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Global Capitalism and the Global South: Hearing from the Old Testament prophets

Thursday, 27 July 2023  | Xin Ying Cheryl Lim

Global capitalism is an economic system shaped implicitly by the privatised and individualistic pursuit of profit as its pre-eminent goal. While global economic growth has improved the standard of living for many, we live in an increasingly fractured world where gross inequalities, unsustainable growth and degradation of our planetary home run rampant. How are serious Christians to respond to the ways of such a system, especially for those of us who might be complicit in it?

I want to present a biblically-grounded alternative. To do so, I will start by considering the egregious effects of global capitalism on the poorest and most vulnerable, before exploring what Old Testament (OT) figures have to say to this, and end by discussing the practical implications of the OT critique on a middle-class Australian Christian. When discussing the poorest and most vulnerable in the world, I will use the term ‘Global South’, which I understand to mean ‘the spaces and peoples negatively impacted by (capitalistic) globalisation’, including ‘subjugated peoples and poorer regions within wealthier countries’.[1]

The Ramifications of Global Capitalism

Increasing Inequality

Modern global capitalism perpetuates inequality through an all-consuming and relentless preoccupation with economic growth. When the overarching priority is maximising private profits and GDP growth, other important considerations – social well-being, human rights, environmental sustainability – are inevitably compromised.

Inequality runs rife when the focus on profit-making results in the squeezing of wages of workers and producers while those at the top enjoy increasing returns and lucrative incomes. It is intensified when the focus on private profit results in crony capitalism. Tax-dodging causes developing countries to lose $100bn yearly[2] - money that would otherwise go to providing the public services that the poor need. When the super-rich use their political clout to advance personal agendas and sway political decisions, the already rich get richer, aggravating inequality.

Inequality is further entrenched when the myopic focus on economic growth results in a markedly misinformed notion of development. When development metrics are assessed in monetary terms alone (e.g., World Bank’s international poverty line), there is not only the tendency to form misguided policy conclusions,[3] but also a disregard for the multidimensionality of human well-being. While the Global North carry on in what they define in monetary terms as ‘development’, those in the Global South suffer from an inadequate undertaking of measures that would truly bolster development.

The widening chasm of inequality exacerbates poverty, violating human and environmental rights and harming the well-being of those who are left behind.

Growing Exclusion

Rich countries not only influence the global economy but also demonstrate their willingness to manipulate their might, for instance by coercing poorer countries to adopt neo-liberal policies in exchange for the provision of aid. Global North economic superiority and Eurocentric development have also resulted in the ‘destruction of indigenous cultures and formation of feelings of inferiority among populations in the South’.[4]

The exclusivity of global capitalism also plays out in the sphere of climate change. Ramachandra describes global warming as ‘theft of the global commons by the rich world’,[5] as rich countries transfer their environmental desecration onto developing countries. Developing countries will bear the brunt of severe climatic events and associated economic losses as a result of climate change. Economic policies of the Global North that do not take into account their impact on the Global South effectively exclude the latter from surviving, let alone thriving.

Finally, exclusion rears its ugly head in the formation of corporate oligopolies that reveal the powerful vested interests of the privileged few. Small businesses get pushed out of the market, local producers succumb to draconian regulations of large agribusinesses and intensive production facilities owned by multinational corporations degrade the ecological landscapes of local communities. This destabilises local populations, making it harder for those who are not part of the privileged few to eke out a living.

The well-being of Global South populations is impacted when the discriminatory nature of today’s global capitalistic system blatantly disregards the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, exacerbating poverty and injuring human dignity.

What the Old Testament Has to Say

If economic behaviour is inherently spiritual, it is worth paying attention to what God’s Word has to say about our current global economic order. The OT posits the goal of shalom for all of creation, encompassing a vision of wholeness, flourishing and peace within the boundaries and restraints set by God.

