Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition writes in opposition to organized Christian boycotts. He calls boycotts against businesses “coercion” and says that “banding together to cut off commerce to an otherwise licit venture has no obvious biblical warrant.” He says,
To clarify, the term boycott here refers to the act of refusing to use, buy, or deal with a business as an expression of protest or as a means of economic coercion. The concern, for Christians, should be with the coercion part.
Is it always concerning “coercion,” and is it always wrong for Christians to organize boycotts as a means of economic sanction against private companies on this account? I don’t think so.
Consider a reductio ad absurdum: You’re a metalworker in first-century Ephesus and you have just been converted to Christ, by grace through faith. But you have also for many years been a patron of the Temple of Artemis—that is, you’ve been fornicating with prostitutes all this time in the name of religion. Of course, the teachings of Christ forbid this, and this is exactly what Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5; 6:16–20) and the Ephesians (Eph. 5:3), and others.
So, you, and all of your Christian brethren who had formerly visited Artemis religiously, “band together”—by nature of the fact of being a body of people under the rule of Christ—and you 1) stop visiting the prostitutes, and 2) openly preach against fornication and idolatry.
Problem is, this Temple of Artemis was a major sector of the Ephesian economy. And at least one special interest group, stung by the economic shift, gets vocal about your protests—the silversmiths who build the silver shrines at the Temple. So now you have a very tense situation with political pressure to continue doing business with an industry that directly profits from prostitution, idolatry, and blasphemy.
Question: Is it wrong for you and your Christians friends announce publicly, “Temple prostitution is sin, and we can no longer in good conscience buy products from any businesses or persons associated with the industry of idol-sex-prostitution.”
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This is similar to what happened to Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:23–27), where Demetrius the silversmith attempted to form a mob to run the Christians out because the proclamation of the Gospel was threatening their silver idol-shrine contracts. But a local official said, “If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another” (19:38). In other words, Paul and the other Christians were engaged in perfectly legal business in the organized, public denunciation of idolatry—it just so happened that the nature and ethics of their business challenged the immorality of the local establishments.
And Paul didn’t seem to have any problem with continuing the ban or the preaching. And neither should we.
This is because in a sinful world, the true proclamation and application of the Gospel will always have economic consequences. Christians must factor these into the way we address society as a society of believers.
Now is this the same as a modern economic boycott? Essentially, yes. It is the refusal to engage in economic exchange based upon a moral imperative, and accompanied by a public justification of the act. Just as I said, the Ephesian prostitution exampe is an extreme example—it’s obvious Christians shouldn’t be buying sex with prostitutes or buying idols—but in a way it’s not, especially if you consider homosexuality and abortion as modern reasons for boycotting. Even if it were extreme, it still helps put the lie to the idea that boycotting is de facto an unjust form of economic coercion.
On the contrary, all economic decisions are decisions about the allocation of resources and power. All exchange of money for good or services involves choices that 1) empower sellers with liquid assets, and 2) withhold those liquid assets from others who might otherwise have received them in a different exchange. Thus all economic exchange is also economic sanction—that is, a form of coercion, either positive or negative.
The issue, then, is not whether we should or should not use “coercion”—a vaguely defined and vaguely applied concept in this case, anyway. For at some level, all discipline and most market forces are coercive by nature in that they promote behaviors that people otherwise would not want to engage in. (Ever felt like not going to work on Monday morning, but you did anyway for fear of losing your job, or not getting paid? This is coercion, but it is not immoral or unchristian for bosses to leverage it.)
For example, I know a man who spent his career in the women’s clothing business. He was a manly man, former military man—not what you may imagine for a man selling dresses and lingerie. It was not his “first choice” so to speak: he simply fell into it by happenstance and found himself successful. In other words, time and chance (to cite Solomon) and the market itself molded this man’s behavior into doing something he normally would not have done, and perhaps would not otherwise have wanted to do. This is a form of free-market economic coercion.
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The issue is not coercion, per se; it is about what type of coercion. And this means there must be someone who determines the morality of when we use civil, economic, or no coercion. Who has the authority to say how and when Christians should act—either as individuals or when they “band together”? When we rail against coercion, we mean State regulation in cases that God has not designed the State to be involved. This is the use or threat of violence to sway public behavior. But the use of non-violent, voluntary organization to exert pressure in society toward righteous behavior is hardly the same. So the real question is, what type of coercion is acceptable and in what sphere? And who says so?
