Christian Nation series: “Thou shalt not covet” = the death of capitalism

Christian Nation series: “Thou shalt not covet” = the death of capitalism August 22, 2023

“Thou shalt not covet” is the theme of our final commandment (or commandments, if you’re Lutheran), and it has some major implications – for those willing to think deeply.

Those of you who have been with me from the beginning of this Ten Commandments series know that we are investigating the Christian nationalist idea that if we’d only build our country on our founding documents plus Christian texts like the Ten Commandments (which, curiously, is found in the Hebrew/Old Testament), the combination will make America great again.

So far, the compatibility that Christian nationalists insist is there, has been utterly missing. Maybe it will be different this time? Without further ado, let’s dive in.

“Thou shalt not covet” is un-American

There is nothing wrong with the command – if that’s what God wants, and believers choose to obey, good. But of course, a democracy that claims freedom of (and from) religion can not require its citizens to obey such a command (or any of the others for that matter).

Andrew Seidel explains it clearly in his excellent book (unsolicited endorsement), The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American:

This is perhaps the precept at the heart of the American experiment: our thoughts are free…The freedom of thought is the only absolute right protected under our constitution. Every other right is limited in some respect.

Even Americans with no historical or legal training should recognize that coveting is the basis of American capitalism and our consumer society. Both would fail without the desire to get what we don’t have. Coveting created America.

He’s right: our ancestors coveted Native American lands (and took them), tobacco plantation owners coveted profits (and imported “free labor”), just to name two examples.

Of course, coveting is the driving force of our economy today. Nothing is not for sale. Everything can be upgraded or supersized or expedited. I keep my dog food in the fridge because I love my dog more than you love yours. I buy L’oreal because I’m worth it.

The weird thing is, we don’t think we’re coveting. We think we’re just enhancing our lives, or treating ourselves, or enjoying the fruits of our labor. Other people are coveting.

When they complain, we tell them, “now, now, be content!” or “if God wants you to have it, God will provide.”

READ: The Bad Guys are going to win

Don’t covet because God will provide

The “contentment” ideology is based on verses like:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:6-10).

Boys and girls, context matters. This particular passage was written to exhort enslaved people to be content with their enslavement. The assumption here is that believing masters will obey God by providing “food and clothing” for their enslaved property, and if they desire more than that, they are at risk of “ruin and destruction.”

thou shalt not covet
“Jesus” by tonystl is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

That is, just because Jesus said “you shall be free indeed,” doesn’t mean they should actually expect to be free (I’ve written elsewhere about the enslavement of African people).

(BTW, 1 Timothy was almost certainly not written by Paul to Timothy, but by someone else with an agenda that included keeping slaves and keeping women quiet in church [2:12]. This book, plus the other epistle to Timothy and Titus, must be taken with a grain of salt – if at all.)

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Another set of verses that we use to shut down the complainers are:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself (Matthew 6:19-21, 25, 33-34).

There are more, but these should suffice. Jesus was calling for radical obedience (few of us would even consider this variety of obedience) – willingness to give up everything for the gospel. Again, context matters: Jesus indicated that spreading the gospel was urgent because he believed that the end was right around the corner:

When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matthew 10:23).

Does “don’t covet – be content” even make sense?

How about believers who face tough times? “Be content with what God has given you” has a hollow ring to it when God has “given you” the unemployment or homelessness. Be content? Is it godly to sit in these situations, shrug, and say, “I am content just the way I am”? Or is it appropriate to scramble for a way to feed and house your family?

These people should not be content with their lot in life – and here’s why: their lot is not from God but from us.

Here’s another zinger: we should not be content with their lot in life either. If people around us don’t have enough to eat, or a place to stay, we have failed.

Think about it for just a minute: God made our world a paradise. It’s a mess now because humans made it that way. Human greed, human stupidity and human greed have created billionaires and beggars.

READ: How the Bible helps us demonize the poor

I know, some of us don’t want to be reminded of this. It might make us feel bad – but there is no excuse for us as Christians to ignore poverty just because we’re not poor.

Poverty vs. privilege

The ministry Love Worth Finding exhorts us:

Nothing shows our depravity more than covetousness…A man is not a thief because he steals; he steals because he is a thief. He lies because he is a liar. These things come out of the heart. 

This is privilege talking. What about people who steal because they are starving, because the social safety net has failed them? What about those who lie because that’s the only way they can get a meal and a bed? Some people think about themselves all the time because nobody else is thinking about them.

Maybe nothing shows our depravity more than ignoring those in need when we have more than we need?

We’d best not tell anyone to be content unless we’d be content to trade places with them. And we’d best not make “thou shalt not covet” the law of the land – even Christian nationalists would find themselves behind bars.

(If you are energized by challenges to the evangelical status quo like this, please subscribe to my newsletter! If you would like to comment on this post, please pop over to my Facebook page. All of my posts are there and open to constructive comment! I welcome your thoughts.)


FEATURED IMAGE: “Jesus” by tonystl is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

About Kathryn Shihadah
I was raised as a conservative Christian, and was perfectly content to stay that way – until the day my stable, predictable world was rocked. A curtain was pulled back on conservative Christianity, and instead of ignoring the ugliness I saw, I confronted it. I began to ask questions I never thought I’d ask, and found answers I’d never expected. Old things began to fall away, and – behold! – the new me has come. What a gift to be a new, still-evolving creation. I found out that it’s better to look at the world through Progressive Lenses, with Grace-Colored Glasses.  You can read more about the author here.

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