About Inequality and Exclusion

The OT paints a socioeconomic vision of shalom for Israel’s economy, where the ‘good and healthy condition of land, labour and capital’[6] and flourishing relationships take precedence over economic growth. By the Sabbath laws given through Moses (Exod 23:10-12), care was to be shown to the oikos – the household – which included people and the rest of creation. Private accumulation of capital was dissuaded, land was to remain fallow every seventh year and labourers were entitled to rest. The Jubilee laws, given through Moses, served to give impoverished families a fresh economic start, releasing them from being locked into chronic poverty. The prophetic words of Hosea 4:1-3 links responsible human restraint with creation’s flourishing,[7] warning of the consequences if humans failed to do so. 

God’s laws necessitated restraints on the oikos as a way of maintaining relationships between humankind and God, other humans and the rest of creation, and as a way of reinforcing God’s gift of provision. The care shown in upholding these relationships demonstrated the utmost importance of preserving shalom, a goal more essential to human well-being than an ever-increasing standard of living.[8]

About Fear and Anxiety over Scarcity

The negative repercussions of today’s global capitalistic system reflects a ‘crisis of the common good’, which may be traced back to fear and anxiety over scarcity.[9] From the narrative of Pharoah’s Egypt to the Exodus, the OT has much to say regarding the dichotomy of scarcity and abundance. Genesis 12 to Exodus 16 contrasts the anxiety and deficiency of the Pharaonic system with the steadfastness and restfulness of God’s abundant provision. Central to this narrative is God’s provision of bread in Israel’s wilderness, this bread a symbol of God’s generosity in a place where paucity should have been expected. Such divine generosity by means of ‘bread’ is echoed by various prophets throughout the OT. In 2 Kings 4:42-44, the prophet Elisha feeds a hundred people with a limited supply of bread but ends up with leftovers. In Isaiah 55, the prophet Isaiah denounces the Israelites for rejoining Babylon’s imperial pursuit of scarcity, reminding the displaced Jews of God’s generosity towards them in exile.[10]

The OT repeatedly not only offers the narrative of God’s abundant provision as counter-cultural to the notion of scarcity in our fallen world, but also paints a dire picture of the repercussions of living in perpetual fear of lack. There is no good that results from the imperial pursuit of more – only tyrannical violence, suffering and exhaustion.

What Can We Learn?

We desperately need an ‘unmasking of the essentially religious nature of capitalism’ (Williams 2014, 402, 406), because its effects have become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice it. This is particularly applicable to Christians if one way of embodying God’s shalom in our lives involves engaging meaningfully and critically with the systems and assumptions of contemporary capitalism.

The Need for Restraint

Perhaps the greatest remedy to our insatiable appetite for economic growth is the humble truth that economic health in God’s design occurs within limits and boundaries. Like the modest tree that does not strive to outgrow its compatriots but gives back to the biosphere according to the boundaries of its ecological habitat, so are humans as stewards over the oikos to shape our minds, hearts and economies according to the biblical principle of limits.

One way such restraint has relevance to our context as middle-class Australians living in a wealthy country is its implications for wealth accumulation. Like Pharoah, those of us who have the ability to amass enormous amounts of wealth inadvertently participate in the unscrupulous systemic oppression of the poor by intensifying inequality and exclusion, alienating and oppressing the most vulnerable. The socioeconomic order of ancient Israel mandates that the rich look out for the poor by intentionally restraining their private accumulation of wealth. Living this out in our context would involve first being aware of our complicity in the structural elements of immoral global capitalism – whether that be as shareholders of corporations that engage in crony capitalism, or through using our power to influence policy-making such that the outcomes benefit mostly us. Secondly, it would involve hopping off the bandwagon of hoarding material possessions and instead living more lightly, by giving away our surplus or choosing counter-cultural downward social mobility. Thirdly, it would shape the way we shop, consume and travel. The increased ability to affect the welfare of our global neighbours through our daily choices demands that we tread carefully and conscientiously, being ready to exercise our consumer power in foregoing certain luxuries and choosing more ethical alternatives.