Thus the real issue is sovereignty. Or who determines the laws by which we behave this way or that, and in this social sphere or that. Well, Christ is sovereign. He defines he moral laws of the universe. He gives the moral imperatives by which we live.
In the exchange equation between buyer and seller, the consumer is sovereign. It is the consumers’ demands that mold and shape what gets sold and at what price.
As Christians, however, we are to wield our market sovereignty in obedience to Christ’s commands to make moral choices—individually and collectively. Thus, we will by nature refuse to engage in economic exchange with businesses of which we disapprove for moral reasons. On clear moral infractions—such as companies that fund abortion, etc.—Christians must not be involved if they can at all help it. And to the extent that Christians can be publicly unified on such behavior, I don’t see how they could avoid it, or why they would want to.
Carter acknowledges this to an extent:
Simply refusing to participate in an economic transaction with an individual or company is not a boycott. Our choosing not to spend money on lottery tickets is a values-based economic decision, but it is not a form of coercion.
Except that it is a form of coercion. Withholding business due to a moral complaint is by definition an exercise of sovereignty—a signal that says, “Unless you change, you may not, will not, sell to me.” This is the withholding of liquid assets in exchange for goods and services—a withholding of greater economic empowerment of the seller and his associates and dependents.
This is the exact same signal (message) and same principle whether it involves only one buyer or 1,000.
The only thing changed by “banding together” at this point is the amplification of that economic signal. And this appears to be the point of demarcation for what Carter considers “coercion”—the visible amount of pressure and publicity.
So what he appears to be saying, is: exercise your morality in the marketplace, but don’t organize and don’t be vocal about it. In other words, Christians are not to be vocal in the public square as a group, and we are certainly not to use collective economic action as a tool of dominion in society.
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The principle that suffers under this philosophy is the biblical principle of “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 19:19). The law does not exist to make men righteous—Carter is right to imply this. This is true for every level of government: self-government, economic law, family government, and civil government as well. But the law does exist for another purpose, and governments do exist for a purpose. Why do they exist?
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:3–4).
Carter says, “Forcing someone to adopt our beliefs—whether by violence or economic threat—is a questionable use of our economic power.” But government—whether civil government, family or economic forces—does not even exist for the purpose of making people “adopt our beliefs.” But this also does not mean these things have no legitimate Christian purpose. As we’ve seen, they exist to purge manifestations of evil from society. Christians should embrace all God-ordained freedoms for doing so, and this includes boycotting.
All government exists for the purpose of purging manifestations of evil from society. Civil government has a monopoly on violent coercion for this purpose, and its sphere of action is greatly limited by God’s law. Family and self-governments, however, leverage economic laws as tools of dominion in society—and the “coercion” involved in those voluntary exchanges have the same purpose: to advance the kingdom of God, including the elimination of manifestations of evil. Purge the evil from your midst.
Christians have not only a right, therefore, but a duty to boycott in many cases. We have a duty to eliminate as much social evil as we can, and if organized economic abstinence is available, we should embrace it.
If you disbelieve that, consider you would like a bustling Temple full of 2,000 prostitutes down the road from you house, and a local trade union that is dependent upon it for their business. Would you or would you not join a boycott of that Temple and that union’s products?
Besides, what Christian would oppose making abortion, for example, illegal through the use of civil law? What Christian would refuse to punish abortionists under that law if it were in place? Is this not violent coercion, and the most naked and raw form of it—civil law? And yet we would embrace the advance of this type of coercion in society.
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Then why would we even begin to balk at a non-violent solution to minimizing abortion, or any such social evil?
Does this mean we should jump and join every boycott every Christian mounts over the merest trifle? Of course, not.
But if anything promoted by any business is something biblical law says should be punished by civil sanction, why would we even blink at organizing at least the lesser: private economic sanction against it? Not to makes no sense whatsoever.
I think some proper perspective is in order. But to get it requires a proper view of biblical law, the function of law, and a proper view of kingdom and eschatology as well. For some Christians, perhaps that’s where the real boycott is taking place.