(iii)              ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ (Luke 12:15) – this is one of many warnings by Jesus about the getting and acquisition of goods.

 Of course, this does not yet capture Jesus’ most important statement concerning ethics …

 Towards a Biblical Ethic of Trade

I am of the opinion that biblical ethics is actually a very simple field. Jesus summed up all the law and the prophets with only two commandments - Love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40). In trying to arrive at a biblical ethic for trade, this must be our start and end point. Questions of what is traded, how trade is conducted, and how much we trade, all must be judged against what the impact is upon other people and our relationship with God. All of the biblical protests that we have looked at concerning the world of trade have been spurred by the transgression of these commandments.

 Thus, the Bible has nothing to say directly about particular trade theories or policies – such as whether free trade or trade protectionism is better – the ethics of this depends entirely on the context of what this means for particular people in particular places, what it means for communities and societies as a whole, and especially what it means for the poor.

 Finally, we need to note that the Bible locates ethical responsibility with all of us, not just those directly involved in international trade. The prophetic critique is a critique of systems and not of individuals. So in relation to trade, the question for us is not whether we personally have done anything to harm someone, but whether we have cooperated with and benefited from a system which is unjust.

 The prophets call for repentance and reform at a systemic level. Revelation calls us to extricate ourselves – as much as is possible – from the sins of the system (‘Babylon’): ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins …’ (Revelation 18:4). In all of this, we are being called to take responsibility for the systems which we take part in.

 Application today: the theory of Just Price

While the biblical principles are essentially simple, applying these to the mind-bogglingly complex world of international trade today is extraordinarily difficult. We are at a disadvantage because for a few hundred years the Church effectively abandoned the work of applying biblical ethics to the world of politics and economics. By contrast, the Medieaval Church did a lot of detailed work in trying to understand just what the principle of ‘love your neighbour’ might mean in the complex world of trade and commerce. The core principle which they arrived at is one which we would do well to revisit today – the theory of just price.

 Essentially, this teaching repudiated the ideas that the price of goods should be solely determined by ‘the market’, because it recognised that the market was characterised by huge imbalances in power, leaving the poor vulnerable to exploitation. While it recognised an important role for the market, the theory of just price taught that the pricing should reflect a fair counting of the cost and effort of the labourers, producers, manufactures and merchants involved in getting a good to market, and a fair estimation of the needs of consumers. Thus it is not fair to opportunistically drive up prices to consumers in times of famine, nor is it fair to drive down prices to producers in times of oversupply. And this wasn’t just left to theory – Medieaval scholars (theological economists?) actually crunched the numbers to try to commend fair and realistic pricing for all sort of goods.

 Essentially, this is the idea behind the fair trade movement. However this occupies a tiny niche of the vast range of the traded goods that we consume. As First World Christians, we have an enormous collective job to do in applying the idea of just price to the whole supply chain:

1)      How do we apply ‘just price’ to the wages involved in producing goods?

2)      How do we apply ‘just price’ to take a true account of the natural resources involved in producing a good?

3)      How do we apply ‘just price’ to take account of the carbon emitted in producing and transporting a good?

4)      How do we apply ‘just price’ differentially to goods that are necessities (especially for the poor) and goods that are luxuries?

5)      How do we apply ‘just price’ to goods that are in shortage or oversupply?

 Finally, it is important to note that we have responsibilities in two fields: as consumers and citizens. As consumers we are everyday implicated in the vast injustices of our global trade system; as citizens in a democracy (that is, people who actually get to choose their government) we have a peculiar responsibility to do all we can to work for a change in the system.



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