The premise of exercising restraint undergirds God’s economic order, as it is only when creation rests in its limited potential that God’s limitless provision can be truly enjoyed as a gift.

The Power of Generosity and Neighbourliness

The Bible’s repeated attestations to ‘bread’ demonstrates an abundant God whose generosity comes in the form of a gift that is utterly beyond human doing. Supply comes from God and this supply is sufficient for all. The first implication of this on the Christian life is the summons to live generously, because God’s gift of abundance has ‘broken the compulsions of scarcity’.[11] In our context, this means not living according to the quid pro quo culture of our world but being radical instead in our giving, remembering that the means to give come firstly from God. The second implication is the need to embrace redistribution, because God’s provision is to be shared among all. In our context, this might look like business owners ensuring that workers and producers receive a fair share of the economic pie; calling for greater corporate transparency and accountability in the payment of fair wages and taxes; and mitigating tax-dodging by the super-rich. On a more personal level, embracing redistribution might look like supporting business models that drive the kind of capitalism that benefits everyone including the environment, or inviting neighbours for a meal together, similar to how ancient Israel would get rid of economic surpluses by throwing feasts and ensuring everyone had their fill.[12]

Contrary to what the dominant capitalistic culture professes, we do not live autonomous and socially unconnected lives. Indeed, it would be irresponsible to do so when God has presented to us His economic order, where generosity and inclusivity enable the pursuit of the common good.


The present form of global capitalism with its mantra of unconstrained growth and autonomous competition has resulted in an array of impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable. Worse than this outward suffering is perhaps the inward tragedy wrought upon those of us who are complicit in inflicting this pain, which erodes our humanity and mars the imago Dei within. The OT narratives and prophets speak distinctly to our present condition by calling us to repentance, offering an alternative where our yoke of scarcity is broken with God’s gift of abundance, telling us that our ceaseless striving is the antithesis of His economic order. And so it turns out that faster, higher and larger is not necessarily better, but that what is more needful is a reimagination of the myriad ways the oikos can bring about shalom on earth, especially for the excluded and most vulnerable of us.


Xin Ying Cheryl Lim currently lives in Perth, Western Australia. She is a veterinarian in private practice, a community organiser with Tearfund Australia and a student of Transformational Development.


Image credits

Scenes from our quiet city. September 20, 2020. Lockdown 2.0. By Geoff Maddock.

Man Washing Clothes. By Rob French.


This article was first written as an essay for the subject ‘Economics, Development and Human Flourishing’ at Eastern College Australia in April 2021. Republished with permission from the author.

[1] A. G. Mahler, From the Tricontinental to the Global South, 2018, 32.

[2] E. Crivelli et al., ‘Base erosion, profit shifting and developing countries’, IMF Working Papers 15, no. 118, 2015, 18.

[3] P. Alston, The Parlous State of Poverty Eradication: Report of the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Human Rights Council, Forty-fourth Session, Agenda Item 3, 2020, 3. See https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/thematic-reports/ahrc4440-parlous-state-poverty-eradication-report-special-rapporteur.

[4] K. Willis, Theories and Practices of Development, 2005, 18-32.

[5] V. Ramachandra, ‘Globalisation and the poor’ The Bible in Transmission, Winter 2009. See https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/uploads/content/bible_in_transmission/files/2009_winter/BiT_Winter_2009_Ramachandra.pdf.

[6] B. Goudzwaad, ‘Reclaiming our future: The vision of jubilee’, in 1999 Stuber Lecture series on ‘;Faith, Justice and Economics: Vision for a New Millennium’, Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School: American Baptist Churches, 182. See http://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/BG87.pdf.

[7] J. Brueggemann and W. Brueggemann, Rebuilding the foundations: Social relationships in ancient scripture and contemporary society, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 153.

[8] Goudzwaad, ‘Reclaiming our future’, 183.

[9] W. Brueggemann, Journey to the common good (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 1.

[10] Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, 20-21.

[11] Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, 2010, 22.

[12] Goudzwaad, ‘Reclaiming our future’, 183.

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