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Tariffs and abominations

Honesty and optimism provide a biblical framework for trade debates

Issue: "Bird flu," June 10, 2006

I can't believe," someone told me last week at a conference on Christian worldview thinking, "that you really believe God has an opinion on issues like foreign trade."

"Certainly," my friend allowed, "God wants social and political and economic conditions in another country to be favorable so that people there will be more likely to hear the truth of the gospel of Jesus. But beyond that, do you really think you can say that God thinks about things like NAFTA and Most Favored Nation status?"

Well, yes I do. As I've said in this space and elsewhere a number of times, I think God even has opinions about the colors and designs of neckties.

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It is far-fetched to think that the God who says He has numbered the hairs of our heads, and who claims that no sparrow falls to the ground without His taking notice of it-that such a God takes no thought of how the colors and textures He has designed play out in the things we wear.

Nor is it a big step then also to assert that the God who has created all people everywhere in His image also considers carefully the economic forces that propel whole populations toward prosperity or plunge them into poverty.

But where in the Bible, people tend to sputter, do you learn what God thinks about such matters?

Well, now. It's admittedly one thing to claim that God has a perspective on a particular subject-and something else to demonstrate to your own and everyone else's satisfaction exactly what that perspective is. But lots of important choices in life are not easy to come by. What scripture do you use, for example, to decide whether to support a Bible translation work in Peru, a medical ministry in Kenya, or an orphanage in the Philippines?

But here are two foundational biblical principles to apply to the discussion about foreign trade:

Honesty. It would help enormously if all the parties to this and any discussion would discipline themselves to deal truthfully.

But duplicity dominates so much of the discussion that comes out of Washington on this subject. Members of Congress, claiming to be free-market free traders, insist nonetheless on a hard line with Mexico. But their arguments typically have little to do with moral or ethical positions. For far too many of these sanctimonious hypocrites, the issue is plainly political. They're protectionists in ethicists' clothing, and they're using the misdeeds of the foreign governments as a ploy to protect jobs in their home districts.

Neither, of course, has the president always been straightforward on such issues. From the time early in his first term when he slapped big tariffs on steel, he weaseled with words. For all those shaping our trade agreements, what could be more to the point than a straightforward application of Jesus' Golden Rule: "And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them." If the United States consistently proposed such an approach, it would be hard for others to ignore it.

Such, incidentally, is always the nature of biblical problem solving. Commitment to the truth in the early stages does wonders.

Optimism. God's whole structure of His universe is built around an optimistic design. The certainty that in the end God is going to triumph over all His enemies offers confidence that we can take baby steps in that direction now.

Being an optimist doesn't mean you ignore the dangers in life. It doesn't ask you to be a sucker in trade negotiations. It does infuse you with the confidence that an agreement can genuinely be good for both sides, and very often in history has been. Christians are people who operate with the certainty that an aggressive deployment of what's right will win more times than it loses.

You can posture yourself defensively-personally, corporately, ecclesiastically, educationally, politically, and economically. Or you can posture yourself offensively. The whole direction of biblical revelation calls us to engage the enemy with the confidence that light is stronger than darkness.

Like honesty, optimism doesn't resolve every detail in the search for fair foreign trade. But both postures do set the stage in a profound way for the discussion that follows.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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